Who is Michelle Zatlyn? Co-founder of Cloudflare

  • Michelle Zatlyn is the co-founder, president, chief operating officer (COO), and a board member of Cloudflare , an American content delivery network provider and cybersecurity firm.
  • She co-founded Cloudflare with Harvard Business School classmates Matthew Prince and Lee Holloway in 2009.
  • Cloudflare now has data centres in 310 cities, more than 3,600 employees globally, and approximately 190,000 paying customers, with revenues totalling US$1.3 billion in 2023.
  • After the war in Gaza broke out, she led the Cloudflare team to provide cybersecurity services to about 20% of the world’s websites over the next few weeks, automatically identifying and blocking DDoS attacks on a total of 5 billion website requests.

Michelle Zatlyn is the co-founder and chief operating officer of cybersecurity firm Cloudflare. She brought cyber protection to vulnerable institutions from K-12 schools to local elections, while leading Cloudflare to its first US$1 billion year.

She works with the White House on Project Cybersafe Schools to add cybersecurity protection to elementary and high schools around the country.

She was on the virtual front lines after Gaza broke out, leading the Cloudflare team in San Francisco for the next few weeks to provide cybersecurity services to about 20% of the world’s websites, helping civilians access information or medical assistance.

Follow her story to see how she went from an entrepreneur to a true tech leader.

Early life and education

Michelle Zatlyn was born in July 1979 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada. She was raised in Prince Albert with her sisters by her father, a lawyer, and her mother, a teacher. She went to school at Prince Albert’s Ecole Holy Cross before attending Carlton Comprehensive High School, where she was the captain of the basketball team.

Zatlyn commented on her childhood, saying, “I was a very ambitious student and lucky to have great teachers who supported me and parents and siblings who were cheerleaders along the way.”

She graduated from McGill University in 2001 with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and then received a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School.

Michelle Zatlyn’s career journey

After a summer internship at Google and a stint as a product manager at Toshiba, Zatlyn joined the founding team of Toronto-based startup Achievers, a global employee rewards program.

In 2009, she co-founded Cloudflare with Harvard Business School classmates Matthew Prince and Lee Holloway. She is a member of Cloudflare’s board of directors and serves as the company’s president and chief operating officer.

Speaking about her co-founding of Cloudflare, Zatlyn states “When we came up with Cloudflare, I knew nothing about internet security, but I care a lot about liking what I’m doing. I knew if I could help create internet security, that’s something I could work hard for and be proud of.”

Michelle Zatlyn
Michelle Zatlyn in the meeting

The private life behind this ambitious lady

Two years after founding Cloudflare, Zatlyn got married. Her husband Jamie Sutherland is an entrepreneur from Oakville, Ontario, and the co-founder and CEO at Sonix, an audio and video transcription online software.

They both graduated from McGill University and now have two children.

Also read: Foundry raises $80M to simplify access to AI cloud services

Founding Cloudflare

When speaking about founding Cloudflare, Zatlyn explains, “While I was at Harvard Business School, I knew I wanted to be part of the next Google before it was Google, or Starbucks before it was Starbucks. And life has a funny way of presenting opportunities.

It was then that I met Matthew Prince (co-founder). He was a serial entrepreneur and had all sorts of amazing ideas.”

When Zatlyn met her co-founders, Price and Holloway were developing a project called Honey Pot, which tracked spam and Internet threats. After working with Zatlyn, the organisation developed a business plan to expand Honey Pot to offer a service that stops Internet threats rather than just tracking them.

Zatlyn, Price, and Holloway presented their business plan at a Harvard pitch competition in 2009. When they won the competition, the team received some minimal funding, introductions to venture capitalists, and some free office space for the summer.

CloudFlare company logo

Pop quiz

What significant milestone did Zatlyn achieve in 2023?

a. Launched freemium service

b. Leading Cloudflare to its first US$1 billion year

c. Cloudflare now has data centres in 210 cities

d. Cloudflar’s 10th anniversary

The correct answer is at the bottom of the article.

Won the competition

Zatlyn recalled when they attended a technology startup pitch competition and industry event in 2010. She said everyone was nervous at the time.

Prince has a sudden problem with his slideshow and she goes to help fix it. They were both wearing dark grey t-shirts with an orange cloud logo.

After a minute of filler by the event host, the correct slides are up, and Prince quickly introduces Zatlyn and Holloway. Then he jumps into a seven-minute simultaneous pitch and launch of Cloudflare. He clearly outlines the benefits of Cloudflare’s security for “the little guys” and even demonstrates its simple, five-minute sign-up.

He concludes the presentation: “Cloudflare’s got your back, and we won’t rest until your site is fast, safe, and secure.”

That is the first TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, Cloudflare won the 2010 competition and, more importantly, captured its ideal users.

“Our audience was all technical folks in the audience. All those people had blogs or small businesses, and a bunch of them signed up,” Zatlyn said. She mimes a line graph.

“Our numbers have been up to the right ever since the day we launched. They’ve never stopped growing.”

Also read: Alibaba Cloud to cut price on products from offshore data centres

Cloudflare’s freemium launch  

Weeks before Zatlyn stood stage right of Prince at the TechCrunch event, she was embarrassed by Cloudflare. Zatlyn didn’t think they had enough data to feel secure about Cloudflare’s solidity as a business model, but they’d missed their product demo deadline and needed to launch.

“There were about six of us at the time debating about whether it was ready or not. I said, ‘Just ship it,’“ Zatlyn said.

Within a few weeks of launch, Zatlyn contacted users and asked about their experience, surprisingly, these customers who had signed up for this product that she was very embarrassed about all gave positive reviews.

The review goes like “Oh my God, your product stopped all the trash traffic coming to my site. “, “It off-loaded all the bots coming to my server”, and “For the first time in five years, my pager didn’t go off last night.” It was another visceral experience for Zatlyn.

“That gave me a lot of validation that I had made the right choice, that we were working on the right things,” Zatlyn said. “And then over time, I was like, ok, we’re solving a real, meaningful problem.”

In 2011, Cloudflare raised $20 million in Series B funding. The momentum has continued year after year with the addition of free, paid, and enterprise-level customers. In 2019, Cloudflare went public.

Zatlyn says these achievements are rooted in the instinctive response of users when it first launched.

Difficulties after the Gaza war

Almost immediately after the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 that led to the Gaza war, another battle was brewing.

Hackers first attacked the Israeli Internet through DDoS attacks, flooding websites that provide vital alerts and information to civilians. Subsequently, cyberattackers also began attacking Palestinian websites, particularly those in the banking sector.

Zatlyn was on the virtual front. Within 12 minutes of the initial rocket attack, the San Francisco-based company she co-founded, Cloudflare, detected and began mitigating attacks from hackers, presumed to be state actors, as well as civilians and so-called hacktivists, according to legal experts.

Over the next few weeks, the company, which provides cybersecurity services to about 20% of the world’s websites, automatically identified and blocked DDoS attacks on a total of 5 billion website requests.

For Zatlyn, taking sides in the conflict was not an option. “Whether sites were run by Palestinians or Israelis, we said, ‘Hey, if you need cybersecurity, we are here to help you,’ ” she says. “Organizations, schools, and governments were under attack; our employees were onboarding them in a very quick fashion and making sure that they could securely stay online.”

The company has been living up to its better internet mission for years, providing services to those in need, it runs three major internal programmes that help protect and provide free security for schools and humanitarian aid organisations, among others.

Together they guard more than 2,900 cyber assets, and Cloudflare estimates it has invested US$48.5 million in these programmes over the past six years.

Becoming a true leader

A solutions engineer who has worked at Cloudflare for six years leads the first response team, which is tasked with helping organisations help civilians access information or medical assistance during the initial attacks in Israel and Gaza. It was intense work.

He said the critical need fueled his teams through the trying month: “We knew if those organizations couldn’t survive, more people would be hurt.”

The impact in Israel and Gaza–as well as the company’s efforts in Ukraine–forced Zatlyn and her company to the foreground amid seemingly intractable circumstances.

Few entrepreneurs can say they’ve done more to support groups that aid civilians during this crisis–and it pushed her as a leader.  

The correct answer is B, she leads Cloudflare to its first US$1 billion year.


Jennifer Yu

Jennifer Yu is an junior reporter at BTW Media covering artificial intelligence and products. She graduated from The University of Hong Kong. Send tips to j.yu@btw.media.

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