Matthew Wise: 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 is with great pleasure that I’m here today with Matthew Prince, founder and CEO of CloudFlare. CloudFlare is a free service that makes websites faster and more secure 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 load speeds are increased, and site content is then amply optimized across the Internet. So, with that said, Matthew, we’d love for you to give us a brief bio so our audience can know who you are.
Matthew Prince: I grew up in the mountains of Utah, where I was a ski instructor for awhile, and really fell into technology very early on. I had my first computer when I was seven years old, an Apple II Plus, and I used to go and do programming courses at the University of Utah. I went to college in Connecticut, where I studied English and computer science – English because I really just love stories and reading, and computer science because I was pretty good at it.
After college, I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer for the rest of my life, and so I actually turned down offers from a lot of companies that have gone on to do very, very well, Netscape, at the time, Yahoo. I literally wrote my college thesis on why the Internet was a fad, and I’ve been trying to live that down ever since.
And so, I went to law school, but really, very quickly learned that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, especially when I was taking little companies public out in San Francisco in 1999, and then the bubble burst. And they said, you can’t be a securities lawyer anymore. You have to be a bankruptcy attorney. That didn’t sound like nearly as much fun. Fortunately, one of my law school professors was starting a company and offered me a job, and I’ve been doing entrepreneurship ever since.
Matthew Wise: Excellent. And so, what is CloudFlare? What makes it unique? Who is it for? And why are you so passionate about it?
Matthew Prince: The Internet really is divided into two camps. There are the Internet giants, the Googles and Yahoos and Facebooks of the world that have best practices and whole teams devoted to making sites as fast as possible, and as secure as possible. And then, there is everyone else.
And so, CloudFlare is designed to take the best practices from the Internet giants around performance, making sure that your web page loads as fast as possible, and also around security, and bring that to anyone online. And so, we’re sort of a cross between a very sophisticated web application firewall and a very sophisticated, actually, next generation content delivery network. We bring that all together, and we make it incredibly easy for anyone with a website to use.
Matthew Wise: Excellent. And so, given your domain expertise, what are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist, and where do you see things developing in the future for your space?
Matthew Prince: What I think has been really fascinating for us and what I see going forward is that there has been a revolution in terms of building consumer Internet companies on the cheap, where anyone today can, with a million dollars, go out and build something that can turn into a Yahoo or something that ten years ago would have been extremely expensive to build.
The next generation, and what I think CloudFlare is taking advantage of, is that there is that same ability coming to infrastructure and enterprise companies. And so, what we see going forward is that we’ve been able to actually build a very sophisticated and robust product that services what was typically thought of as a very expensive market to service. And we’ve done it in a way which has been extremely capital efficient. Going forward, I think, if the interesting trend of the last five years was who was going to build the next Yahoo-type company, but for only a million dollars, the question going forward is going to be who is going to build next Cisco, but for only $10 million dollars.
Matthew Wise: I like that. And so, what inspired you to start CloudFlare? Was it an ah-ha moment? Did you do a bunch of marketing research? How did you come up with the idea? What’s the story behind that?
Matthew Prince: It started back, a long time ago, in 1996, I was trying to run my own mail server. And at the time you could set up your own email server and it worked. And over the course of the next four years, the spam problem really took off. And I was a lawyer by training, but also had a technology background. The problem of spam, and how to catch spammers and prosecute spammers was a really interesting technological challenge.
So, Paul Graham, who has actually gone on to start Y Combinator, and done a lot of great things in financing and helping advise startups. Before he was doing Y Combinator, he was really interested in machine learning, and he did something called the MIT Anti-Spam Conference, which was held at MIT. And he and the team that put the conference on invited me out to speak, and I was a lawyer so they wanted me to speak on public policy things. But the audience was all engineers.
And so, I was running a company at the time. We had some great engineering teams that worked with us and what we did was, and this was back in 2003, we said, let’s build a system that actually allows us to track how spammers and other people, other online criminals, are attacking websites online. And we made it an open source project where anyone could install a small piece of software anywhere on the Internet and we would track any time that a spammer was stealing email addresses, or trying to hack into a part of your website. And that would all get reported back to a central system where we would keep the records.
So, we launched at the conference in 2003, and a couple hundred people signed up immediately. And then, we sort of forgot about it, and it just ran in the corner. And what happened over the next five years, six years, was that it grew into the largest community tracking online fraud and abuse. And again, it was just this little thing that was kind of running in the corner. We didn’t really realize the value of it until the Department of Homeland Security called us one day and said, every time we see some attack on some part of the nation’s infrastructure, we do a search on who the attacker is. And you guys have usually known about them long before we did. There must be some way to work together.
So, knowing that, knowing that we could have this incredible pool of data on who the attackers were, the next question was who really needs to be protected? And the big enterprises had great solutions, but who didn’t have a solution were small companies that were out there, small website owners. And so, we tried to figure out a way to deploy a service that worked with small website owners.
I had met Michelle Zatlyn, my co-founder of CloudFlare in business school. And then, Lee Holloway, the third co-founder of CloudFlare, was actually the one who originally was the architect behind Project Honey Pot. So, the three of us came together and said, “How can we deploy something that really works well across all kinds of websites?” And that’s when CloudFlare was built, or born. Originally as a security service that wanted to protect websites, we quickly learned that we could also add performance to that and build an entire platform which then solved the typical challenges that small website owners had.