Internet entrepreneur hits the world stage

by Lucas Wisenthal, BA'03

As a chemistry student at McGill, Michelle Zatlyn, BSc’01, had her mind set on medical school. But as she neared the end of her degree, she began to have second thoughts. “I kind of realized in my last years of chemistry that I loved medicine, but maybe I wanted to try something else,” she says.

Upon graduation, in the face of a slumping, post-9/11 job market, she packed her bags for Toronto, where she hoped to cut her teeth in the business world for a while.

But while Zatlyn planned to work for two years before returning to her original career path, she discovered a taste—and a talent—for her new one. After a stint in financial services, followed by a run with a start-up called I Love Rewards (now known as Achievers), her course changed officially.

“I got this huge sense of what it’s like to work in an environment where smart, talented people have a lot of passion for a good idea,” she says. “You’re doing something you really believe in. I was hooked.”

Today, Zatlyn is the head of user experience at CloudFlare, a content delivery network and website security service that she co-founded in 2009. Based out of San Francisco, the company has raised $70 million in venture capital funding and amassed 1.5 million users, an ever-growing customer base that includes clients as diverse as the heavy metal band Metallica and the government of Turkey, all of whom were sold on the idea of reliable Internet security offered at an affordable rate.

CloudFlare’s history dates to Zatlyn’s time at Harvard Business School, where she earned a MBA. There, she met Matthew Prince, who, together with engineer Lee Holloway, was working on Project Honey Pot, an open-source initiative that sought to track email spammers.

The endeavour—which promised participants nothing more than the satisfaction of foiling Internet bad guys—had drawn 80,000 websites. Its users hoped that the project would one day result in a security service, an idea in which Zatlyn saw immediate potential.

So, she took a risk. She turned down a job offer from LinkedIn, and with a first-place finish at the Harvard Business Plan Competition under her belt, she and Prince set out for the start-up-soaked streets of San Francisco.

Things moved slowly at first, with the company’s co-founders working out of their homes. But Zatlyn knew they were on to something when they surveyed webmasters, asking how they guarded their sites and servers against attacks. The team noticed that while bigger companies could afford costly solutions, no one was looking out for the little guy.

Eventually, CloudFlare’s promise of faster-loading websites and increased security, coupled with its $20-per-month and free price points, drew bloggers, small-business owners and others to its services.

“The first 100 customers were really hard to get,” says Zatlyn. “But once we got to 100, and we had a product that worked, getting to 1,000 was much easier.”

In 2010, CloudFlare launched in earnest at Disrupt, an event hosted by TechCrunch, an influential tech site. “Three-and-a-half years later, and we’re still growing at an incredibly fast rate,” says Zatlyn.

As the business’ profile has risen, so too has Zatlyn’s. This year, the native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan was one of seven Canadians named to the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders program - others named included federal industry minister James Moore. During her six-year tenure as part of the YGL, Zatlyn will have the opportunity to hobnob with some of the planet's most influential people. YGL participants also have a say in determining the World Economic Forum’s activities. She’s keen to address what she believes to be the importance of an open Internet with business and political leaders.

At the same time, Zatlyn remains unwaveringly committed to CloudFlare, which she aspires to take public one day. And though she admits that the company has blurred the lines between her personal and professional lives, even in a tech culture that valorizes work above all, she is careful not to let her successful start-up take up all her time.

“I have a family; I have friends,” she says. “I don’t sleep under my desk.”

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