Portrait of the Netflix founder as a young man

October 24, 2013: 10:20 AM ET

Bowdoin student newspaper illuminates early career of Reed Hastings, Class of '83.

By Adam Lashinsky, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- Businesspeople love to read stories about how other businesspeople got going in their careers. It's one of the reasons Fortune publishes its "How We Got Started" series that tells the delightful and substantive yarns of how businesses like the Papyrus card retailer and Banana Republic found their ways in the business world.

Such a wonderful tale appears in the Oct. 4th edition of the 2,000-circulation Bowdoin Orient, a student-run weekly, about one Reed Hastings, a mathematics major from the class of 1983. The end of the piece, by staffer Emma Peters, recounts how Hastings founded Netflix, the DVD-rental concern that has become a video streaming company worth $19 billion.

You can read about Netflix (NFLX) just about anywhere, of course. But this Bowdoin piece -- brought to my attention by Andy Serwer, Bowdoin class of 1981, and Fortune's managing editor -- has terrific stuff about Hastings before he became the business mogul we know today. What's remarkable about what the Orient unearthed is that Hastings hasn't really changed all that much over the years.

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A man of eclectic tastes, Hastings studied math and later artificial intelligence, but he always had a head for business. He delayed attending Bowdoin to continue a summer job as a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman.  Hastings told staff writer Emma Peters: "I loved it, strange as that might sound. You get to meet a lot of different people." He also showed a precocious aptitude for business plans. After participating as a mentor in a self-paced calculus program at Bowdoin, Hastings penned a detailed analysis of how the school could make it better. "We ran the program for well over 10 years and no student had ever turned in anything like that," said a professor. Later, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland, Hastings helped villagers build a better system for delivering water and worked with them to improve their honey-bee business. Both were side projects unrelated to his Peace Corps work.

For everyone who thinks that careers are linear or that successful people know exactly we're they're going, a quotation from the humble Hastings might be illuminating.  "Mine was a path of serendipity, but it was a path of just being passionate about whatever I was doing at that time," he told the student paper. "I'm as surprised as anyone about my business success."

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