CloudFlare's Michelle Zatlyn: Co-Founder. Cloud Pioneer. Limo Driver.

Michelle Zatlyn of CloudFlare talked to TechRepublic about her career path, how she fell in love with her job, and the importance of co-founders in the tech industry.

Michelle Zatlyn is the co-founder of CloudFlare.
Image: Benjamin J. Larson


It took a few minutes to decipher what she meant by that, but it finally clicked. That's how Michelle Zatlyn of CloudFlare refers to herself and her co-founders — quickly, as one word. They are one unit, and they've been so for years. They went to business school together, started a successful company together, and have helped over 1.5 million web properties build better, more secure sites together.

"I really believe we are building a better web and I feel this huge responsibility [for] that," Zatlyn said. "Everyone feels like we are growing a lot but there is so much left to do."

CloudFlare is a service that offers protection from online threats, data analytics, and faster load times for websites. Once it's part of the community, a site's web traffic is routed through CloudFlare's network. As the network grows, the strength of the system and protection grows, according to the company. The basic system is free, but other plans reach up to $5,000 a month, depending on how many features they offer.

The company started as a Harvard Business School project. The three co-founders — Zatlyn who handles user experience, Matthew Prince, the CEO, and Lee Holloway, the lead engineer — saw their project kept gaining traction, and after graduation, they decided to move out to the West Coast to pursue the startup business. The result? Since its launch in 2009, CloudFlare has raised $72.1 million in seed funding, and in 2012 it was reported to have a billion dollar valuation.

"At business school, I wanted to be part of a team that made something big happen," Zatlyn said. "It's amazing it was my own idea, but I was open to go to another high growth company. You need a team to make amazing things happen."

The most amazing thing about her team, she said, has always been their ability to complement one another. They have consistently shared a vision and communicate well about it, but the three cover as much surface area as they can at a time. Zatlyn said Prince is a natural leader, and Holloway is "incredibly strong with strategy."

As for Zatlyn, she said her role is to make the content accessible and easy to understand for the team and CloudFlare users.

"I've talked to other entrepreneurs who have built these big businesses and when I describe [my job] they say 'you're the glue,'" she said. "And I am the glue. Every high company needs one of those [people]."

Zatlyn speaks in a highly serious tone, as if she's always ready to tackle another problem. But she's quite the optimist, and that outlook has served her well throughout her career. Before business school, and well before CloudFlare, she worked for Google and Toshiba in various marketing and operational roles after graduating with a chemistry degree. She then founded two small startups.

"We had big ambitions and a really small team and did a lot with a little and I loved it," she said. "That's where I got my real taste. I worked in businesses that were growing, businesses that were declining."

She's always seen her position as one of the few females in the industry as an advantage, another testament to her optimism. Zatlyn said her Harvard classmates were only a third female, but she noted how it's grown even since she left, and the numbers continues to rise throughout the industry.

"Yes, there are fewer women and it's good we talk about it, but I do believe there are women in tech doing interesting things. You can be a women, be in tech, and be successful. That message is just as important for the next generation," she said.

She has plenty going on with her work at CloudFlare that requires solitude and focus, but Zatlyn loves the projects that utilize her entire team most of all. If you really want a surprise, ask her about her about the most exciting project she is working on. A bizarre hint: it has to do with limousines.

It started as a simple experiment to get their name out there, but now the CloudFlare team does it at almost every trade show. Instead of simply putting together a booth, about eight members of the CloudFlare team, including the founders, rent limos and chauffeur industry leaders and guests at trade shows. The free rides from the airport to the conference centers give the team lots of opportunities to meet influential people.

"It's the best way to kick off. We get to meet attendees, and they say 'Thanks.' The logistics to pull it off is amazing but its been so successful that we continue to do it," she said. "Every year we debrief, its one of those things where it's like, that was the most exhilarating and exhausting thing of my life, but we should do it again."

It's one of the ways Zatlyn us trying to stay ahead of the game and become a technology industry leader, always with her colleagues in mind.

"I spend all my time thinking about CloudFlare, and I see a lot of change in a short period of time. In some other industries, it takes a long time for change [to occur]," she said. "[Cloud is] an area where I am very bullish and I see a lot of entrepreneurs focusing on it, and I'm excited to see the outcome."

In her own words...

What's some advice you wish you had when you started?

"There's a sense everyone who has been successful has had a straight path, but you should embrace the journey. If you're constantly kind of making sure you're making progress forward, dont over optimize along the way, you'll end up in a much better place. Also, if you decide when you're 20 what you want, you can miss out on opportunities, being too heads down and focused on this path. I wish someone had told me that it's okay if your path is more windy — embrace that and use it to your advantage."

How do you unplug?

"I have a great husband and a baby at home, he's eight months old. That's the best way to come home — a big smile from him. Walking to farmers' market on Saturday mornings, doing local hikes, it's so easy to get out and enjoy surroundings [in San Francisco]."

What do you like to cook?

"We love to cook and have people over for dinner. Make a nice meal and have a glass of wine, thats my unwinding. We make anything from barbeque to great fish or spaghetti bolognese. I like being inspired by what is in season."

What other hobbies do you have?

"I grew up in Canada, and I'm close to my sisters and parents. [They] live in London, Boston, Canada...we make an effort to see each other. Sometimes it's a work trip to Europe to see my sister. I prioritize that very highly. I also like practicing yoga, bar method, those sorts of things too."

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Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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