How I Invented Netflix in 1987

This time of year is sad and depressing for many people.  The holidays are over and the bills for our overindulgence are pouring in.  We are smack in the “dead of winter” with record breaking frigid temperatures and poor Newfoundlanders had to call a state of emergency.  For me it’s sad for different reasons.  It was this time last year I wrote a deeply personal article on The Real Reason I Jumped Off The Corporate Ladder”.  Here is the link if you missed it.

I wrote that article while sitting in a hotel room in St. John, New Brunswick.  You see my dad, too frail following surgery to travel to his radiation treatments, was in hospital, fighting for his life, hoping for just a little more time, one more summer to spend with his family.  The article, cathartic at the time, was inspired by how grateful I was that I could take time away from my company ProcurePro Consulting, to be there for him and my sisters who had been caring for him since his diagnosis in Oct of 2018.  I have an amazing family and team who supported me, and enabled me to travel back and forth, so I could be there for his surgery and then radiation treatments, and not have to worry about if I would have a company to come back to.  When I think of those terrifying months, a year ago, I feel tremendous gratitude for being able to be there, but also intense grief and overwhelming sadness as ultimately, my dad lost his battle with brain cancer in Feb 2019.

I know some of you may be thinking, how can I feel grateful for that?  What you need to understand is, I got to spend time with him. Ultimately it would be my only time as we would lose him a few short weeks later.  Even though that time with him was spent in the hospital helping him, listening to him, often times as he raged and struggled against the horrific disease, I can’t help remembering this one time when he was having a particularly difficult day and the disease was overtaking him.  It was all I could do to distract him, so I wheeled him up and down the hallways of the hospital, at a breakneck pace, as he directed me; “turn here, it’s that way!”

After what seemed like several hours, both exhausted, we finally went back into his room and sat by the window.  It seems strange now, at the time the sun was shining, and we sat there in the sunshine feeling the warmth and the heat.  It made me think of where in the world would we possibly rather be than be in this hospital. So, I asked him; “dad what’s the best place, if you could go anywhere, where would you wanna go?  What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been that’s tropical?”.  He sat there calmly and took a couple of minutes to think about it, until finally he said, “Malta”.  My dad had travelled there years before with my sisters and his wife, and for him it was a special place. Years later, he’s in a hospital room fighting for his life but yet in that moment we were transported to Malta, Italy.  The warmth of the sun beating down on us, the tears streaming down my face as I sat there holding his hand knowing he would never get back to see Malta again.

I was there for close to three weeks with my dad.  It was a difficult struggle but finally his treatment was over, and he was being transported back to his hometown of Fredericton. After a brief stay in the hospital, including celebrating his 84th birthday on January 20, 2019, he was transitioned to a centre where we were hopeful, he would recover and that he would receive care to rehabilitate his weak and frail body.  When it came time for me to go home to my family in Toronto, I left with a heavy heart wondering if I would ever see him again but absolutely refusing to think anything but positive thoughts.  Within a couple weeks, he passed away.  I can’t tell you how sad and yes, angry it made me feel to have to see him struggle against such a vicious disease, one that robbed him of his memories and his cognitive abilities.  I don’t know whether or not he would’ve chosen to fight, had he known the outcome and the terrible toll that fight would take on his body and his mind.

Several weeks passed and my sisters and I had to face the difficult task of having to go through his house and prepare it for sale.   My oldest daughter and I drove down to Fredericton with heavy hearts, dreading the moment when we would enter his house and he would no longer be there to greet us.  We spent days going through my dad’s house and in particular his basement.  We went through boxes upon boxes of forgotten items.  Binders, letters, old trophy’s, pictures, keepsakes and cards.  At first, I was frustrated because there were so many boxes to go through, I didn’t know how we would ever get through them all, as I was only going to be there for five days.

We went through every box meticulously and were shocked to discover what he kept.  So many things from an entire lifetime, some of which went back to the 1950’s and 1960’s!  Pins with little sayings on them, certificates that he had received throughout his life and his career.  We owned a restaurant when I was in my early childhood and my dad had actually kept every single receipt that was written by hand by the waitress, my mom, of every single person’s order.  I don’t know why on earth he thought it was necessary, even the cash register receipts and the accounting ledgers with all of the information around the business was kept.  We found things that were over 60 years ago.  What?!

It was so overwhelming and yes, we were feeling extremely frustrated at him for keeping all that junk!  I opened one box and discovered several birthday and Father’s Day cards I had sent him over the years.  I even found letters that I had written to him in my early 20s when I was in college.  I picked up one letter dated May 20, 1987 and began to read.  At first, I was confused but then I burst out into laughter which turned into absolute joy and complete surprise.  I was in my second year of college and my dad had helped me purchase my first car; a 1980, powder blue, Ford Escort.  He gave me the down payment while I was responsible for making monthly payments to pay off the loan.  Every month I would faithfully send him a cheque, along with a letter.  Below is the actual letter.

Now I know some of you are probably thinking; that can’t be real! I assure you; it absolutely is.  I’ve included the original envelope as provenance.  Yes, my dad actually kept it.  It took me re-reading the letter several times, which I had forgotten even writing, to realize what I had dreamed up.   I literally had imagined, diagrams and all, what would later become Netflix; a full ten years before it was founded in 1997 by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph.  This was even BEFORE the internet existed!

I’m sharing this because when I found that letter it gave me such tremendous joy for a number of reasons.  At one of the saddest times in my life it brought me great joy and made me laugh. It made me realize that my dad, who I thought was a packrat, was actually holding on so tight to every memory, every card and scrap of paper and somehow, finding that letter made me feel very close, loved and connected to him.  It also made me realize, all these many years later, struggling with self doubt, always wondering if I was good enough, if I was smart enough, feeling like a fraud and suffering from imposter syndrome that I AM good enough and well, I am smart.  Smart enough to think of an amazing idea that would one day become Netflix, not by me but that doesn’t matter. The technology in 1987 didn’t exist to make it a reality, but wow was I on to something!

I signed the letter (Entrepreneur), which took me a little longer than I probably imagined, but here I am.  It is a lifelong struggle and even now I sometimes wonder if anyone considers me a real CEO. That letter gave me the boost of confidence I needed to say, YES, I am a real CEO and it’s never too late.   It may have taken me 26 more years to become one but, I finally believed all the struggles, daily perseverance, sleepless nights and yes self doubt, over the last six years, was all worthwhile and that no matter how old you are, as long as you have a good idea, you persevere, you keep going and you don’t let anything stop you, anyone (even me!), can build your dream!  Never, NEVER, give up on your dreams, it’s never too late.

My dad was a complex man;  a computer and math geek and at the same time a salty Newfoundlander.   He loved and believed in me my entire life.  I realize now, finding this letter,  was his final GIFT to me.

In loving memory of my dad; Harvey LLoyd Button

Jill Button, CEO ProcurePro Consulting

PS:Marc Randolph just released his new book, “That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea”.  It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.  I always thought it would be interesting to reach out to the founders of Netflix and so, when I saw that Marc had released his book, I decided to send him a note.  I never thought he would respond, but guess what, he did and thought my story was fantastic.  What a true gentleman and amazing inspiration.

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