Michelle Zatlyn of Cloudflare: Make Your World Bigger

“As an entrepreneur, if you can start a business that is great, you are proud of it and you can work with great people, that is where the magic happens.”

Michelle Zatlyn is the Co-Founder, President, and COO of Cloudflare, the Internet security, performance, and reliability company on a mission to help build a better Internet.

Our Startup Canada Podcast host Rick Spence had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle on the show. We learned her story truly shows what happens when entrepreneurs believe in themselves, leave their comfort zones, and expand their horizons despite doubt and fear.

Michelle’s entrepreneurial journey began before she knew it, with words from her parents encouraging her to “make your world bigger” as they urged her to step outside of small-town Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Her journey took a turn to entrepreneurship which today has landed her in technology’s epicenter, Silicon Valley.

“Harvard Business School really opened my eyes to the global aspect, how big the world is, different economies and it made me straighten my spine a little bit.” 

SC: Cloudflare began while you were in school, or the idea did at least. Can you tell us the origin story? 

Michelle Zatlyn: When I was studying, I met a classmate and we started to riff on an idea – could we make the Internet safer for small businesses, medium-sized businesses, and people online? I really didn’t know a lot about cybersecurity when we were talking about this idea but I had another “aha-moment” and knew that if we could make the internet safer for small businesses around the world, I would be really proud to be a part of that.

SC:  There is sometimes a misconception that Canadian entrepreneurs don’t think big enough. But your story is such an important lesson that whatever we think we can’t do, we should take a moment and say “what if we could do even more”? Do you agree with that? 

Michelle Zatlyn: Yes, I 100% agree. I hear stories over and over again about how one conversation can lead to really big things, and you know I meet a lot of people in my job now at Cloudflare. I hire a lot of people into the business and I think a lot of people don’t tell you what they really think, so I always try to be a person who will tell others what I really think, even if it is not what you want to hear. The second piece is being on the receiving end of these things. You have to be open to hearing it because you get to choose what you are going to listen to and take action on.

SC: You talk about building good businesses and then building a great business. What is the difference between the two?

Michelle Zatlyn: It feels so good to build a great business. Cloudfare is a great business, but you have to also ask yourself are you proud of what you are doing? And on a daily basis, we are really proud of the work we are doing to help stop those cyber attacks. And also when there have been opportunities to ask what else can we do. What else can we do for our employees? What else can we do for our community? What else can we do for our customers? We always try to do the right thing. I also think as an entrepreneur, if you can start a business that is both great and is something that you are really proud of, and work with great people, that is where the magic happens.

SC: Storytelling is an important part of business, and for you, it helped grow Cloudflare’s team and the business. What role did storytelling play in this?

Michelle Zatlyn: I think one of the things we did really well early on was our storytelling. As a founder, whoever it is that you are competing with, you must have a personality. Storytelling can be a huge asset, so take what you have done and turn it into stories because they can help amplify and make you seem bigger than you are. We had personalities early on and we did a lot of speaking. Early on, we started our corporate blog and we used it to discuss technical problems we were solving. It began to get so many views each week because it was really great content. And it turns out a lot of smart people want to join a company making an impact and making progress. Our blog became a big funnel of people applying to work with us.

SC: For Cloudfare during the pandemic, something unexpected happened. Can you tell us how things changed and how your team became more empowered?

Michelle Zatlyn: We have offices all around the world, but the first office had been in San Francisco so people thought of San Francisco as the headquarters even though we said no, we are all one team. So, all of a sudden when we are all working from home, that notion went out and it no longer felt like San Francisco was at the center. What we saw was more people feeling empowered to speak up and a lot of those people happened to be women or underrepresented minorities.

The second thing that happened was we saw our team’s productivity go way up. All of a sudden the world was working from home and the Internet traffic doubled overnight. And our service helps to make all that traffic faster, safer and more reliable so we had double the amount of usage of our service overnight. The pandemic was a true test of cyber resilience and there was this pressure of solving problems as fast as possible because these were really real problems. It was amazing to see what our team was able to accomplish when under that sort of environment.

You can listen to Michelle’s episode on the Startup Canada Podcast to continue to hear more of her story. The Startup Canada Podcast is a weekly show hosted by Rick Spence, business journalist and entrepreneur, who speaks with the movers and shakers of our entrepreneurship community, sponsored by Mastercard.