The Netflix Before There Was Netflix


I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that Netflix (s NFLX) invented the rent-movies-by-mail business. But Hacking Netflix has unearthed a gem about a company called Video Mailbox that offered rent-by-mail — on VHS, no less — way back in 1987, long before little red envelopes clogged up our mailboxes.

There are striking similarities between Netflix and its apparent predecessor. Video Mailbox let you rent movies for a flat monthly fee ($29.95 – yikes!). It provided a pre-paid mailer to return movies. It offered 10,000 movies and users could manage a queue of their favorites.

There’s a Video Mailbox site dedicated to preserving the history of video mailbox (including this gem of a TV commercial and a color brochure explaining how it worked). And though the site doesn’t provide an official reason for the company’s demise, it was obviously an idea ahead of its technological time.


Justin Graziano

No wonder this company is so unheard of, theres no phone number in their commercials! Back in 1987 the only way to get a product was by calling, there was no internet, what were they thinking!?


“Clogged up our mailboxes”? Maybe those envelopes clog up YOUR mailbox. Me, I’m always happy as a clam when I see them show up.

Ryan Janssen

Funny stuff Chris. I still remember when I was approached by a friend back in 1999 to join this new company “Netflix”. I LOVED the business (especially after he explained the postage rates for DVDs).

Sadly, in my typical misguided wisdom, I explained that the internet industry as a WHOLE was where it was at, and I wanted to hedge my bet against joining any one startup by staying at the consultancy I was at.

Didn’t feel like such a good decision when the company I was at and the “whole internet industry” collapsed a couple years later!


What’s interesting is that they were predicting the demise of Video Stores back then.


20 years later…

Was it a local mom & pop shop or a big chain store?

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