This past weekend, the Motley Fool Money radio show featured best-selling author Jim Collins. Knowing that he was going to be a guest, I went to my bookshelf and dusted off a copy of one of my favorite Collins books: How the Mighty Fall.
The book details the five stages of decline that once-great companies go through during their fall from grace. Over the next five days, I'll be detailing the five stages, and some companies that might be going through these stages right now. Today's company in the spotlight: Netflix
Stage 1: hubris born of success
At the end of each chapter, Collins quickly summarizes the key symptoms to diagnose if a company is in a certain stage of decline. Though I haven't included all of the symptoms, it's fairly easy to see why Collins might be worried about Netflix.
Symptom No. 1: success, entitlement, arrogance.
I think Netflix's problems stem more from PR failures than from bad business decisions. Offering streaming for free, which is what it was essentially doing before, was simply not sustainable.
The problem, then, lay not with its decision to jack up rates, but rather the cold and confusing way in which the company carried it out. This turn of events, of course, led to more defections than the company was expecting, followed by the Qwikster fiasco.
In his apology to subscribers following the decision to raise rates, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings himself diagnosed the company as being in Stage 1 decline: "I slid into arrogance based upon past success."
Symptom No. 2: neglect of a primary flywheel.
By "primary flywheel," what Collins means is the "primary business for which a company owes its past success." All too often, Collins argues, companies become obsessed with the Next Big Thing in pursuit of growth and, in the process, neglect to develop the primary business to which they owe their success.
This is a sticky subject for Netflix. One on hand, Hastings realizes that streaming videos is a disruptive technology that will probably be the future of how we watch media. To be a winner in the battle for streaming, Hastings needs to be able to take on a host of competitors, including Amazon.com
On the other hand, DVD-by-mail is what helped make Netflix what it is today. It is the company's primary flywheel. When Hastings announced that Qwikster would be a separate entity responsible for DVD-by-mail, he seemed to be signaling an end to the focus on that side of the business, happy to let others -- such as Coinstar's
These dynamics do put Hastings between a rock and a hard place -- not a spot I'd like to be in.
Symptom No. 3: decline in learning orientation.
I included this symptom because it's one that investors need not be too worried about. In fact, during Collins' visit to the Motley Fool Money show, he was asked whether he'd buy, sell, or hold the future of Netflix as a business.
While Collins acknowledged that the company has had its fair share of snafus lately, he stood by its CEO, saying, "Reed Hastings learns." Collins said that everyone makes mistakes and that the best leaders learn from those mistakes and come back even stronger. He believes that Hastings' past has shown him to be a CEO willing to learn from his errors.
This is just Stage 1
Remember, Collins identified five stages of decline, and this is just the first. Solid management, if it's able to diagnose the problem, can quickly reverse this trend. Tomorrow I'll be covering the second stage of decline: the undisciplined pursuit of more.
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Fool contributor Brian Stoffel owns shares of Netflix, as he too believes that Hastings can right his ship. He also owns shares of Apple, Amazon.com, and Google. You can follow him on Twitter at @TMFStoffel.
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