By Angie Chang (Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Women 2.0)
Michelle Zatlyn: Opportunities can happen at anytime, any place. I was at grad school getting my MBA, and my classmate was telling me about what he was doing before business school which involved tracking spammers online. He said one day they’d like to do more with it, and I said let’s solve that bigger problem now —- and we started to do it. Our lead engineer Lee used to work with Matthew. So when Lee and I met and got along, we decided to go forward with CloudFlare.
When I started, I was not an expert on website security. While I had done tech startups before and worked at tech companies like Toshiba and Google, and I personally used technology, I wasn’t an expert in the subject matter of website performance and security. This wound up being valuable, because while my co-founders knew a lot about the industry, we needed to make something that just works, and distill what we do it one sentence so anyone can understand what CloudFlare does:
We make websites load twice as fast and we protect them from online threats.
Women 2.0: Your background includes a chemistry degree. How did you go from there to here?
Michelle Zatlyn: I thought I was going to be a doctor out of college. By my fourth year of undergrad, I decided to try something else before I went to med school. I wound up as a financial analyst at a boutique firm, worked as a Product Manager at Toshiba and also did some early-stage startups.
I am good with numbers and iterating on processes, but business vocabulary and training were missing. So, I went to grad school to get my MBA, and then interned at Google building channel strategy. In my second year of business school, I started work on CloudFlare. We gained a lot of momentum so after graduation we pursued it full-time. We raised our series A in November 2009 and announced our Series B this week.
Women 2.0: What are your startup lessons learned from the experience?
Michelle Zatlyn: Number one is “stop talking, just do it.” I meet so many people who are over-planning. There is no substitution for getting the product out there -— start wire framing, doing a survey, finding out if other people share your problem. Once you start, keep your eyes and ears open for feedback, and definitely keep your mind open for change.
And if you are solving a problem, solve a big problem. I wasn’t an expert in website performance security and now I am. You fall in love with these sorts of things –- CloudFlare has consumed me for two and a half years. On day one, I would keep a notebook of a whole vocabulary of words and look them up later. I read everything I could on the subject matter. You don’t become an expert overnight. But, if you work at it long enough, you will know more in a year than day one. The more time you put in, the more you get out of it. It’s a marathon so don’t just build something cool. Instead, fix a pain point and makes other peoples’ lives better. That’s exciting.
We’re making the Internet faster and safer —- which sounds audacious, but it is what we are doing. We have expansive infrastructure, we buy our own hardware, negotiate bandwidth, and process billions of requests every day through our software; we’re highly technical. Ten percent of the Internet’s visitors worldwide have passed through CloudFlare’s network at least once this past month, which is more than big sites like eBay and Twitter, and we’ve only been live for 10 months. And, I am now an expert about all of these topics. So, be a sponge and learn.
Women 2.0: One last tip for entrepreneurs?
Michelle Zatlyn: Pick partners wisely, both in business and life. Startups have highs and lows and things don’t always go as planned. You want to make sure your business partners are two feet in with you. As for in life, at the end of the long day, you need someone rooting for your success that is your biggest supporter.
About the interviewee: Michelle Zatlyn is the co-founder and Head of User Experience at CloudFlare. Michelle creates products people love, applying the scientific method to improving businesses. Prior to CloudFlare, she worked at Google and Toshiba, and launched two successful startups. Michelle holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and a minor in Management with Distinction from McGill University, and an MBA from Harvard Business School where she was awarded the Dubliner Prize for Entrepreneurship. Follow her on Twitter at @zatlyn.