Michelle Zatlyn (pictured) is a go-getter, in every sense of the word. Armed with a degree in chemistry, she worked for Google and Toshiba, earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, launched two successful startups, and then co-founded the website-protection service CloudFlare in 2009. This fall, the Huffington Post cited Zatlyn as one of 18 Female Founders in Tech to Watch, and the Wall Street Journal named her firm the Most Innovative Technology Company of 2011.
Her company says it can “supercharge” just about any website by improving security, using less bandwidth, and doubling page load speeds.
Zatlyn recently spoke with the Intuit Small Business Blog about what differentiates CloudFlare from its competition, how she overcomes professional challenges, and why women play an important role in the technology industry.
ISBB: Your company is only two years old, but it doesn’t act like a startup. How did you get so many customers?
Zatlyn: It’s been a pretty incredible few years. We now have more than 100,000 websites using CloudFlare, and we power more than 20 billion pageviews for 390 million Internet visitors every month. And we’ve done that without spending a dollar on advertising or having a single sales person on our staff.
In the past, if you wanted your website to be fast and safe, the only solutions were very expensive and hard to use. CloudFlare built an effective service that’s affordable and easy. A website on CloudFlare loads twice as fast and is protected from a range of online threats. The result is that we opened a whole new marketplace.
How does your company “supercharge” websites?
CloudFlare runs 14 data centers around the world. Once a website owner signs up for the service, its traffic routes through our network. At each of our 14 locations, we keep copies of static files from a website so they load faster for the visitor, we optimize the way a webpage loads and we filter off malicious traffic. We’ve built our technology so that all of this supercharging happens automatically for a website with no configuration necessary. This may not sound very important, but it is. It takes five minutes to sign up and then all of sudden, your site is faster and safer. It’s incredibly powerful.
How is your has your viral marketing campaign contributed to your growth?
By building a service that solves a real problem, our users write about us online and talk about us. We help enable those conversations by sending t-shirts and stickers everywhere from New York to Nepal and Sao Paulo to Sydney. We use Twitter and Facebook to distribute helpful articles about CloudFlare and running a website in general. We post to our CloudFlare blog regularly. Our users use that content to distribute it to others.
We give talks at blog meetups and conferences about web performance, SEO, web security and entrepreneurship. Since our service includes a Free plan, once a website owner learns about CloudFlare, there is no reason for them not to sign up and give it a try. Every website online can benefit from the service, so once they try it, they’ll see results.
We also invest in our customer support team, so if a user ever has a question or issue, we respond quickly. Every member of our team does customer support. Every time a user has an issue, we ask ourselves: “How can we stop that issue from happening to any future users?” We then incorporate that learning into the service so it doesn’t happen again. So, the entire service just keeps getting better and we keep growing with more sites.
What problems have you encountered as a woman in technology?
Any problem that I’ve encountered is not because I’m a woman. It’s because starting a company is a collection of ups and downs or because life throws you curve balls. I think of myself as an entrepreneur, not as a woman in technology. I’ve been fortunate to work with terrific founding teams, building services that our customers love.
How did you overcome these challenges to create opportunities?
Opportunities present themselves anytime, anywhere. People, not just women, often see the opportunity but decide not to pursue it because it’s too risky or inopportune timing or for financial reasons. My strategy has always been to get comfortable with the worst case scenario. Once I’m comfortable with that, I’m free to forge ahead. This has enabled me to live in six cities over the last 10 years, move to other countries, change industries, go to grad school, fall in love, and be on the founding team of three different companies.
What is your outlook on the growing role of women in technology?
There are many women in technology doing interesting work and setting strong examples for the next generation of leaders. By sharing their stories and accomplishments, current female leaders are setting the stage for the next generation of leaders. I’m optimistic. Now is a wonderful time to be a woman!
What’s the best advice you ever received about being an entrepreneur?
First, pick your partners wisely, both in business and your personal life. You need to trust the people that you work with every day. You also need to come home to someone who is your biggest champion at the end of the day. Second, don’t fall into “analysis paralysis.” Just start. So many people want to become entrepreneurs and spend a lot of time planning and analyzing. You can’t plan everything. At some point, you have to start. You’ll learn a ton and opportunities will present themselves that you could have never anticipated.
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