Cloudflare co-founder, president and COO Michelle Zatlyn speaks onstage with BCV partner Enrique Salem at Inflection in November, 2023. (BCV)

Cloudflare COO Michelle Zatlyn Shares Her Top Lessons for Founders

Building cybersecurity giant Cloudflare taught Michelle Zatlyn to “stay on the field,” embrace momentum and accept that teams evolve throughout your journey.

4 min read January 31, 2024
Uncategorized Infra Early

When Michelle Zatlyn and her co-founders launched Cloudflare in 2009, they wanted it to become huge. As they put it at the time, it either becomes a monster or it dies.

As of January 2024, the cybersecurity company has a market cap of $27 billion. At our inaugural Inflection event in San Francisco in November, Michelle told her fellow Atlassian board member, BCV partner Enrique Salem, that key elements of Cloudflare’s early success became ingrained. She pointed to developing and maintaining a complementary dynamic with co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince, as well as a focus on momentum driving growth.

Addressing the crowd of startup founders, Michelle explained how the company’s first five years were full of constant ups and downs, and taught her essential lessons for building a business that can scale. We caught up with her after her chat to break down three of these lessons she believes every founder should internalize.


Stay on the Field

As a founder, you’re showing up every single day trying to gain ground against your idea. And it’s just so important over the course of the history of the journey of your company to keep showing up for work, to keep staying in the game, staying on the field. Because what happens is, as you progress, sometimes you’re like, “Oh, wow, I’m hiring people who know things more than me. Do you still need me? Am I of value?” And what can sometimes happen is founders stop showing up for work, or they stop going to meetings, and so they get further and further away from the business. Well, that starts a really negative loop. And so it’s much more important to show up for work, stay in the game, on the field. Because I know one thing for certain: Founders who care about what they’re doing, who continue to do the growth and the work, and if you get to the other side of success as your company, you are in such a better position as a company that’s not founder-led.

Accept That Top People Leave Along the Journey

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a founder is it’s a journey and not everyone is starting and ending the journey at the same time. So these people that you start the company with, that matter so much, they end up leaving before you or others, or sometimes before you even want them to. And it’s a really hard lesson to keep learning. But then what ends up happening is other great people join the journey and then they get off at the next step. And so I think the faster you realize that — people on your team are going to start and end the journey at different times and different rates as you. [It] is OK. That is a natural normal course of building your company.

Momentum Is Your Best Friend

As a startup founder, if I go back to those early days, gaining ground every single day is so important. You want to bring the ball down the field. You need to gain traction against what you’re working on, so momentum is your best friend as an early-stage company. And what do I mean by momentum of a company? The average product development cycle time at a big company is about 16 months. You have to build your product in less time than that. So that you’re gaining ground against whoever you’re competing with in the market for your customers. And that momentum will carry you forward and that’s something you will be able to build off of.

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