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Episode 5

Building a Much Better Internet with Cloudflare COO Michelle Zatlyn

Front’s co-founder and CEO, Mathilde Collin, sat down with Michelle Zatlyn, COO and Co-founder of Cloudflare shared what she learned along the way while pursuing her vision of building a better internet.

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Mathilde Collin I’m Mathilde Collin, I’m the CEO of Front. I’m here with Michelle, who is the CEO and co-founder of CloudFlare. Michelle, thank you so much for being here with me today. 

Michelle Zatlyn Oh, thanks so much for having me. And I’m really looking forward to our conversation, and I know I will learn a ton as well.

Mathilde Collin Me too. And super looking forward to it. So maybe we can start with just who you are. I would love to know what your role is at CloudFlare and what your day to day looks like. 

Michelle Zatlyn Sure. Of course. So I’m, as you said, the co-founder and CEO of CloudFlare. So we are about 10 years old as a company. We’re about to have our tenth birthday at the end of September. And over the last 10 years, it was me and my two co-founders who started CloudFlare and now we have over fifteen hundred people. We went public recently, so now we’re a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. Our market cap is well, it fluctuates by about 10 billion dollars plus in market cap. I mean, last year we did two hundred eighty seven million dollars revenue. So we kind of took an idea startup and now it’s turned it into a real business with lots of customers and employees. And CloudFlare, we helped make the Internet faster, safer, more reliable for any Internet property, whether you’re a small business developer or a large company. And we’ve really grown over the last 10 years. So it’s been an amazing journey. And my job is I’m still the co-founder. You’re always a co-founder. And actually there are a lot of co-founders listening. It’s an important distinction to remember. And but then I’m also an executive with the company as a COO, and I’m responsible for the go to market functions or sales or marketing or customer support teams as well as our people and places.

Mathilde Collin Given you’ve been doing this job for over 10 years now, is there anything that you wish you hadn’t done 10 years ago? 

Mathilde Collin It’s like it’s always a hard question because entry you would learn so much. But is there something that’s obvious that comes to mind that you wish you would share with people watching this? 

Michelle Zatlyn Yeah, definitely. I think I would have made different decisions along the way if I had realized it 10 years ago is. You know, we first heard it was all about the technology and and it still is, I mean, that’s what our differentiation is and it’s amazing. And I love tech and it’s awesome. But what what I did not realize and I’ve learned along the way is sure it’s solving a problem and how you’re going to do that and do it in an elegant way. But at the end of the day, you have to build a great business around what you’re doing to. And I did not appreciate that for many years building CloudFlare, and so therefore I think some of our customer decisions, marketing decisions earlier on weren’t good ones. And I’ve since learned a lot along the way. And so now I try and talk to them all the time. I’m like, great, it’s great about the technology or what you’re building. And our customers care. But as soon as you start to fit on product market fit, that’s kind of a term that we use a lot as as entrepreneurs. As soon as you start to find product market, then you really start to see adoption, whether of use or revenue. Then you’ve got to start to think about how am I going to build a healthy business around it? And businesses are different than technology. And I think the really great success stories are companies or entrepreneurs who can do both. 

Mathilde Collin I think one thing that’s always, you know, I’m always amazed is when we talk or when I hear you talk, you always remind everyone who’s listening what your mission is, and it’s to build a better Internet. You said it better than I just said it. 

Mathilde Collin And I’m curious for all the founders and CEOs and COOs that are going through this process of formulating their mission, what what would be your advice to them? 

Michelle Zatlyn Yeah, when you’re a success story, man, like it is really hard for the first one to four or five years, like very hard. And it’s very hard to get people to come work for you. It’s very hard to get your first customers to use your service. I mean, it’s hard to get employee number 50 to come work for you because there’s a lot of other great jobs, like why would people give up their great jobs to come work at a company that may go out of business? And when you 50 people, you don’t know whether you have something or not or how big it is. And so and so. And I think even as a founder, you’re looking at your friends around you. And I live in the Silicon Valley where people have these amazing ideas that are taking off. And there are definitely moments of do I have that or are we going out of business tomorrow early on? Right. And I think that that that’s very common and messy, those early few years. And again, it’s not a year. It’s four years, which is a long time. That’s a lot of days. That’s twelve hundred days of your life. And so I say all of this, that there’s a lot of great companies in the world. There’s a lot of great causes to put to to dedicate your talents towards. And so for us at CloudFlare early on, it was like, sure, we’re we’re helping make it safer. But like, why does that matter? And it was Latorre up to a bigger mission. It is to help build a better Internet. And we didn’t start with that on day one. But we we had the vision on day one. We we we uncovered it along the way. And it was a couple of years in and it just became really crystal clear where it kind of elevated everything. It made it easier to get people to come work for us selves. And they’re like, I want to help make the Internet better to like. That really resonates with some investors, really. We’re like, wow, I want to be a part of that. You know, for your own sake. You’re just like, I’m really proud of the work we’re doing. It becomes our North Star decisions we’re making. Does this help make the Internet better or does it not? And it also becomes like an all star for internal decisions. And so, you know, we didn’t start with the mission. We we started with a with a problem we were trying to solve for our customers. And and through that, we just we discovered that there was a bigger mission to what we’re doing. And, you know, I remember listening to talks like this was like Drew hosting in a Dropbox and others that were talking about these things. And they were exactly right. It’s like it’s you’re doing something bigger. It’s not just a job. Like you’re doing something much bigger than that. And to you, I think. But what is your business plan for what is your what’s your mission as a business, as a company? And it kind of elevates everything and provides some levity. 

Mathilde Collin How do you make sure that with many employees that you have, everyone knows about this mission? And I think my second question would be, how do you make sure that everyone knows how their job contributes to the mission? 

Michelle Zatlyn Yes, well, then how do you know whether you’re doing a good job of that as a whole other a whole other, when you’re when you’re early, it’s kind of gut level. You’re around all the time. So you kind of know. And then now also maybe fifteen hundred people and it’s harder to know. So we I mean, some things that we’ve done and I think lots of other companies have been books written about this, but we do our mission is to help build a better intranet. We talk about it a lot and and it does come up and I think it’s because we really believe it. And so whether it’s I’m talking about it or Matthew is my business partner or a CEO or an executive I like, it just comes up frequently, which is good. So it’s and again, we all believe it. But then we’ve also done some other things and is actually Adam Grant, who’s a professor who’s written a lot about organizations, is he’s an organizational professor who looks about how people work together. And and the idea was we we found situations where we feel like cops are made a different decision than other companies. And we created something called popular stories. And any time you join CloudFlare, it’s like part of our guidebook, you go through it. And here are situations where we made a different decision than we think other companies would have, because it comes back to it reinforces what we believe as a business, how we do it, what our values are, and ultimately to serve this bigger mission. And so we’ve captured those along the way. And again, what gets qualified as a story is something where we feel like we made a decision differently than another company, because that’s how these things get carried on through stories. Right. It gets easier to reinforce these sorts of things. So we talk a lot about it. It’s it’s it’s shaping things. How does it tie back to that? When we launch things, we tie it back to that. But it was also tied up into actual decisions being made and and capturing those and and then making sure everyone who joins or reads those. And again, that situation will never happen again. But we hope that people will learn. While I think back to that story, here’s how I’m going to make my decision because of that story that I read about three years ago. And that’s kind of how we’ve helped carry it on. 

Mathilde Collin So I’m sure that having this clear mission, people understanding it contributes to having a great culture. And something from from what I’ve heard, CloudFlare has a good culture. One thing I was curious about is you expanded internationally. You can tell me from what I understand, that you have offices in Beijing, in Lisbon and S.F.. I’m curious how you made sure that across the different offices and across the different languages and traditions and values, you had a really great culture and you had some consistency. Is it ever that was something that you were looking for? 

Michelle Zatlyn Yes. The best part of my job, the people I get to work with, which is I think companies are combinations of people who show up every day building things right into the best part of my job or the people I get to work with. And the second best part of my job are our customers. And that’s held true from very early. And so we’ve always placed a really high emphasis on people and we don’t always get it right. So I don’t this is always a tough competition. It’s we’re not perfect. There’s lots of things that we get wrong when we learn and we’re trying to adapt. So let me just start there. But but we do care like we really do care. You think CloudFlare has a soul? We always have. And and so we will always start with great people. And so we spend a lot of time recruiting a lot. And we’ve always spent a lot of time recruiting. And by we I mean, me and Matthew, like the founders, did a lot of it early on. And then now by we I mean all of our hiring managers, I mean our today, if you’re hiring Manager Koffler, you’re expected to stand between 20 and 30 percent of your time hiring for your team, which is a lot. That’s two hours a day or one day a week. And and and sometimes seasoned managers come in and say, well, I’m just going to partner with a recruiting team. They do that. And and we’re like, no, no, no, no, no, no. Like, people come work for you. They like they come work for you, you’re involved in. And so. Again, for a lot of people, they love it and then, like a lot of managers love it, they really get to know the people who they end up hiring stay for a long time, and that’s great. But we do spend a lot of time recruiting and a lot of time on the process. 

Mathilde Collin One thing I was curious about and so we’ve talked about the mission and culture and putting people first, and I think all of that contributes to people being engaged in a company. One of my beliefs, and obviously it’s also because I’m in a business that deals with customer litigation, is one of the things that contributes to people being happy and engaged is understanding what your customers say about good and that it’s good to know what they say is good because that gives you energy to know what they think is bad, because that gives you a purpose when you’re working on something.

Mathilde Collin Now, I think when you’re very small, it’s pretty easy for everyone in the company to know what customers are saying. And you are not super small anymore. 

Mathilde Collin And so I’m curious how you’ve been able to communicate within your entire company’s team today what customers think of you. 

Michelle Zatlyn Yeah, well, and this is really important, and I think we’ve ebbed and flowed over the years, but we try and talk a lot about what our customers are saying and as you said, both the good and the bad, because at the end of the day, we’re solving the problems. And so we are very transparent company internally and we share a lot of information and we always have a big part of who we are. And so, you know, every week our our customer support leader sends out a recap of what customers are saying. And those are people who are writing into us the good and the bad times. Have they had to write in? Why are they writing and which product? 

Michelle Zatlyn And then when we answer their question, what did we do a good job? 

Michelle Zatlyn Did they think we do a good job or did they say, you know, you did a terrible job and we don’t censor it. There’s both good and bad and you read through some of the bad and you think, wow, we really fell short here, but it’s an opportunity to get better. So that’s how we constantly building that in. And and every quarter when we’re planning the product roadmap, one of the lenses is input from the customers. Right. Whether it’s through support tickets, when we know there’s an issue or through customers asking for things like that becomes one input for what we build on the roadmap next quarter, the quarter after. It’s not the only input, but the really important ones. And we have a lot of customers. We have over two and a half million customers. So we can’t call them on the phone and say, you need to look for these sorts of signals to to help drive input, to prioritize what’s most important, to build or where we prioritizing time. And so it’s really, really important. We had our Q3 kickoff yesterday. I mentioned that earlier. And we we told many customer stories during that because it’s everyone’s listening and it’s you can ever why are customers choosing CloudFlare? Who are they? Who if it’s us, who else is in the consideration set? Why don’t they pick us over those others? Or if we look or and then over time, if they’re doing more business with us, why? And that’s a testament to our team’s working hard and them liking the service and other problems we can solve for them. And so we try and tell those stories often. And again, there’s kind of both through data on a weekly basis of hearing it, social media and then as well as in these more formal weekly or all hands meetings where we have customer stories that we’re told we’re telling and that works pretty well, or that you can get a really along way there. The last thing we did that has been terrific, that might be helpful to a lot of founders on the call is someone on our team was like, we should really create a cloud for our community and we really need another community online. Like, I feel like there was a lot of places to connect. Turns out he was right and I was wrong to have a plan for community. It’s run by kind of one person run our company. And it’s people in the cloud for community users, customers who volunteer and they help run this online community. And people love it. It has a huge engagement, big audience. And we basically built a place for people to come and ask questions about CloudFlare, engage until now. It’s another place for our product to go talk to the community when they’re batting like that, when when they’re when they’re batting ideas around or if they build something and they want some initial users, they go off there and and it’s like our own community of people. 

Michelle Zatlyn And so that’s been an innovation that came up internally. And again, I was like, that’s silly. No one’s going to do that. And again, I was wrong. 

Mathilde Collin Yeah, well, it seems like a great idea specifically to scale, because when you start having millions of customers, then there is just so much you can do on a regular basis. And I think for me, the two things I’ve learned along the way in creating empathy through throughout your organization that might be counterintuitive is one share constructive feedback and stories of customers who have not been successful, who have been happy, because then will, I think, need that to a lot of empathy and more purpose to people that are trying to improve your product. And the second thing is always try to dig super deep into really what’s the impact of how people use your products instead of saying, well, this is the customer, sorry, and they use these products and they like this feature and this is the set up, which is a good first step. But I think a really important next step is, well, just as a human being, who’s using the product, how he’s made a difference, like how am I doing a better job because I’m using this product so good. 

Michelle Zatlyn You’re right, actually. And what you said just made me think of one other thing. I 100 percent agree. You said very eloquently the other the other thing that was totally counterintuitive is there are times where you wear what you do sucks. Like you’re like actually our product really is. Whatever of this feature really does suck compared to others and. And I I’ve noticed that a lot of leaders sometimes try to sugarcoat it, it’s also bad or they downplay their competitor, you know what the best moments are for one, where where it’s been, me or to Matthew said, let’s just accept it’s not as good as it should be and let’s go make it better. We are really good at fixing problems and we acknowledge there’s a problem. And, you know, as a leader, sometimes just giving your team permission to be like, actually, you’re right, we could do way better. And then and then you say there’s a problem, let’s go fix it. We can do better. And then you end up taking something that was a weakness and turning into a huge strength. And it’s not human nature to do that. It’s human nature to kind of sugarcoat it and hedge. 

Michelle Zatlyn So I’m going to say this is not as good as it needs to be. A lot of what I hear is the problems we have versus the thing that are working, because when something is working great and skilled, but I think I trust our team in when we have a problem finding a solution. I think the biggest mistake we can do is not acknowledge this problem because we think that it’s not motivating or or it’s scary or whatever. I think you can actually build trust and actually bringing people along in the journey to make this right. 

Michelle Zatlyn Be honest about the problems. 

Mathilde Collin Exactly. I know we’re almost at the end of our time. I think I can hear kids in the background and sorry for that. 

Mathilde Collin I’m just curious how you so you see you have this you draw the conclusion to be and then personally, you have a husband, you have two kids, I think. How have you managed to have some balance? 

Michelle Zatlyn Yeah. Yeah, yes. Yeah, exactly. I am. I just really wanted it. And and I guess you just make decisions to to to to design my life like that. And so I’ve always been really ambitious and I’m really proud of my career and and I love my job. And I have I do have a big job and and I think that’s great. And I’m married and I always want a relationship and I prioritize that. And then we wanted to have kids and I wanted to know my kids and have a. Like for them to be a happy family. And again, so far, so good and not not that it hasn’t been without you. I’ve made decisions along the way to tell the possibility of this in my direction. And it’s worked out really, really well. And so I like talking about because I want other people to know what’s possible. I cannot tell you how many times in the last five years, especially as Cougher became bigger and my role became more front and center and I started to have kids that people said, how do you do it? And it’s not just women asking me that. It’s men, too. They don’t they. And and I mean, lots of people do it, but people don’t talk about it. And so I think if you don’t want this, no big deal. But if you do want to have a career or relationship in a family, there’s lots of people who do it. It’s definitely possible. And you just have to decide, like, do you want to create one? Let’s go make it happen and going to have a great life partner who’s always supported my career ambitions. And he’s he’s an entrepreneur himself. And so I found a great life partner who’s kind of been my biggest champion. I have lots of friends who didn’t find that. So it’s hard to be happy at work and at home with your life partner is not cheering for your success. So I think, again, I was always upfront that I was ambitious in my career and he was like, awesome. And so that’s worked out great. And then we all want we both want to have kids, which was helpful. And being in a relationship with someone you love and a job you love but doesn’t want kids, that’s a hard situation. Again, we wanted that’s that was that was better. And then the last thing I would say is it takes a village and I mean that, like, really I think that we should start going back to talking about villages as in life, like it’s not it’s at work, just like at work. 

Michelle Zatlyn You got to as your job progresses. There’s a lot of things that I used to do as a founder that I don’t do anymore because someone else in the company does it. 

Michelle Zatlyn And it’s the same thing. And my whole life, there’s there’s a lot of things where it’s not just like me, me and my kids, it’s the grandparents, the aunts, uncles, it’s the neighbors, it’s friends, it’s the nannies, it’s babysitters, it’s the teachers. I mean, I have a very wide village and I like that, like, they’re kind of part of our extended family. And I grew up in a small city in Canada. And my my grandparents were farmers. And it was really about the community back then. And so it’s kind of I tried to recreate that in the city, actually, as a business idea there. I think there is a business idea for an entrepreneur to help create villages. It’s almost like next door meets care, meets something where it’s connecting people together to to make it so you don’t feel so alone anyhow. But yeah, that’s how I’ve done. 

Mathilde Collin I could ask you many more questions, but I always like to ask you if you reflect back on the past few years, what do you think is a piece of advice that you heard that helped you the most? 

Michelle Zatlyn Well, as a founder, the best piece of advice I’ve gotten is the rate at which you learn is what sets great founders apart from good founders. And it was George Lee at Goldman Sachs who said it, and he ran investment banking at Goldman Sachs for many years. And he’s met everybody. His job is, you know, everybody. And so and he said the truly extraordinary founders of loans, which have really high rates of learning and if you may think it like that to me, was really actually kind of democratized the process. I was like, oh, OK. Meaning you don’t need to know everything. But if you have if you’re willing to learn and take input and make decisions and do a better next time, then you have the shot of being the best versus coming and being the best. And to me, that was the motivating. And so the rate at which you learn and I think it’s true. And that’s why, you know, conversations with others, hiring great people into your company who do it better than you like, that’s all of a sudden you’re like, wow, that is so much better than how we were doing it. 

Michelle Zatlyn And that’s not a threatening thing. That’s a good thing. And that’s an empowering thing. And everyone, like all tides rise. 

Michelle Zatlyn And I think that that the rate of what you learn really is a founder’s greatest asset. So I don’t think it’s founders. I just think it’s people in general. But I actually do think it’s specifically unique to your job changes so fast. Like if I think of where I’ve come ten tenure years, my job is just like the it’s been a very high base rate of acceleration of pace. So so being able to keep up and learn and adapt is really important. So that’s the best advice. 

Mathilde Collin I learned a lot today and thank you so much. I’m sure a lot of you who will listen to it will also learn a lot, so thank you, Michelle.

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