Entrepreneur, writer and philanthropist Marie Forleo once wrote that “fast fortunes happen, but they’re extremely rare. Yes, some people legitimately achieve lightning-speed results, but for most of us, lasting success takes a long time and a lot of hard work.”
Michelle Zatlyn, the co-founder, president and chief operating officer of Cloudflare, would wholeheartedly agree with that philosophy having experienced career successes up until 2009 and a great deal more since then.
Born in Saskatchewan, she studied science at Montreal’s McGill University with thoughts of one day being a doctor, but changed her mind mid-stream through the course when a love of medicine was suddenly replaced by a love of technology.
That was in 2001 and armed with a science degree moved to Toronto, joined a firm called Investor Economics as research analyst and consultant, left there to launch another successful start-up and in 2005 signed on with Toshiba as a product manager and later with Google.
The turning point came two years later when Zatlyn was accepted into the Harvard Business School, a move she describes in our most recent Founder’s Podcast, as an “amazing eye-opening experience.”
Another turning point occurred in 2009 with a professor-led school trip to the Silicon Valley by a group that included Zatlyn and another student named Matthew Prince.
Five years before, Prince and his good friend and programmer Lee Holloway, according to a Cloudflare company history note, set “out to answer the basic question: Where does email spam come from? The two of them built a system that allowed anyone with a web site to track how spammers harvested email addresses. Project Honey Pot was born.”
It was on the trip to Silicon Valley where the seeds for what would end up becoming Cloudflare were sown.
Put another way, Zatlyn listening to speakers ranging from private investors to entrepreneurs, realized that “if these people can start companies, so could I. That was a really empowering moment for me.”
It was the combination of their mutual interests and existence of Project Honey Pot that resulted in the two Harvard Business School students, first creating a business plan prior to graduation and then forming a company upon graduation.
While still in school, “one of the first orders of business was coming up with a name,” the company web site states.
“The first business plan was titled “Project Web Wall,” but that hardly resonated. A friend of Matthew’s suggested that they were creating a “firewall in the cloud,” so it should be known as Cloudflare. The name immediately felt right and stuck. Matthew and Michelle worked with the faculty at the Harvard Business School to refine the business plan. In the meantime, Lee built the first working prototype in his spare time. In April 2009, Cloudflare won the prestigious Harvard Business School Business Plan competition.
“Lee was based in California and, after graduating from HBS, Michelle and Matthew headed west. The three co-founders spent the summer refining the Cloudflare prototype. They felt that Cloudflare solved a real need and set out to take Cloudflare to the next level. In November of 2009, Cloudflare closed its Series A financing with Ray Rothrock, from Venrock and Carl Ledbetter from Pelion Venture Partners.”
In the podcast, she talks at length about both those early days as a start-up to today where Cloudflare is a global entity with annual revenues of US$431 million, employs 1,800 people and as of July had a market capitalization of US$33.84 billion.
Much has happened since and in her interview with ECA founder Phillip Bliss, Zatlyn recalls those times in which there were as many ups as there were downs as well as the numerous successes and intermittent failures that took place.
“The best part of my job, hands down, is the people I get to work with,” she says. “They are very passionate and smart who choose to spend their time helping us make the Internet faster, safer and more reliable.”
As for lessons learned from various mentors during her career, she cites two examples in particular. The first is Check Your Assumptions. “People make really bad decisions if they use wrong assumptions,” says Zatlyn, adding the key is to constantly check all of them consistently. The second is Never Let a Crisis Go To Waste for it can actually be a successful change agent for an organization.
“It can actually help put a company on a better path,” she says.