I cannot remember any nonfiction book that gave me more sheer enjoyment than Mitch Lowe’s just-published autobiography, Watch and Learn: How I Turned Hollywood Upside Down with Netflix, Redbox, and Moviepass — Lessons in Disruption. Get a copy and hang onto your movie seat, because you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Mitch Lowe helped start Netflix, got Redbox kiosks into nearly every grocery store in America, was in charge of a high-profile startup that crashed and burned — and was a high-school drop out! Add some outrageous adventures as a teenager in Europe, a warm and enticing coating of zen philosophy, and some inside stories of the venality of Hollywood — with cameos by the likes of Andy Warhol, Hunter Thomson, and George Lucas — and you won’t be able to put it down.
Mitch grew up as a child of divorce in the hippie hills of Northern California, sporadically attending an “alternative” high school. Entrepreneurial from the start, teenage Mitch traveled to Germany in 1970 as the first European sales rep for a glow-in-the-dark black-light poster company run by a guy named Funky Sam, who almost immediately went out of business. Stranded in Europe, Mitch ends up bopping around on a secondhand BMW motorcycle, DJing at a disco, making cross-border raids into Syria for an Israeli kibbutz near the Golan Heights, diving from cliffs (and crashing the motorcycle) on the Spanish island of Ibiza, and finally, pushing the dead motorcycle off a different cliff in Kosovo. And then trying to sell real estate with Andy Warhol as a partner. And finally, starting his own business smuggling currency into Romania to buy beautiful native clothing and selling it at a ten-times markup on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles.
And that’s just the first chapter.
Mitch ends up back in Northern California and, after a bad investment in a video store apparently run by cokeheads, ends up with enough videotapes to start his own store. That leads to a stint as the president of the Video Software Dealers Association and principal in an entrepreneurial venture that sells Web software to video stores — and a fateful meeting with Marc Randolph, who was conceiving the idea of a Web-based video store that was nearly named named “DVDs by Mail.” Then they changed the name to Netflix.
The story of how Netflix went from foundering startup to dominant subscription service is fascinating. Mitch had the idea of making a DVD out of President Bill Clinton’s salacious (and copyright-free) testimony about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The Netflix guys got huge press lined up for their stunt and signed up thousands of new subscribers, but at the time, mastering DVDs was more art than science. What follows is a high-stakes pre-dawn chase through Northern California attempting to find someone who could get the technology to work, followed by mailing DVDs to all those new signups, operating out of a former bank vault. Unfortunately, by mistake, some of the DVDs they sent weren’t Bill Clinton — they were a Chinese porn flick. Oops. (Strangely, none of the customers asked for their money back.)
It doesn’t slow down. Mitch invents a VHS vending machine based on a cigarette machine. He goes to work as an innovation executive at McDonald’s and creates a DVD vending machine whose main purpose is to get people back to buy more fast food. And eventually, he gets Redboxes appearing everywhere. Along the way there are high-stakes faceoffs with Hollywood movie executives stuck in the past, who promise to destroy Redbox. Mitch and the Redbox team evade their tactics with a set of down-to-earth tricks you’ll never see coming.
The most controversial piece of Mitch’s career is his investment in, and eventually leadership of, a startup called MoviePass — a subscription service for going to the movies. At the time, a lot of analysts, myself included, were certain there was no way the economics could possibly make sense. But we didn’t understand what was actually going on inside MoviePass, and how its plan could well have worked, except, once again, for the greed of the movie industry. If all you know about MoviePass is the stories of its epic and ignominious failure and huge judgments against it by government regulators, this is your chance to find out what really happened.
There’s a lot to learn about business and entrepreneurial success from this memoir, but put that aside for a moment. Instead, read it for the gonzo story of a scrappy, clever, lusty, persistent, and ultimately nice guy who was there for the creation of the movie industry as we now know it. This is how disruption actually works and what it looks like from the inside.
Before I finish, I need to disclose that I did have something to do with this book. I helped Mitch get a publishing deal, and I (lightly) edited the book before he sent it to the publisher. I have never had so much pure fun working on a project, because the source material was just so awesome to work with. And Mitch really is a terrific guy.
But don’t buy it because I like Mitch. Buy it because it’s a total blast.