Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn on getting funding for crazy ideas

It’s not easy getting funding for any startup, but when Cloudflare launched at one of our early events ten years ago, most investors sure thought its idea was a bit out there. Today, Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn joined us at our virtual Disrupt event to talk with our enterprise reporter Ron Miller about those early days and how the team managed to get investors on board with its plan.

“Sometimes I think back and I think, what were we thinking? But really, I hope — as other entrepreneurs listen — that you do think, ‘hey, how can I be more bold?’ Because actually, that’s where a lot of greatness comes from,” Zatlyn said.

It’s maybe no surprise then that she found that when the team went to the Bay Area in the summer of 2009, trying to sell a product that democratized a service that was previously only available to the internet giants of that time, not everybody was ready.

“A lot of eyes glazed over,” she said. They kind of brushed us aside because we really had a big vision — we certainly did not lack in vision. So that was a lot of the conversations, but there were some conversations where people really leaned in and they’re like: ‘Oh, wow, tell me more.’ And maybe they knew a lot about cybersecurity or maybe they were really worried about the democratization of the internet and going behind guarded walls. And those people really got excited. And that’s how we found kind of our initial investors or initial teammates.”

Over time, the team found investors and an initial set of employees, but it wasn’t easy. “It was bold then and not everyone thought it was a good idea. Some people looked at us like we’re crazy, but I’d like to say that when people look at you like you’re crazy, you’re probably onto something big.”

While a lot of people looked at Cloudflare as a CDN in its early days, it was always meant to be a security product that needed the CDN to work (the company sometimes describes itself as an ‘accidental CDN’ because of that). Ten years ago, the focus was mostly on web spammers and because that was something everybody could relate to, it made its ability to combat that very explicit in its pitch deck.

“We literally had a slide in our pitch deck that had quotes from real-life IT administrators from some medium-sized businesses, small businesses and developers, explaining in their own words — and their very hard-hitting words — how much they despise like these cyber threats that were online. […] Even if you knew nothing about cybersecurity or global performance, you could all understand wow, there’s something here, right?” And of course, it helped that there was no real protection against these threats available at the time.

Still, getting early customers didn’t come easy, either, Zatlyn noted, because some just didn’t understand what the company was doing. But the team took that as feedback and improved how it explained itself.

“Early on as an entrepreneur, you got to try a lot of things. And you don’t need to know every single corner of your business, but you need ave to really have a high rate of learning. Actually, that’s an entrepreneur’s best friend. How fast can you learn, how fast can you take the feedback and iterate on it?”

You can watch the rest of the conversation, including Zatlyn’s thoughts about going public, below: