As VP of Product for Netflix and self-proclaimed “enabler of iconoclasts”, Todd Yellin leads the team that helps millions of people find something great to watch. In this talk, Yellin explains his unique approach to leadership, which includes:
- Why leaders should never say never
- How to empower your team to make decisions (and mistakes)
- Why a simple hand-raise is fundamental to the diversity of voices and ideas at Netflix
- Plus, what we can learn from Titus Andromedon, Michael Scott, and Paul Blart Mall Cop
So, very happy to be here. Thrilled to be back in New York. I’m going to be talking about something that’s dear to my heart, because I fancy myself an iconoclast, and more important, I fancy myself an enabler of iconoclasts. So we’ll get there.
But first, let’s flash back a couple of thousand years. Flashing back, there was a time of lots of polytheism, lots of idols that people were worshiping. But when Moses came down with those Ten Commandments, number two said, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.” Don’t worship those idols. Don’t worship that golden calf. You should worship God, spirituality. That’s where it started.
And then Christianity came around, and for the first 300 years Christianity was illegal. So, it was quiet. It was huddling together. No one had to know, so they weren’t going to make pictures of Jesus. They weren’t going to carve statues of Jesus, because they were on the low, on the down-low.
In the Fourth Century, Emperor Constantine said, “Now, Christianity, it’s legal.” And so for the next four to five hundred years, the souvenir shop was overflowing with statues and images and crucifixes and everything was coming out, and it became quite the cottage industry. But by the Eighth Century, Leo III, the Emperor, he said, “Enough is enough. We have to get back to the basics.” So he took the sledgehammer, the bat, whatever it was, that blunt instrument, and he said, “We gotta start smashing idols.” And he was our iconoclast in our story. It became about smashing idols. And now, this did not please Pope Gregorius, and he goes, “But I like my souvenirs.” So back in Rome, back in what became The Vatican, he said, “No, we’re going to continue doing that,” and there was a big rift.
But you know what? You didn’t come here to hear about the history of Christianity from an agnostic Jew, so I’m going to move it forward to this. We’re going to take it to the modern day with our next iconoclast, which is Titus Andromedon who had a sweet voice in his head, and that sweet voice was Beyoncé. And Titus, he picked up a bat of his own and fancied his wonderful, flowing yellow dress, and he started smashing his own idols.
And this is something we should talk about. What does it take in our fast-moving world, in a world that it blurs past us. You don’t want to crane your neck too much looking back. Just look forward. But we all have an opportunity, because back in the days of Pope Gregorius and Leo III, things took centuries to move forward, but now things happen in months, at most years, that there’s incredible change. But what incredible change gives us is the opportunity to personally affect change. It’s exciting.
So what does it take? What kind of qualities? Well, innovation relies on challenging the status on quo, on smashing those idols. But to smash those idols, what you need is passion and logic. You need the passion of a little girl who’s going to go up against the Monsantos of the world, the evil corporation that’s trying to taint our food, trying to destroy the environment; torturing poor, helpless animals like in Okja, or the logic of a guy who’s saying the way to solve a crime, to find a serial killer, is to get inside their head, to leverage not blunt detective force but the subtleties of psychology. So when you’re ready with the logic and the passion, then you’re ready to fight the powers that be.
It also requires great courage. Ai Weiwei, the great artist, photographer, sculptor, been in prison many times, but he’s an equal opportunity idol-smasher. He’ll give the finger to Tiananmen Square, and he’ll give the finger to the White House. And so this is the kind of courage you need. You need to figure, “I only live once. I might as well put it out there. I might as well…If I have a great idea, if I have something that’s worth fighting for, I’m going to fight for that.” And you know what? We all at a time in our lives have something worth fighting for. And we should do it.
Now, here’s some obvious potential iconoclasts. Let’s talk about this. Changing the world with the phonograph or the light bulb or the iPhone or the iMac, that’s pretty huge. That shifts the whole ground beneath us. So, are these guys iconoclasts? Well, the world tells us they are, because they made movies of them. They get the finest actors in the day, whether it’s Spencer Tracy, whether it’s Michael Fassbender. Fine performances that tell us that they’re making—And they made multiple movies about these guys, Edison, Jobs. That’s fantastic, awesome, and cool. But you know what they don’t mention? They certainly are iconoclasts, but what gets lost in the footnotes of history are all the people who worked for Edison, who worked for Jobs, who came up with most of the ideas that those guys who were—sure they were geniuses, sure they were great innovators, sure they shook things up—but they were also imperious, self-promotional, pains in the asses, demanding as hell, and they had people who had the courage at their companies to go, “I have a great idea,” and to push those ideas through.
And that’s what it takes. It’s not just the people who get all the credit or most of it. It’s the people who work hard to change the world themselves. And if you have a company or if all you care about in our era of social media is, “What is everyone going to think of me? What’s the image I want to put out? And I want to be really careful, cultivating my personal brand and that image I put out there,” you’re not going to go very far. You’re going to be lost in a Black Mirror-ish loop—my favorite show on Netflix, by the way, a little plug—and it’s going to end up something like, “I’m so cold. Jack, I’m so cold.” “Hang in there, Rose, you can do it.”
Now, we all know what happened to Jack, and that’s going to happen to you if you live in a culture of consensus, because the culture of consensus, where that eventually gets you is it gets you a really slow, glacial pace of everyone, ” Do you agree? Do you agree? Is it all good? Are we all on the same—sorry—boat? Are we all together on this thing?” And so if you push there, it not only slows you down, but it heads you down towards the lowest common denominator. It’s like what can we all agree on? What can we go…Instead of pushing it through in an era that we’re lucky enough to be in, an era of innovation, of fast change and move. Really, allowing someone to stand up, empowering people, not just the person who runs the whole game but everyone in the game, empowering them to stand up, empowering them to take their great idea, empowering yourself to realize, “You know what? What the hell, I’m going to go for it.” That’s super important.
So, I’m going to tell you a couple of stories. I’m going to go to Netflix, my home for over 12 years. I’m going to talk about when I was the young Turk, when I came upon the scene to Netflix in January 2006—very different company—when I was smashing idols, and then I’m going to tell you when I turned over that sledgehammer and I was smashed. And that’s all good, and that’s the way it should be.
So, I get to Netflix. Data-driven culture. Netflix. Known to do things in a very logical way. But like any company, Netflix had its religions. Netflix was on its knees genuflecting underneath the stars, but not these stars. These stars. So at Netflix it was all about ratings, and this was my first job at Netflix. It was about designing so people will rate more and more titles, and if we can get them to rate, then we can predict how much they’re going to like a title. But there was a problem in that, because back in those days—like I said, we’re going back a dozen years—back in those days, people were going, “Ah, yes, I’m going to give five stars to An Inconvenient Truth and Hotel Rwanda. Oh, of course, Schindler’s List, but I’m really going home and I’m watching Billy Madison and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” And so if you just go by the stars, five stars, five stars, pass me my monocle, that’s one thing, but if you’re going by people, what they really are watching and enjoying, then you’re better. So, what they say they like versus their actual behavior are two different things. So, I picked up my baseball bat, my sledgehammer by any other name, and I said, “You know what? Not sure that’s the way we should do things.” And so questioned it, and more and more Netflix became around what are people doing to indicate their taste rather than what they’re saying about their taste?
So the stars have been blotted away from the sky. Now we have thumbs-up, thumbs-down, which is a nice secondary signal. The primary signal about you click play once, that tells volumes about your taste, and that’s much more important, and thus it helps us bubble up to the top of the experience a bunch of relevant titles for each of our members. Now, another important part of being a leader is enabling others, because I can do so much myself, but you know what? It’s exhausting. Sure, it’s energizing, but it’s also exhausting if I tried to do it all myself. But if I can leverage myself with a great team of iconoclasts who are challenging convention and doing great work, great designers, great product managers, great consumer insights, all kinds of folks, great engineers on the team, then I can leverage things and I can do better.
So let’s talk about another story that happened at Netflix. Another story was, let’s go back to 2015. Not as far. So back in 2015, in the first half, our then—no longer, but he did a fine job in his day—chief product office Neil Hunt said to the world, the media. He said, “Netflix will never do downloading, because we don’t need to, because internet accessibility is going to be increasingly ubiquitous, and who needs it if you can always click and play and stream something with internet all over the place? Downloading would be a big distraction. A lot of work to get that done.”
And not me, but someone on my team, an individual contributor on the consumer insights team comes up to me. Zach comes up to me, and he says, “Todd, I hear, I listen to customers and the Netflix customers, our members are saying downloading would be great. We really want downloading. That’s an important feature.” And theoretically, Neil’s saying, “No, no, no, no. Big distraction,” but Zach—and, you know, big difference in where they’re in the company, but it doesn’t matter. Toss away hierarchy when it comes to good ideas—and Zach kept on saying that. So I felt his passion, and I heard his logic, and I thought to myself, “Yeah, let’s find out. Zach, go do some research on this. Let’s find it out.”
And I helped him. I helped put my shoulder against what Zach’s idea was because, “You know what? I don’t care what’s going on there. This could be a great feature.” And within a few months after that was said publicly, we were building the feature. And within a year, we launched downloading on Netflix, and it’s been very successful, particularly now that we’re a global company, and when we’re in places like India or Malaysia where the internet isn’t that great, it’s indispensable and super important.
But I promised to give you an example of when I’m smashed. And I don’t say that with any shame. I say that with pride, because that’s important. And so someone comes up to me—this is we’re going back to, I think, it was 2012 or ’13—and says, “We have those rows on Netflix, and someone gets New Releases, then they have My List, and then they maybe have what they watched, a similar title to what they watched recently, then maybe they’ll get a comedy row and so forth.” And they said, “How about not only did we personalize what titles go on top, but how about if we even change the order of the rows? Why should New Releases always go second or third? Why should My List always go on top? Why should Continue Watching always be here? Why not mix it up? Why not personalize?” If I don’t really care about New Releases, put it 30th. If I’m really into it, put it first. Action-adventures, depends on the person. Whatever title, even My List, what you curate it yourself, it depends on the person.
And I said, “Customers are going to go crazy. They’re going to call customer service. The phones are going to go off the line. This is going to totally tank. How am I going to find my New Releases? How am I going to find My List that I created myself? That’s going to be unpredictable, and it’s not going to go well.” But, I have to remember to keep my veto in my pocket and to let the team have a chance, to empower the team, to let them try things. So in the back of my head I was thinking, “I’ll let this guy fail. It’ll be a good learning lesson. This is going to be a bad idea.”
And of course, he was absolutely right because no one heard anything at customer service. If you’re really smart and you change the order of the rows and you make it better for the person, all they want to do is find something great to watch, click play, kick back, and enjoy, and that’s important. And by the way, I was thrilled that I was wrong, because me being wrong in that case means that it was a great example for others to challenge, for others to pick up their baseball bats and become iconoclasts and to try new things and to drive innovation. So let me talk about some of the qualities you want to do as a leader to create a culture that sets the table for dissent. So first, what I’ve already laid out but it bears repetition is, you have to empower your team to make decisions. Drive decision-making down. When I came to Netflix all those years ago I was an independent filmmaker. I wasn’t used to working at a company. I said I’m doing this two years because my wife was pregnant with our second kid, and then I’m out of here. Paycheck, regular paycheck for a couple years. Good. It’s 12 years later. Why? Because I love the culture of pushing decision-making down. I love the culture of freedom and responsibility. I love a culture where people are able to become iconoclasts to help us drive innovation, whether that’s for me or, even more important, to leverage in as many people as possible.
Often in meetings, a lot of people who have great ideas, they keep it to themselves. Why? Because they’re not as loud and bombastic as I am, or as others at the company who are really good at getting their point across and pushing things through, who are fast on their feet and thinking. Fast on your feet doesn’t mean you have the best ideas. It doesn’t mean you’re the most intelligent. It just means you can’t help yourself and it just flies out of your month. And we know that from this character. So, basically you have to create an environment where it’s not the loudest voice. It’s obviously, you’ve heard this many times, the highest-paid person in the room. It’s not that. Everyone. So you have to set things up. And this is another thing that we do. I’m always evolving, and so is my team, how we interact to make things so we get what’s in people’s minds and enable them to speak up.
So the first idea of that: This is how Netflix used to be. It used to be like a game show where you’d be in a meeting. Picture ten other people in a conference room. Picture your finger is on the buzzer, and you want to get in the next word, and you get that extra-preternatural sense to know exactly when the other person’s going to end, and then you hit your buzzer. So before they even get the last syllable of their last sentence out, you’re jumping right on it and you’re saying your point, and then thus not letting others say their points. Jeopardy-style meeting doesn’t go over well if you want to really build a culture of iconoclasts and get the best ideas out on the table.
So instead we went to in a lot of our meetings that have more than eight or ten people, it’s a hand-raising culture. It’s more civil. People who can’t wait on the edge and wait until that last syllable comes out but really are listening and waiting. Raise your hand. A good moderator: “I think you were next, and then you, and then you.” It takes some of the pressure off people, and so we do hand-raising.
But even in that kind of world, some people are uncomfortable. You have a meeting with 12, 20, 30 people, and it’s like, some people, they just don’t want to speak up. They’ve not comfortable. So then we’d complement that with, we’ve become a Netflix of Google Docs culture. So we’d put out a memo describing all the ideas of whatever’s driving the idea, and then everyone before the meeting could comment all over the doc. And so the comments are on the right-hand rail of that document, and someone who they’re not good on the buzzer, they’re even uncomfortable raising their hand and being called on, they don’t want to speak in that group, they can write their ideas. They can be more thoughtful about it in different styles from different people who are trying to communicate, so we get the best ideas from people by doing both.
And I love stories like our person who’s on messaging who designs for that. This woman Cathy. Years ago, at Netflix, she wasn’t playing in the Jeopardy culture, and even when we went to hand- raising she was super uncomfortable. And I loved to see how she built her way. She starting putting ideas on the right-hand rail in Google Docs, and she saw some of her ideas were taken and she was being paid attention to. And then she was one of the people with her hand up. And now she’s totally out there, and she’s grown into a leader at Netflix, and she pushes herself to be part of the conversation in a big way, and now she’s a disrupter. And that’s what you want.
Farm for dissent. Some people, you have to push them. What are the ideas you have? How would you do things differently? You know, every year or so, Reed Hastings, our CEO, puts out to the staff, “What would you do, if you were CEO, differently?” In a Google Doc, everyone lists out what they would do differently. There’s not a fear of putting your ideas out there, even if they’re outrageous, even if they’re very different. It’s encouraged. It helps when you have a testing culture. The reason we were able to do those adaptive rows where my New Releases goes 20th and yours might go third or I might not even get a New Releases row, the gentleman Vijay who came up to me with that idea, when he came up to me with that idea, I said, “Go ahead and test it. Try it out. Let’s see if it goes.” Don’t be overly precious with things. So if you can test, test.
The image with mascots on top in those slivers, that was an idea where “Let’s autoplay a trailer, and then on the TV experience let’s keep on rolling to another trailer.” And that sliver gives you an idea of where it’s going. That was tested. It didn’t work. I thought it was a beautiful design, but it didn’t work for our customers.
The other thing that you see with Money Heist on the screen—another great title I’d recommend—on that, we just launched that last week that worked, that was kind of this Snapchat/Instagram kind of rolling over trailers in Netflix, giving them a chance to look at as many trailers as they want on the mobile experience. That’s an elegant experience that worked really well. It tested well. We were able to prove it through testing. If you can test, then you have to be even bolder and find a way where you can gauge some of these ideas, but make sure you give them their time in the sun.
This, I show that exact image at what we call New Employee College. People come in. They do a full day. Bunch of the executives like myself, we present to the new team. And I tell them that if you remember anything from my presentation—I say to you guys the same thing—remember this. Because that is not a foolish position to be laughed at. That is the most noble position of all if you’re going to be an innovator. You need to encourage people. You don’t want to say, “If you screw up once, you’re fired. That’s a bad idea. You could try that idea, but your ass is on the line, and if that doesn’t succeed for the business you’re screwed.” That’s bad, because that’s going to make everyone scared, and they’re not going to innovate. What you want to do is, you want to lean so far forward that sometimes you fall on your face. And if that doesn’t happen to you, if that doesn’t happen to you if you’re managing people, to people on your team, and you’re not getting, you know, get up, dust yourself off and then try again. Hugely important.
Now, do we have a full culture of iconoclasts? Is that we’ve created? No. Because culture is aspirational. If culture had a low bar and we could create that culture at a company, whatever culture you choose to create, whatever culture you choose to be part of at a company. Like I said, I was only going to be there for two years. I’ve been there over 12 years. Why? Because the culture and my own personality and my own ideas, my own aspirations, matched up. Whatever the culture is, it should set a high bar to where you want to go, and you should be pushing yourselves towards that and have something continually to aim for. Because a true Utopia you never make it to, but you should keep on pushing towards that ideal.
So how do you know if you’ve succeeded? How do you know if, yes, you have created, you are in the right direction in that aspirational culture of creating a culture that favors iconoclasts? And now I’m going to take it very close to home. When I was a kid, when I was a teenager, I was such a pain in the ass to my parents. I would say, ” Why? What makes you the authority that tells me I should do this?” The last thing a parent wants to hear. “Why should I go and do this for school, do this at home?” I’d always want a reason. If I didn’t like the reason, I tried not to do it. There were lots of fights, arguments.
And you know what? The biggest kind of karma is having a teenager yourself. So now I have a 14-year-old daughter. Love her to death, but boy is she a pain in the ass. When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I know he had a teenage daughter, because I totally get it now at a much deeper level than I got it when I read it in school. And so she basically is…If you ask her, “What are you rebelling against?” she would say, “What have you got?” Now I’m going to see if there’s any movie buffs like me out there. What movie is that from? Listening. Loud, loud. Marlon Brandon, The Wild One, directed by Laszlo Benedek back in the early ’50s. “What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?” Very dated, that movie. I don’t recommend that one as heavily, but that line, it’s one of the lines that still bounces around my head. And by the way, the movie on the upper side is Thirteen, and if you’re going to have…I watched that, and my wife and I watched that before we had my daughter. Never watch that movie if you have a teenager, because it’s going to scare the hell out of you.
So becoming…you’re an iconoclast. The best signal that you’ve created a culture of it is when your team is driving you crazy, when your team is coming up to you and going, “We don’t like the way you set things up. We don’t like the way things are done right now because, with logic, this is a way to make it better,” and they have the passion and courage to stand up to you and try to drive change and try to drive innovation. And that’s what you want. You want your team to be a pain in your ass. You want them to drive you towards change, and then you know you’ve succeeded. And on that note, thank you very much. This has been an honor.