🎂 Just Getting Started: Reflecting on the First 10 Years of Cloudflare
2020 marks Cloudflare’s 10th birthday. To celebrate this milestone, we are hosting a series of fireside chats with business and industry leaders all week long.
In this Cloudflare TV segment, John Graham-Cumming will moderate a fireside chat with Matthew Prince, Co-Founder and CEO of Cloudflare, and Michelle Zatlyn, Co-Founder and COO of Cloudflare.
I'm John Graham-Cumming, Cloudflare's CTO, and I've got, well, two of the oldest employees of Cloudflare, Matthew and Michelle.
Welcome. Thanks for doing this, John.
Really appreciate it. And I think we are the oldest Cloudflare employees, not just some of the oldest.
I think you probably are. So we just had a class reunion, which was all of the very early employees who are still with the company.
And there was there was quite a lot of them.
And one of the questions that came up was, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
So why don't we cast your mind back on at least 10 years?
What are the themes that have stayed the same throughout the last 10 years?
I can start and then Matthew can add in. You know, it's so great to do the reunion, to see all these folks and hear about how we got connected and how they ended up at Cloudflare.
And a lot of people literally picked up and moved their lives in some cases from Australia, Florida.
I mean, people moved a long distance to come.
And I guess that's what stayed the same people.
I mean, today I find myself saying it all the time. The best part of my job are the people I get to work with and having our reunion of everyone who had joined, you know, eight, nine, 10 years ago.
Just a reminder, people, people, people.
It turns out if you have a group of really passionate, smart people. It's amazing what you can do together.
So that's that's the first thing that stayed the same.
And the second thing that came up in the reunion, which is so interesting, is before someone joined, Jerome, his name is Jerome.
He said, I came to visit your office and everyone was so heads down, quiet, working.
And then and then someone else said, yeah, I remember my first day I walked in the office.
Everyone was just so heads down working. And I think that in the early days we took our work really seriously and it was really about getting things done and solving problems for our customers.
And today, I think if you talk to Cloudflare and anyone at Cloudflare, everyone's really busy working on projects, shipping things, getting things done.
And this week, a birthday week, where you think about how many new products we shipped for our customers in the Internet, even at the scale we are at, it's just a reminder that we still really are focused on solving problems and getting work done and shipping things, which feels really good.
It feels good to it feels good to make progress. So those are some things that have stayed the same.
Yeah, and I think that, you know, echoing echoing that last point from Michelle, I think that this last week, you know, we that the whole company gets super excited throughout the year about thinking about birthday week and the idea of giving back to the Internet.
And I think that's something that's always been, you know, from our from our earliest days, the mission, which actually we we sort of evolved into, but I think was was part of part of the thesis from the beginning, which was, you know, how could we actually make the Internet itself better?
And and so, you know, this this week is always a lot of fun because it's much less about how we build products that we can sell and make money off of.
And it's much more about how can we continue to advance the Internet forward?
And I think that's been a big piece of our ethos for a long time. I think the thing that's been amazing and has changed is I just every year I get blown away by how much more we can actually do.
And so, you know, this year just it was we confined it to a week, but, you know, we had multiple announcements per day of things we were doing.
I think we John John, just let me know that we have a one more thing announcement that's coming out.
It's coming out tomorrow. So we're kind of bursting, bursting at the seams.
But it's it is amazing to see how the platform that we've built, the team that we've assembled, the rate that we can innovate at now is is is, you know, it would have been inconceivable even just a few years ago.
Yeah, I agree with that. That is really true. I mean, when I joined, I think I was number 24, number 25.
It felt like we were doing a lot. And at the time felt like if only we could get scale, there's all these things we could do.
And I actually have a piece of paper that I can't find right now, Matthew, where you wrote down a list of all the things you might be able to do that I should try and work on.
And it does feel, I think, within the last two years that a lot of that has really come true in terms of scale.
So if you think about that as a sort of starting point, and Michelle, you're always saying this about, you know, it's just the beginning.
We're just getting started. What's next, do you think?
You know, I actually I think that what's really interesting is if you look at, you know, the great companies that we admire to become, you know, standalone, you know, really iconic technology companies.
They all start, almost all start with some basic foundational thing that they create.
You know, Microsoft, it was the operating system.
You know, Facebook, it was the social graph, you know, Salesforce, it was the CRM system.
And then they find ways to extend it. What I think has been interesting about us is that our foundational element is the network.
And the fact that we've made that network, you know, that we can get data from any point on Earth, any other point on Earth, faster, more reliably, more securely, and more efficiently than anyone else, is this just incredible primitive that we can then use to continue to extend that.
And so I think what and when you and I talk, you know, what we're always talking about is how can we, you know, get more things using that network on either side.
And so I don't think we're obsessed about, you know, just being a reverse proxy, or just being a forward proxy, or just, you know, traffic flowing one direction or another.
Fundamentally, it's a network.
And so, you know, I remember when we first started at the beginning of the year talking about, you know, birthday week ideas, you said, you know, what I really want is a Cloudflare SIM card, or I can pop it in my phone, works anywhere on Earth, and is going to be incredibly reliable, and it's going to be secure from the beginning, and it's going to be the cheapest, you know, plan out there for anything that I want.
And I can just, and I don't have to, you know, sacrifice privacy or other things, which some of the other companies that are providing services like that, you know, because their business models are different, that they require you to do that.
And then I remember, you know, half the people on the call were like, oh, my God, how are we going to launch a SIM card by September?
But, you know, I think you and I have kept talking about that.
And we've got a small team inside of Cloudflare that's now thinking about, you know, is that something that's possible?
And I don't know that that's actually what we'll do. But I think that's the sort of ambition that we have to sort of say, how can we keep using the network we have, extending it, and providing those services?
Because, you know, the thing that I know, I always liked Jeff Bezos' Amazon, you know, always said that people are always going to want things, you know, faster, cheaper, and higher quality.
I mean, we know that's going to be true. At Cloudflare, people are always going to want their network to be faster, more reliable, more secure, and more efficient, meaning less expensive.
And so I think that's what we're fundamentally building towards.
And it's why when, you know, we picked a ticker symbol for the company when we went public last year, it wasn't Cloudflare or something.
It was Net, because foundationally, what I think we're building is, you know, a better version of a next generation network.
And, you know, just to contextualize some of this, I 100% agree in this foundational item being our network.
And I love that. And I think so many people on our team love that. And that's a lot of why people come work at Cloudflare, because they want to be a part of that.
But then I also think there's a whole part of the world like, what is Matthew talking about?
Like, what does that even mean, network? And so maybe I can give some examples just to help contextualize it.
So like, if you're a large organization and you're thinking about, hey, how do I make sure that my employees, my users, my customers are safe and reliable?
It's Cloudflare, right? And there's this whole new kind of category emerging if you're a large organization, sassy.
I mean, Cloudflare is the best sassy provider, period. That's not our end game.
But like right now, that is one of the ways if you're a large organization that matters.
If you're a small business and you're just like, I just need to be online, I need to be just as fast, safe and reliable as all the big giants, Cloudflare is a solution, right?
Like it's just we kind of just work and you don't even need to understand all the details.
And we protect you from cyber attacks and make you fast and shiny and spiffy.
And it's like, awesome. It's like just supercharges your business online.
But if you're a developer, this perimeter network idea that Matthew's mentioning is we're letting you put code into the network and do all these compute and application building right into the network and through our serverless platform, through Cloudflare Workers.
And that's going to create a whole future of things if you're a developer that don't exist today.
And I love that we get to be there as part of that.
And then if you're a consumer, whether it's my mom or my dad or my sisters or our friends where I always love to wear my 1.1 t-shirt or it's the Cloudflare SIM card that may create it, we're using our network to help people, all of us, our friends have a faster, more secure, more private experience online.
And so it's all of these pieces, whether you're from a large organization to a small business, to developers, to consumers, literally our friends and family that benefit from that.
And it's still really early.
That's a really unusual company, though, that spans consumer-free products to the largest enterprises in the world.
How is it that the two of you, since you're leading the company, have made it work?
I mean, I think that it's interesting.
You know, I remember really early on, Michelle and I met in business school, and we entered a business plan competition, and we ended up winning the business plan competition.
As we were walking on stage to accept the award, one of the entrepreneurial professors, again, Bill Solomon, sort of was walking up with us.
And he's like, so your plan is to basically have everyone be your customer?
And we were like, yeah. And he was like, yeah, we'll see how that works.
And Bill's a really smart guy. And I think for most businesses, focusing clearly on one particular segment is something which is important.
What I think is unique, though, is that the companies that truly become iconic technology companies, they do lots of different things, and they continue to extend and deliver value across all of those.
So earlier this week, I got to talk to Eric Schmidt, who was for a long time the CEO of Google.
And before we went on, I said, Eric, one of the things we struggle with at Cloudflare is how do we decide what not to do?
And I said, how did you think about that at Google? And he said, well, that was easy.
At Google, we just decided we were going to do everything.
And I always thought that was, I was like, wow, we're not quite there. But I do think that in any time where there's an application to move data between two points and you want to do that securely, reliably, quickly, and efficiently, that's an opportunity for us to create it.
On Twitter this morning, there was somebody, I looked in on a conversation that two people were having, and they said, you should use Cloudflare.
The website was under attack, and somebody said, you should use Cloudflare to protect it.
And the person said, oh, I thought Cloudflare just provided consumer DNS services.
And so it's sort of interesting where it's actually kind of, people come at our network from various directions.
But I think if you fast forward 10 years from now, what people will think about Cloudflare is, we're just the network that you plug your whatever into, and then you don't have to worry about anything else, and we take care of that for you.
And in many ways, that's actually a fundamental nature of a network, is it should be a layer which you can just plug anything into.
So it makes sense from a technical perspective.
And it's more fun. I mean, and so your question, which I didn't really answer, which was, how do you make it work, that I think the secret to any company at some level, companies are just collections of people.
And so if you can attract really great people, then that's 99% of the game.
And if you have the choices, because everyone who comes to work at Cloudflare has tons of choices on where they can go to work.
If you have a choice of, I'm going to go somewhere where they're helping build a better Internet, or I'm going to go somewhere where they're making, I don't know, some GPS-enabled dog collar, which, again, it's fine.
But being very mission-driven and taking on what are very hard and technical challenges, I think, has been part of the secret for us recruiting the great team that we have.
You know, John, Matthew did a great job describing all of it.
And it is, I just do questions like, who do we think we were that we could do this?
Like, we kind of had the guts to say, oh, we're going to go build what was a pretty big idea.
And I remember early on, 10 years ago, when we showed up in the Silicon Valley and really not knowing very many people and kind of trying to share some of this vision, trying to get people to understand what we were building.
And a lot of people did look at us like we were crazy.
And then there were others who said, that sounds amazing, because if you do this, you really will help make the Internet better.
And I want to be part of that.
And so it's actually kind of a lesson for entrepreneurs or people who are thinking about what you're doing.
I think it's OK sometimes if you don't know how to fully package and know every single corner of your business idea.
I, again, because if you can attract the right people, you have this bigger, bigger mission around it.
You start to build momentum. You figure it out as you go along.
And really amazing things can happen. And the second thing that I think we've learned along the way is we always had big vision from day one and whatnot.
But it even got bigger over time. And it was actually one of our venture capitalists, Ray Rothrock from Venrock.
He was one of our really early investors. I remember it was a board meeting a couple of years in.
Some things are forever imprinted in my brain and other things are totally forgotten from the last 10 years because you're just so tired.
But this is one forever imprinted. And I just remember at one of the board meetings, he said, you know, usually as an investor, I make investments in companies and the opportunity narrows over time.
And it narrows because competitors respond or consumers buying handbits are different or companies can't execute or it turns out to be the pieces turns out to be different than reality or it's hard to predict the future.
But the best investments I've ever made in my career, and he's a very prolific venture capitalist, are the ones who the opportunities expand over time.
And Cloudflare is that. You've always had a big vision, but it's even bigger today.
And we were only a couple of years in. And I think that was almost like the aha moment where Matthew and you, because you were there and Dane Connect, who runs our emerging technology team, like almost were given permission to even think bigger.
And it was like, oh, it's OK. The best investments he made are the ones who expand over time.
It's awesome that we have a big vision, but what else could we do?
And I think that's what we've done. We continue to think even bigger and bigger and bigger.
And we've been able to execute on that between now and then.
So I want to come back to this issue of people, though, because you mentioned people and who we are a few times.
So one of the big reasons why I joined Cloudflare when I did, which was when it was 24 people, was not the vision, but it was the two of you, because I had been through a sequence of startups and I'd worked for different CEOs and VPs and things.
And I had really come to think that it was important who you worked for.
And then the idea is important, too. And I had worked for a venture capital firm for a while, and everything was about the team.
So I was like, OK, I'm not actually totally convinced Cloudflare is a great idea.
This is back in 2011. I'm convinced now. And, you know, but the two of you seem like people who would figure it out.
How did you two decide you each wanted to work with the other one?
So we should tell the story in a different way, in our own perspective.
So I had started a company previously with two people that I'd gone to junior high school with.
And we had chosen to be co-founders in large part because in junior high school, we had had lockers next to each other.
That is a terrible way to pick your co-founders.
And we fought like crazy the entire time because it was not clear whose job was what.
And that was incredibly challenging. And so I had gone, I'd actually taken leave from that company to go to business school.
And Michelle was in business school and a lot of, you know, MBA students have a negative reputation sometimes as being, you know, egotistical and self-centered and thinking that they know how the entire world works.
And so and that in a lot of cases is, you know, well deserved.
And so Michelle really stood out as someone who actually really wanted to get to the right answer and was the sort of person who would get called on in class.
And she'd be like, you know, because everyone in business school, the way you score points and you do well is you get called on.
And Michelle was like, you know, I want to go back to what Bob over there was saying.
That was a really interesting point.
And I was like, wow, she is all the things that I'm not. And so I was trying to convince Michelle that we should start something for quite some time.
And I remember we went out to this Ethiopian restaurant and I was pitching her all these different ideas.
And afterwards, you know, I followed up and I was like, do you want to go back to the Ethiopian restaurant?
We can talk about other things.
And she's like, no, not really. And I took it. I took it kind of personally.
I was like, oh, well, she doesn't really want to start something. And it turns out Michelle just doesn't like Ethiopian food, which is one of the things I don't understand because Ethiopian food is yummy.
And but it was, you know, I think that it started as a school project.
I think, you know, early on, you know, Michelle had Michelle studied chemistry and worked in finance and product development at a large consumer electronics company, but didn't wasn't an expert in the Internet.
And I think early on said, you know, hey, I don't know that I know enough about this.
And I said, you know, if you give this six months, you'll be one of the leading experts on how the Internet works.
And six months in, you know, she absolutely was.
And I think that that part of the real key to us was was having a founding team that had really different skill sets.
And the third person who can't be with us today is Lee Holloway, who is who's who's somebody who had worked as an engineer at the last company that I started and was the real technical genius.
And so I think that, you know, I early on was sort of sales and marketing.
You know, Lee was was was that was that person who was really technical. And Michelle was the person who made sure we actually got stuff done and and and made sure that it wasn't just me and Lee sitting and dreaming up ideas all day, but we actually executed.
And I think that was a that's almost the sort of ideal founding team that you that you can have.
Shell, why did you join up with this guy? Well, I'm crying a little because it's so funny.
The European restaurant is true. I really don't like Ethiopian food.
I like every other type of food except cuisine, except for that.
But I guess I should give it another chance. But, you know, I, you know, Matthew said we're so different.
And it's true. Like if you met if you knew Matthew, Lee and I, which you do, and many of the early team made, we were so different.
I think people were very surprised to find out that we were starting a company together.
But it's actually the whole reason why you should, because we we had a shared vision.
We really wanted to help create this service that helped make the Internet faster, safer, more reliable for small businesses, developers, large organizations.
We just had this we know we can do this. We're on to something.
And so we had this shared vision, but we covered so much surface area because we were so different.
And I mean, you only have to spend five minutes with Matthew Prince to figure out like visionary, strategic.
I mean, Prince ideas, not all ideas are the good ones, but like so many.
And it's fun. It's fun to like debate.
And and it's it's never about taking things personally. It's about taking the idea and moving it to the next stage and moving it forward.
And that's that's fun to find people that you can do that with.
It's hard. Some people get defensive or they're like, oh, whatever they give up.
But Matthew engages and he's like wants to evolve it.
And he's like, actually, it's a good point. And and and again, I it was really fun to engage on these different ideas.
The endless number of ideas Matthew has in our product organization knows he definitely does have an endless number of ideas, sometimes late at night.
And he's like, let's launch it tomorrow.
And you're like, that's a good one, but maybe not tomorrow. So anyhow, so I think that was it was these sorts of things.
So that was that was that. And then the second thing was, you know, we didn't know each other that well.
And so you think, should we start a company together?
And you kind of think maybe we should know each other a little bit better.
But it doesn't quite timing doesn't really sometimes these opportunities present themselves.
And so the other thing that really stood out when I met Matthew is he is extremely good at keeping people from his past in his life.
I mean, you just look and he's his friends from junior high who he's still friends with today, people he used to date that he's still friends with today.
And and I think that he has this collection in his life of of loyalty towards people he knows.
And I think that relationship piece really stood out as well as if you're going to start a company with somebody, you want someone that you can trust and have that foundation of.
And so while you we didn't have that track record together, he had other track records that were really, really clear that he cared about those sorts of things.
And so it was great.
And I'll just say that I'm very happy. I'll go on the record saying very happy that we both took the leap of faith and Lee and we packed our things in a U -Haul and showed up in the Bay Area 10 years ago to try and make this happen and very proud of what we've built together.
And I will also say very proud that we still are doing it together today because, you know, you kind of realize 10 years in how rare that is.
It's a lot of people, a lot of founders call us and say, how do you still like your fat co-founder?
And, you know, it's you kind of realize that we built a company.
We're talking about all the good things, but there's so many hard things.
It's hard building companies are hard and stressful and you don't know. And there's so many opportunities to throw each other under the bus or make a slightly different decision that would just go down a whole different path.
And I think that I feel really lucky to have Matthew as a business partner where I feel like we've made a great team, great leadership together and always been on the right side of doing the right thing.
And John, I actually, I met you even before I met Michelle.
We met back in 2004. So I went way back. It's been a very long time. Yeah.
It's interesting from my perspective is, you know, this is the longest I've ever worked anywhere.
And I think when you think about companies are successful, you know, seven to 10 years is pretty typical to get to, you know, real success.
And one of the things I was thinking about the other day was when I look back, it almost feels like it was a different company.
If I go back to 2011, when I joined and for you 2010, what do you think the sort of that if you think of it like a play, the acts of Cloudflare have been?
Because, you know, at the beginning, I was all on my own in London.
You were all in San Francisco and obviously prior to that, you were all together.
But there have been, I think, some stages that we've gone through.
How do you think about that? If you look back, it's not a continuum. There are some things that were distinct moments.
Yeah, I think that so the first thing, I mean, not to fight the question too much, but it's interesting that I think that's right, that there were sort of distinct moments, but there was also it still actually does feel like and if you go back and read the original business plan, we've kind of done what we said, but I think the focus has been different along the way.
I think, you know, and I would divide it into into two things.
One is sort of the product and engineering side. And I think there was sort of the 2010 to 2015 time frame when we were very focused on the web and making the web faster.
And it started to be in 2014, where we realized there's a lot that's beyond just the web.
And we've built we've now built this network that has scale and we can we can we can transition to that.
And so it used to be that our Wi-Fi office guest network password was hashtag save the web.
And I think in either 2014, 2015, we switched it to save the Internet.
And that's sort of that's sort of the before after transition there.
I think the other transition early on, we and very intentionally, we realized that we had to build a network out.
And so, you know, with the KPIs that you choose are so, so important.
So if you look at kind of our go to market and that sort of the business side of the business early on, we very intentionally didn't focus on generating revenue or anything else because we wanted to get we wanted to get the business in place.
And I think, you know, in the somewhere around 2012, 2013, when Chris started and we started to build a sales team, we started a marketing organization.
That's when Cloudflare turned from kind of a very technical product into into a really great business.
And you watch that and you watch that accelerate.
So, you know, I don't know if it's a two act play or a four act play, but I think those were some really kind of key transitions.
The moment that I remember kind of the most clearly, though, is in 2014 during during birthday week, you know, six years ago when we pushed the button and made encryption free for all of our customers.
And you watch third party graphs and literally the percentage of the Internet that was encrypted doubled overnight.
And that was it's it's really hard to concede. Like we talk about how many websites use us and how much traffic flows through us.
And we used to always try to have ways of contextualizing that.
But that was one of those moments where it hit me and I was like, whoa, what have we what have we done right in both a good way and also in a while we have an incredible responsibility because so much of the Internet does rely on us.
Michelle, what are your acts of cloud? I don't I mean, Matthew, as usual, is so eloquent.
But I mean, I mean, I, you know, just to kind of maybe drive in moments.
First one, we had this idea, could we actually build it? Could we build the tech?
Like and that person was really about how do you get the architecture right to build the technology?
And the first chapter of Poplar was prove that we can build it.
And we just were relentlessly obsessed about that.
The second part was, do customers care? Does it actually work? Do people care about this problem?
And as soon as we started to hear that, like that was awesome.
So we had the technology that was very differentiated and inventing new things.
And and we had customers were like, I care about this and it works. Give me more of it.
And like that was awesome. Turns out scaling that is hard because what you build for a smaller group versus today over 25 million Internet properties.
I mean, that is not so straightforward.
And you just think about the engineering team, the systems, the tooling that we need to be able to enable all of that.
And it's just been many, many chapters.
And you you're like, OK, I'm going to think really big and you build the next system to be really big.
And all of a sudden, 18 months later, we're all growing this really big thing that you thought was going to last us much longer.
And it's because this compounding growth. And so then there was a long point of scaling where that chapter was quite long, where we were just trying to go and build and scale to all these things that we knew where we work, that we that were that we knew were winners.
We had to go scale them.
And now we're in a new chapter where we have great technology. It's differentiated.
You have 50 seconds to tell us the new chapter. And now it's about, OK, let's go do all these other things.
Let's go extend it and let's go win in the marketplace.
Because what I like to remind myself is most of the world still has no idea Cloudflare exists, but they can all use us, whether you're a small business, a consumer, a big company, everyone can be using Cloudflare developer.
And our job now is to go let the world know so they can go take advantage of all the awesome things that we've built and scaled ready for the world to use.
All right. Well, I think with that, we are just about getting to the end of just getting started.
Matthew, Michelle, thank you for doing this chat. 10 years.
I can't believe it's been nine years for me, 10 years for you. But here's to 10 more years.
Thank you, John. Thanks for being part of the team. And thanks for thanks for doing this.
And look forward to some time when we can both come and visit Bill Hinsman's office, which we're super excited about.
You're welcome. Cheers. Take care.