Michelle Zatlyn – CloudFlare 1 of 2

“A nontechnical founder turned domain expert.” Michelle and CloudFlare are powering the Internet and making the Web a safer place.

Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise with founderly.com. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world enabling others to learn more about building products and starting companies. It’s with great pleasure that I’m here today with Michelle Zatlyn.
Michelle: Zatlyn, that’s right.
Matthew: The founder of CloudFlare. CloudFlare is a free service that makes websites faster and safer by giving website owners more control over who can access their sites to protect against attacks. With a single change to DNS sites are instantly protected from a wide range of online threats, page notes speeds are increased, and site content is dynamically optimized at class internet. So, with that said, Michelle, perhaps you could give us a brief bio of yourself.
Michelle: Yes, definitely, absolutely. I’m actually Canadian, I grew up in Canada, and worked at a variety of companies, both large and small from doing product management at Toshiba and Google, to other really early stage startups to being one of the early founding team members with I Love Awards and then I went to business school at HBS on the east coast and that’s where I met my cofounders and started to work on CloudFlare and been doing it ever since.
Matthew: So what is CloudFlare, who is it for, and why are you so passionate about it?
Michelle: Definitely. So CloudFlare provides performance and security to any website online. So up until CloudFlare launched, if you were an internet giant, you’d have, you know, a security team trying to make sure there isn’t any con spam, or credential hackers, or hackers or spammers on your website., or you’d use a big CDN, speaking of a speed team to make sure your website loads quickly for all your visitors; but if you’re not an internet giant, up until CloudFlare launched, there just wasn’t very good solutions. We did a lot of research; every website kind of did their own specific solution, which isn’t a very scalable way of solving the problem. And, so, that’s how we created CloudFlare to, basically, provide security and performance for any website online. And the reason I’m so passionate about it is that we solve a real problem. Users write in saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved me so much time. I used to get hacked all the time; I had no idea what to do. Thank you. ‘‘Oh my god, my website loads 30, 40, 50 percent faster.’ The initial reaction our users have after using CloudFlare, keeps us all getting up to come to work in the morning.
Matthew: Excellent. OK. We covered your background and kind of high level overview of what CloudFlare is, given your view point as an expert in this space, what are some of the technology and market trends that you’re seeing and what are the developments for the future of the space that you’re company’s in?
Michelle: Definitely. Especially in the speed and security space, it’s a very enterprise heavy market and so the trends, currently, are the consumerization of enterprise market. So making the tools much more easy to use, intuitive, a better experience all around, and we believe that Cloud Flare’s at the forefront of helping that happen.
Matthew: OK. Can you tell us what inspired you to start CloudFlare? We know that some founders have that ‘ah-ha’ moment, some founders do lots of research, and identify the market opportunity, but what’s the story behind how CloudFlare was conceived?
Michelle: Yes, definitely. So Matthew and I were actually section mates when we were at business school and we were on a school trip to Silicon Valley. We were out there meeting companies and VCs, and, of course, we spent a week talking to all these other startups and you become inspired, and we were talking over dinner one night, and he had been telling me about something that he had done prior to school; he, basically, created this community based project called Project Honeypot, and there was tens of thousands of website orders that participated on this project and I kept saying, ‘Well, why did they participate?’ They’re like, “Well, it helps track spammers online.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, well, what did they get out of it?’ He’s like, ‘Well, you know, we eventually work with the law enforcement agencies to help stop the spammers.’ I’m like, ‘That’s such a disconnect. It takes so much time.’ He’s like, ‘The real reason they participate is that they hope that one day we’ll create a service to help protect their websites from these actual spammers that they’re helping to track.’ And I said, ‘That’s the idea.’ You have a group of people with a shared pain point; let’s work on solving that problem. And so we immediately talked to one of our professors that was on this school trip and we said,’ We’re going to do a field study partner up,’ which is basically a school project, a research project, ‘we’ll set up a class this semester, will you be our advisor and the deliverable is that we’ll put together a business plan that we’ll enter into the business plan competition.’ That was January of ’09, we started to work on it immediately and every month we’re like, ‘Yeah, there is a real business idea here.’ And then by March, we’re like, ‘There is business idea here.’ And then by May we had, basically, given up our other offers that we had after grad school to come out to the Valle to work on CloudFlare full time.
Matthew: Excellent. So from idea to product launch, how long did that take you and when did you actually launch?
Michelle: Well, we’ll have to define product.
Matthew: Right.
Michelle: So while we were at school, we basically built a working prototype and we had a working prototype but we don’t have any users and then when we moved out here full time to work on it full time, I’d say we basically raised money in November of ’09 and had a very, very early stage product in January, but then we released our first beta product in April. And it was one of those things that when you cringe you release it because there were so many flaws with it, but we had to release early and often and so it really took us about four or five months to build it.
Matthew: And are there any unique matrixes, statistics or social proofs about CloudFlare that you’d like to share with our audience?
Michelle: Yeah, definitely. We, again, started working on this in ’09 and raised money in November of ’09, and then we launched the tech products interuptim in September of 2010, that was the plan all along. And since we launched the tech launch to disrupt, so December, now it’s March, so basically, five months, we went from doing very little traffic to over a billion pages a month through our network, we’ve stopped over 600 million threats from our users websites, and on average we’ve made websites 40 percent faster, which, if you actually do the math, and calculate that through how many visitors we’ve served, how many requests we’ve served, it basically means we’ve saved our users websites visitors 1,000 years of time.
Matthew: That’s incredible. So we know that founders face unique challenges when they start a company, what was the hardest part about starting CloudFlare and how did you overcome this obstacle?
Michelle: Definitely. So we run our own data centers, we have distributed data centers, we are like a hard core infrastructure company, and I am a non-technical cofounder and I did not have domain expertise, I worked in a lot of different industries but not in security or performance, and so, personally, I had a huge learning curve in terms of both knowledge and domain expertise and that just meant really learning and absorbing and asking questions and reading. Every time I heard a new technical phrase that I didn’t know what it meant, looking it up, creating my own dictionary, I did that every day, every day to the point where, now, I’m one of the experts. And then on being non-typical cofounder, when you start a company and you don’t have a product and you’re not the one coding it every day, it’s really hard because that’s the most important thing. At the end of the day you have to build a product but you can’t, you just physically can’t code. Of course I could charge the users early and get feedback and help in terms of raising money, but at the end of the day, the most important thing was the actual coding of the product and I just couldn’t do that. And so getting through that and creating value even though you weren’t actually coding the product was, it was hard at first.
Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your business and your users that you didn’t realize before you launched?
Michelle: So CloudFlare started as a security company. We started with the idea of ‘Let’s protect websites from hackers and spammers.’ And for the first year and half of our life, we were a security company and, basically, the most poignant piece of feedback we get from people was, ‘Well, you’re going to add an extra request stuck in the request so you’re going to introduce latency.’ And we’re like, ‘That might be true.’ So we became obsessed with stamping out latency and so we would work with people that were really experts on the performance market, so CDN market, on understanding how that technology worked and we, basically, changed a lot of the architecture of our infrastructure and what happened was, we went from security company to a performance and security company and, what was surprising to us was we always thought we’d be a security company first and performance second, but it’s actually reversed. We took what was a weakness, where we thought we introduce, wait, and see, we became obsessed about it and now, not only do we not introduce the latency, we just give our websites 30 or 40 percent and it’s become a huge asset for us.

 
 

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