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Michelle Zatlyn: A Silicon Valley Outsider Who Did the Inconceivable

Foundr Journal publishes in-depth interviews with the world’s best entrepreneurs. Our articles spotlight key takeaways from every month’s cowl function. We talked with Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder of Cloudflare, about making a tech disruptor utilizing a freemium product. To learn extra, subscribe to the journal.


Strolling into the restaurant, Michelle Zatlyn had no thought what to anticipate.

Goldman Sachs had invited her to a Silicon Valley know-how occasion at a packed native restaurant. Zatlyn was nonetheless comparatively new to Northern California, and her net safety firm, Cloudflare, had simply began to construct momentum. She knew the invite was a favor however didn’t care. The chance to rub shoulders with business giants might be momentous for Cloudflare.

A kind of giants occurred to be seated proper subsequent to her.

After exchanging pleasantries, she gave him the rundown about Cloudflare. The startup was a world cloud safety community for all enterprise sizes that took 5 minutes to make use of moderately than the standard cybersecurity implementation that took weeks.

The well-known founder stared again whereas she walked by means of the pitch. Then he responded.

“He was grilling me, and that’s advantageous. Grill me. However he didn’t consider something I mentioned. Not one factor,” Zatlyn says.

For every doubting query, Zatlyn responded with an sincere reply. Then, he started responding with one phrase—unimaginable.

Time and again, Zatlyn walked him by means of the imaginative and prescient of Cloudflare, however all he mentioned was, “Inconceivable.”

Finally, her persistence waned.

“I mentioned, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ And you’ll think about this individual didn’t take that very properly,” Zatlyn says. “I’m like, ‘You’ve bought to examine your assumptions.’”

Zatlyn remembers strolling away from that dinner feeling annoyed. Certain, the big-shot founder managed the ability dynamics on the desk—Zatlyn being a comparatively unknown founder as compared—however the enterprise she believed in had been disregarded. She took it personally.

“One of many issues that I’ve mentioned to myself rather a lot alongside the best way, particularly on the darkish days, is you’ve bought to maintain your self on the sector,” Zatlyn says.

“You’ve bought to maintain your self within the sport.”

One awkward dinner didn’t outline Zatlyn nor thwart her from believing in herself, her group, and her enterprise. As a result of she stayed on the sector, Cloudflare right this moment has thousands and thousands of consumers worldwide, surpassed a $1 billion income run price, and employs 3,300 group members. Zatlyn presently serves because the publicly traded firm’s co-founder, president, and COO.

Impossibility wasn’t a purpose to cease. For Zatlyn, it’s by no means been an element.

Freemium Launch

On a blue-lit stage in a packed San Francisco convention corridor, Prince awkwardly shimmies backwards and forwards whereas the audio-video crew makes an attempt to attach his presentation to the projection screens. Three judges in skilled enterprise apparel sit behind Prince in low white couches which might be extra Star Trek than midcentury fashionable design.

“I apologize,” Prince says sincerely with a touch of nervousness.

He’s sporting darkish blue denims and a easy black blazer over a darkish grey T-shirt with the brand of an orange cloud. The group murmurs as he walks over to the AV desk to assist. Zatlyn’s already troubleshooting the slides, clad in a white blazer, the inverse of Prince, with the identical graphic tee.

After a minute of filler by the occasion host, the right slides are up, and Prince shortly introduces Zatlyn and Holloway. Then he jumps right into a seven-minute simultaneous pitch and launch of Cloudflare. He clearly outlines the advantages of Cloudflare’s safety for “the little guys” and even demonstrates its easy, five-minute sign-up.

He concludes the presentation: “Cloudflare’s bought your again, and we gained’t relaxation till your website is quick, protected, and safe.”

That was nearly 13 years in the past on the first TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, a know-how startup pitch competitors and business occasion. Cloudflare gained the 2010 competitors and, extra importantly, captured its perfect customers.

“Our viewers [was] all technical of us within the viewers. All these individuals had blogs or small companies, [and] a bunch of them signed up,” Zatlyn says. She mimes a line graph. “Actually, our numbers have been as much as the fitting ever for the reason that day we launched. They’ve by no means stopped rising.”

However weeks earlier than Zatlyn stood stage proper of Prince on the TechCrunch occasion, she was embarrassed by Cloudflare.

“We had been combating rather a lot internally,” Zatlyn says.

“There [were] about six of us on the time [debating] about whether or not it was prepared or not. I mentioned, ‘Simply ship it.’”

Zatlyn didn’t suppose they’d sufficient knowledge to really feel safe about Cloudflare’s solidity as a enterprise mannequin, however they’d missed their product demo deadline and wanted to launch. So Cloudflare was out of the bag, advertising its “freemium” product (which remains to be out there in 2023). “Freemium” means providing a free product model with extra choices to improve.

Inside just a few weeks of launch, Zatlyn contacted customers and recorded Skype classes about their expertise.

“And what was wonderful was these prospects who had signed up for this product that I used to be actually very embarrassed about had been writing in saying [things like]:”

“…Oh my God, your product stopped all of the trash site visitors coming to my website. “
“It off-loaded all of the bots coming to my server.”
“For the primary time in 5 years, my pager didn’t go off final night time.”
“I really had a full night time’s sleep for the primary time in 5 years.”

It was one other visceral expertise for Zatlyn.

“That gave me loads of validation that I had made the fitting selection, that we had been engaged on the fitting issues,” Zatlyn says. “After which over time, I used to be like, ‘OK, we’re fixing an actual, significant drawback.’”

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Inside a yr of launch, Zatlyn felt Cloudflare turned validated as a enterprise as a result of their objectives with the freemium product had been being met. The outcomes included:

  1. Elevated site visitors that helped construct their world community.
  2. Free customers that transformed to paying prospects.
  3. Extra word-of-mouth advocates at enterprise workplaces.
  4. Mass quantities of knowledge to construct new merchandise from.
  5. A battle-tested high quality assurance group of free customers to check merchandise.
  6. An worker recruitment pathway from customers of Cloudflare.

“Entrepreneurs get into hassle when there’s just one purpose they’ve a free service. They suppose it’s a advertising ploy, and a few of them pay you,” Zatlyn says. “Nevertheless it’s actually good in case you [can] work out different enterprise the explanation why you want that free service that assist make your corporation mannequin higher.”

In 2011, Cloudflare raised $20 million in its Collection B funding. The momentum continued yr after yr as they added prospects on the free, paid, and enterprise ranges. In 2019, Cloudflare went public. Zatlyn says the achievements all return to receiving that visceral response from customers once they first launched.

“We had been supercharging their websites, supercharging their on-line presences, and it was creating loads of pleasure for them,” Zatlyn says.


Greater than a decade after its launch, Cloudflare now stops billions of cyberattacks a day for thousands and thousands of consumers throughout the globe. However for Zatlyn, the battles fought whereas constructing Cloudflare have left scar tissue, particularly as one in every of few ladies founders main a public tech enterprise.

“The numbers are dangerous, they usually’re not transferring quick sufficient,” Zatlyn says in regards to the proportion of ladies and minorities in tech. “And so we’ve bought loads of work to do, and I feel that’s as much as each single individual to construct and affect that.”

Although she’s skilled moments in her profession when her gender, age, or outsider standing have been used in opposition to her, at Cloudflare, she serves as a beacon for the business.

“As an early-stage founder, I’d’ve been actually uncomfortable with that,” Zatlyn says. “However right this moment, I do know that, and I’m a job mannequin for individuals at Cloudflare and within the business and for different working mothers and ladies. I’m getting extra snug saying that and admitting that and saying, ‘Nice, I’m pleased with that, and I wish to do the most effective I can.’”

Zatlyn admits she by no means noticed herself as an entrepreneur who wanted to be their very own boss. She didn’t have all of it found out as a scholar at Harvard, standing on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, and even right this moment.

“I feel in case you’re a founder and also you’re unsure, that’s OK,” she says.

“There are many methods to achieve success. If you happen to speak to 100 profitable founders, you’re going to get 100 alternative ways.”

She says recognizing a possibility and falling in love with an answer is how she’s discovered goal by means of any drawback, disaster, or assault.

“I like our mission to assist construct a greater web,” Zatlyn says. “As a result of the web’s changing into extra vital for each single enterprise. The truth that we’re there each step of the best way, serving to them be a strategic associate? I’m so pleased with that.”

Zatlyn says she used to run into the well-known founder who mentioned Cloudflare was unimaginable. Finally, they reconciled, and the founder admitted the enterprise thought was attainable and a obligatory disruptor. By way of that have, Zatlyn realized that rejection and doubt from others occur, particularly originally. However as a substitute of reacting with bitterness, Zatlyn advises different founders to remain within the sport.

“You don’t have to win them over. Everybody comes round in some unspecified time in the future, and your job is to maintain profitable on the sector, gaining progress, gaining floor …, discovering the individuals who do wish to consider and be championed,” Zatlyn says. “[If you] spend your time on that, you’ll be a lot happier and productive for it.”

6 Enterprise Causes to Have a Freemium Product

  1. Enhance site visitors to your model.
  2. Convert free customers to paying prospects.
  3. Achieve word-of-mouth advocates.
  4. Accumulate extra person knowledge to make knowledgeable selections.
  5. Make the most of free customers for product testing.
  6. Recruit workers from free customers.

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