Interview with Michelle Zatlyn
An Interview with Michelle Zatlyn
Co-founder and Head of User Experience, CloudFlare
Date: March 12, 2012
Lucy: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders and I'm the CEO of the National Center for Women in Information Technology or NCWIT and our listeners know that we host series of interviews with women who have started technology companies, great entrepreneurs with wonderful wisdom and advice. With me is Larry Nelson, w3w3.com. Hi Larry.
Larry: I'm happy to be here, this sounds like a very interesting interview.
Lucy: We'll I'm excited, OK, because today we're interviewing Michelle Zatlin the co founder and head of user experience at CloudFlare and I took time to really go look at the CloudFlare site because I wasn't aware of it and I went and looked and I was so intrigued with this company and I'm sure our listeners will want to go and take a look. It's really off to a fast start. I say it's quite an accomplishment to be named the most innovative network and Internet technology company of 2011 by the Wall Street Journal. That is a huge accomplishment and congratulations on that, and I think we'll let Michelle explain a little about it about CloudFlare but I do want to say something about it.
It's an infrastructure based business that is really making performance and security and access to the kinds of features that websites need much more accessible to all types of websites and not just the high end websites that can afford some of this type of infrastructure. Websites become part of a CloudFlare community and then their web traffic is routed through this I think is a top secret members only intelligent global network and Michelle is going to tell us much more about that. Welcome, Michelle
Michelle: Thank you Lucy, you did a great job I don't know what else I can add after that, that was perfect. I'm glad you got all that from our website.
Lucy: I like that idea it's members only, you know it's my kind of thing. Why don't you give us a bit of an update about what's going on over at CloudFlare?
Michelle: Naturally, CloudFlare is a performance and security service, so we make websites faster and safer for websites all over the world. At first glance sometimes people are don't think that's very interesting but if you think about yourself or when you're on the Internet and you surfing through a website and you go a certain website like Google or Facebook and it loads really quickly, you stay a lot longer . Then you go to another website and maybe it takes a lot longer to load, you find yourself leaving and so for extra hundred milliseconds it takes the site to load, you lose 2% of your visitors.
That's a really big problem for website owners, it's like how can I make sure my site is fast for my visitors and you know there have been services that have been in the market place for a long time that really service enterprise members with, let's say, ten thousand websites online, the biggest websites online.
But, you know, the Internet is made up of 250 million websites around the world from blogs, to businesses, to national governments, and all. There are all these sorts of presences online and you know, when we started to build CloudFlare it was how can we make a service that can make speed and security accessible to the entire Internet? And so that's what we've done.
We launched to the public about a year and a half ago, so we've been live for 15 months, and we basically went from very little traffic through our network around the world to now we make the Internet faster, safer, for more than 430 million web surfers every single month.
Michelle: That's a really big number
Larry: [laughing] Yeah, I'll say.
Michelle: If we were independent website we would be the fifth largest website on the Internet. We'd be more traffic than Amazon, Wikipedia, Twitter, AOL and Bing combined. And so the scale we've grown in the last year and a half, it's really hard to grasp, and I just think it really speaks to that there are so many people running websites and there's just was not a service before that made security and performance accessible. We thought to change that at CloudFlare and we've done an OK job so far.
Lucy: I say more than, more than OK. It's really really interesting and I would encourage all of our listeners to go check it out. I love your tag line, give us five minutes and we'll super charge your website.
Larry: [laughing] Yeah.
Lucy: [laughing] Just five minutes! So Michelle, this is really a high tech company, you're one of the co founders, why don't you tell us a bit about how you first got into technology. What technologies are particularly interesting to you today?
Michelle: Well, you know, I didn't have a master plan all along to get into technology. It just kind of happened, you know I worked in different industries. I was a scientist by training. I did a chemistry degree and then I worked in finance. I really got exposed to technology with a friend that I met who was an entrepreneur and kind of opened up my eyes to technology. I'm a really curious person and I love learning, and I just really kind of fell in love with it. I kept finding these opportunities that would present themselves and I kept kind of pursuing it, so I went from science to finance to technology where I've been ever since.
So you know, for people out there that think I like the idea of technology whether it's I really love using Facebook or really love using Google or I love using different websites to generate other services or however you incorporate technology in your life. If you didn't know a lot about it before, you can still get into the industry as long as you're willing to learn. That's what happened to me.
And today I mean I feel like there are so many interesting technologies going on. I just think my own life. Twitter totally changed the way I can fume information that I get news and that I have conversations online. It's amazing how this service can create these really strong connections with people I don't even know and you can have these conversations.
And so that's for me personally, even for our business, from CloudFlare's perspective. It's been an incredible enabler to help us grow as quickly as we have over the last year and a half.
I mean Twitter has been an amazing source for us to for people find out about us, to help us solve our user's issues that may come up or answer any questions. So I think Twitter is really really interesting.
And then I think about something like Hulu which is really like an online entertainment website and it's totally changed the time that I spend on entertainment in terms of when and where I may watch TV shows or movies. Before you had to have a TV and get cable and you'd have to have you know you've got to set your TV player and DVR and you have to watch shows at certain time.
Basically with Hulu you can get all the latest shows when you want it, whenever you want based on your Internet access. But now I only like to watch shows that are on Hulu and anything else I just I don't even see because I just the way I can consume it and I can do it on my time and it doesn't have to necessarily start at 8:00 or 8:30.
If I want to start at 8:25 or whatever time, I can just do it on my time and it's been pretty amazing. And of course there is something like Drop Box which changes the way you share information whether it's with colleagues or with your family members. All these sorts of things that make these that used to be kind of hard, really easy, I mean those are just three examples but the list is very long.
Lucy: Well, I was intrigued with your example of Twitter and how you use it in the company for customer service because, I've been thinking more about that lately, because I have friends when they lose luggage, they complain on Twitter and they get a call back. You know, it's amazing. They don't get a call back, but they actually get a response. So I think that Twitter is an amazing customer service channel.
Michelle: It really is. I mean again ,business do their best to typically to try and deliver a great customer experience but sometimes you fall short and as a business you want to hear about that, tell me when I fall short so I can help fix it. And part of it is that if you're on Twitter you can just immediately send a message and get a response back. It's very powerful but it's just not when there are issues. It also enables people to talk about your service, it's like wow. In my case, I just added this website to CloudFlare and I can already feel that it's faster. And you kind of expressed that and you have people listening to what you're saying. It will resolve kind of like, I have a website and I want it to be faster, let me go find out more about this CloudFlare service. And so for customer services in terms of these one on one contacts it's been really powerful, but then also just people discovering the service is also really powerful.
Lucy: That's a great point.
Larry: It is, you know you mentioned that you didn't get into technology with a master plan behind it. How did you become an entrepreneur and what is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Michelle: I always think of this kind of like a lot of roles are either you're actors or you're advisers and for me it's like I get such a thrill. It's so self exhilarating being able to be part of the team that creates the service, makes the product. The actual making of things, I love that. I love bringing things together, sometimes you don't control the resources to make something happen. I mean that's what I strive to do. Entrepreneurship you do a lot of that. So then, a lot of times you start with nothing and you have to create all these sorts of things a long the time.
Whether you're creating teams, you're creating material, you're creating products for your customers and you're kind of learning as you go, but being part of that, that energy to bring it all to fruition I love it, it's very exhilarating.
Larry: Yeah, I love it too, yeah.
Lucy: Along that path of entrepreneurship, what kinds of influences did you have, you know people or event or who or what influenced you along this entrepreneurship path?
Michelle: Yeah, it wasn't this one defining moment, it was many defining moments over the course of my life and you know I'm only 32 so I still have a lot of life ahead of me. I remember thinking in high school and I grew up I'm Canadian, I grew up in a very small city, in the prairies, where I didn't really know what entrepreneurship meant. But I remember in high school I played on all the competitive sports teams, that really showed me the value of perseverance and hard work and being dedicated to something, and you couldn't give up, that your team depended on you and leadership. You know, all those sorts of qualities that are important in entrepreneurship.
And then I remember at university, meeting a really good friend of mine who exposed me to sometimes using emotion in decision making is really an asset and before I met her, I didn't really think about that. And you know, sometimes you do need to use your emotions when you're making decisions. And the emotional intelligence, people have different buzz words for it, it can be really powerful.
And then early on in my career when I was working in finance and then I met this entrepreneur who was a tech entrepreneur, again he doesn't describe himself as a tech entrepreneur, but he was, He has been a serial entrepreneur and everything with him was just like of course we can do that, this is how I would do it, yes, everything was yes this is we do it, and it was so liberating, I loved that and I need to be a part of that.
And that was really where it kind of opened eyes up, that you can create opportunity, you can create things, you can go out and create your own path, you don't always have to follow someone else's path, so I feel lucky to have these different role models throughout my life.
Lucy: I think that issue about "Yes", a culture of "Yes," we don't hear that enough, but I think it's really really important, because so many people shut conversations down before they ever get a chance to be explored?
Michelle: I definitely agree. Because opportunities present themselves all the time and people are their own of course enemy sometimes, and they said no I can't do it because it's too risky, or like financially, or what will my friends say. Nothing is as easy, everything has ups and downs, but if you are really passionate and seek your interest then you should go for it, and pursue these opportunities, because great things can really happen.
Lucy: You may be are only 32 years but you are very wise, I think you can always move from a "Yes" to a "No" ,and that's much harder than to move from a "No" to "Yes".
Larry: That's a fact. With all the things you have done and what are you doing right now, what is the toughest thing you have had to do in your career?
Michelle: There have been many, but if I have to pick one, CloudFlare is an infrastructure company. We run 14 data centers around the world, and we have very heavy technology, but I am not a technical co founder. Since I started this very technical company, which I knew about website performance and security, which I was not an expert on when I started as a non technical co founder that was really hard, because those first three months where we were really early building the product and the most important thing that matters is coding. So we can actually get somebody to try it, see if it actually works.
And I couldn't code. You obviously try and do some research, and try and talk to people, the value I added really early on, I constantly was second guessing myself like, "Shit, I'm on the team, am I actually adding value, am I the right co founder for this team?"
And so those first three months when we started, it was just the three of us, and the other two co owners were very technical, that was really mentally challenging. I was trying to say wow like, you feel like you hold the responsibility to your other business partners to put as much in as they are, and I just feel like I was missing this core skill set, I just physically couldn't. So instead, I had to spend a lot of my time learning. I was a sponge.
Every time I heard a word I didn't understand, I looked it up. I was constantly reading, I had a whole list of definitions that I would keep track of. And now three years later I am certainly a subject matter expert, and I wasn't three years ago.
So for people who are non technical but want to build a technical company, you can, you definitely can. You need to pick your partners wisely, and you have to want to learn it, to be thirsty for information, but if you are, you can certainly play an essential part in the company.
Lucy: We hereby grant you a degree in computer science, [laughter] ....
Larry: Yeah, here you go...
Lucy: An honorary degree, that's awesome...
Michelle: Oh, thank you, thank you.
Lucy: That's a great story. In addition to don't be afraid to learn, get out there and create your culture of "Yes", what other advice you give a person considering starting their own company?
Michelle: I would say two others, there are so many but two others are I think important that sometimes are overlooked is, big problems are often easier to solve than small problems, because some of these incremental changes on technology, that's OK, but it turns out it's much harder to recruit people to come join your team, or it's harder to get funding, if your idea is just an incremental change on what already exists. But if you go after a really big audacious goal like for us, ours was to rebuild the Internet, and at first when we tell people, some people laugh at us, and we said, no, no, just watch. We are on our way to doing that.
And there are other people, who are just, "That's amazing. I want to be a part of that." Google's initial mission of "I want to organize the world's information," that's a huge goal and when they started it 13 years ago people thought that was silly, but that's what they've really done.
And so don't be scared to dream big, because often the big you will find the people who are attracted to the same idea, and will search to assemble the resources to actually make it happen.
Obviously on day one you don't execute it, and you lay the plans to get there. But by dreaming big, you start to attract the resources you need.
Another one to keep in mind is, choose your partners wisely, either business partners or life partners, and so, when you start a company where you are a co founder, you really need to trust one another. You will go through lots of highs and lots of downs, and it will be very lonely, and it's challenging and there are moments when it's just like, why I am doing this?
But when you have one or two or three other people who are also doing it with you and you know they're not going anywhere you feel responsibility for them and to yourself to keep going and that's how you get through those tough times.
And same at home. You're working long hours. You're very consumed with your business or your idea or your passion and if you're coming home to somebody as a life partner you have to make sure that they're your biggest champion and biggest advocate and are rooting for your success.
When you're an entrepreneur and you have a company your family and even your friends are kind of honorary cofounders too because they're in it. It affects them whether they're there every day or not. And people who are your big supporters make a huge difference.
Larry: Wow, that's great advice. Now I probably know the answer to this question already but what personal characteristics do you think you have been given that have given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Michelle: If I can do it, anyone can do it. [laughter]
Michelle: Again, if you feel like you want to start a company you should totally do it. And these are some of the things that I think benefited me and it's going to be different for everybody else. I'm a sponge. I love learning. I'm really curious. If I don't know about something I want to learn about it. I don't need to maybe become like the expert on the subject but I want to learn enough to have a conversation about it.
And that's really valuable when you're an entrepreneur because you end up doing a lot of different things and you might be working with a lot of different people. So that willingness to learn is really important.
And then perseverance. Again, it's changing industries, starting something in a subject matter that I wasn't an expert on. You just kind of have to keep pushing forward. And I always use the visualization just move the ball forward. If you're moving the ball forward then you're moving in the right direction.
Lucy: Along those lines when you were mentioning that your life partners are honorary cofounders, what other advice do you have around bringing balance between personal and professional lives?
Michelle: It's really hard. I've been working on CloudFlare for three years and it really is a high priority. Especially when you start to expand your team and hire other people who leave other jobs to come and join you in your vision you feel a huge responsibility to make it successful. But it's important to still have time for yourself. And with your life partner whether it's a husband or a boyfriend or fiancé and then your extended family and friends.
Again, you work a lot but there are some times where you just need to disconnect. And that means not checking again, with Smartphone it's so easy to check what's going on all the time and that's a huge asset.
But then there are some times you should just leave it, even if it's for an hour or two hours and you go for a dinner and you don't check it at the dinner table.
That sounds so silly. But it can be really hard when there's just so much going on in the early stages of a company to just leave the Smartphone at home and go out either on a date or you're out at a dinner or whatever.
You definitely need to. For me I try to exercise a couple of times a week. And whether that's go for a run outside or go to a yoga class or play a game of tennis outside, just something because again if you're not taking care of your body and your mind it's hard to be really productive at work.
Eating healthy, sleeping a lot. Really simple things but for me it's I try and sleep because if I can't sleep I can't function then I'm useless at work and with my personal life.
And then when I am with my personal life I try and shut off my phone and I try and focus on the person I'm with.
So if that means if I can only be with them for an hour so that hour I'll make a commitment and then say, "OK, I have to go now," versus say, "OK let's hang out all afternoon," but then I'll be on my phone every other minute. That's not very fun either.
It's hard but it's really important to have those friends and family that you spend time with them and to keep up those relationships. It really is important. But I'm not going to lie, it's really hard.
Lucy: That's the truth.
Larry: You've got it. You've already achieved a great deal and I'm really proud for you. What's next for you?
Michelle: We want to rebuild the Internet. The Internet's amazing. Anybody with an idea or a voice or a business idea can put it online. I think that whole notion of the Internet is connecting us around the world is incredible. But the Internet was built 30 years ago and there were some inefficiencies built in. So we see us going forward as patching the Internet. Fixing all the inefficiencies so we can make the Internet a faster, safer, better place for everyone. So people can continue to go there and put their business online, their voices online in the easiest possible manner. So when we look ahead we just want to keep growing and fixing, patching the Internet.
Larry: That's excellent.
Lucy: Putting the thumb in the dike. [laughs]
Larry: There you go.
Lucy: That's awesome. Well thank you so much, Michelle, this has been really interesting. And good luck to you and CloudFlare. You've probably gotten a new customer here with our sites. [laughs]
Michelle: That would be great. We'd love to have you as a customer.
Lucy: Wonderful. Thank you so much. I want to remind listeners that they can find us at NCWIT.org and also at w3w3.com.
Larry: You bet you. We'll have it in our blog and our podcast directory too.
Lucy: All right. Thank you very much Michelle.
Michelle: Thank you. [music]