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Fred Prouser/Reuters
THE BOSS
Out of Africa, Onto the Web
As told to AMY ZIPKIN.
Published: December 17, 2006
MY father was an attorney for the Department of Health,
Education and Welfare in the Nixon administration. One
weekend when I was about 12, my parents, sisters and I were
invited to Camp David, when the president wasn’t there. Elliot
Richardson, who held several cabinet positions, invited us. We
rode around in golf carts, had a tour and I saw that President
Nixon had a gold-colored toilet seat.
I took a year off between high school and college and
sold Rainbow vacuum cleaners door to door. I started it
as a summer job and found I liked it. As a sales pitch, I
cleaned the carpet with the vacuum the customer had
and then cleaned it with the Rainbow.
I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school and went to
Bowdoin College in Maine. I majored in math because I
found the abstractions beautiful and engaging.
I was very interested in serving my country and first
joined the Marine Corps in their Platoon Leader Class,
a sort of officers’ candidate school. I spent summers in
the Marines and between sophomore and junior year I
was in Quantico, Va., in boot camp.
I found myself questioning how we packed our
backpacks and how we made our beds. My questioning
wasn’t particularly encouraged, and I realized I might
be better off in the Peace Corps. I petitioned the
recruiting office and left the Marines.
After a yearlong application process for the Peace
Corps, I left college early on my graduation day to
begin my training. I was assigned to a high school
with 800 students in northwest Swaziland. I taught
geometry, algebra and differential equations.
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We were in a rural part of the country. We had no
electricity and cooked with propane and wood. Corn
was our staple. I lived in a thatch hut and slept on a
cot. The high school graduation was really colorful.
The celebrations were traditional and there were a lot
of color wraps and furs. I was one of the few in Western
dress.
I went home once in three years, for my sister’s
wedding, about 9 to 10 months after I got there. I was
home for five days. I flew to Boston and when I
returned it was a 12- to 14-hour trip to Johannesburg,
then another four hours to reach the homestead in
Swaziland. When I arrived, I could still smell the
party, the roses and the Champagne on my clothes. It
was challenging. I missed lots of parts of America.
In 1985, I decided to go to graduate school in computer
science. I took a two-hour bus trip to Mbabane, the
Swaziland capital, to take the Graduate Record
Examination. I didn’t get into my first choice, which
was M.I.T. I got accepted to Stanford. I had never been
to California and arrived in late summer. Driving up
to the campus I saw palm trees. It was dry and brown. I asked myself, “Where’s the
ivy?” Within a week I had fallen in love with California.
After graduate school, I worked for Schlumberger and then went to work for a
start-up. I started my first company, Pure Software, in 1991. I was 31. As the
company grew from 10 to 40 to 120 to 320 to 640 employees, I found I was
definitely underwater and over my head.
I was doing white-water kayaking at the time, and in kayaking if you stare and
focus on the problem you are much more likely to hit danger. I focused on the safe
water and what I wanted to happen. I didn’t listen to the skeptics. The company
was acquired by Rational Software in 1997.
I got the idea for Netflix after my company was acquired. I had a big late fee for
“Apollo 13.” It was six weeks late and I owed the video store $40. I had misplaced
the cassette. It was all my fault. I didn’t want to tell my wife about it. And I said to
myself, “I’m going to compromise the integrity of my marriage over a late fee?”
Later, on my way to the gym, I realized they had a much better business model.
You could pay $30 or $40 a month and work out as little or as much as you
wanted.
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