Within the last 24 hours you’ve passed through their networks without even knowing it. The Turkish government, Metallica, and MIT Admissions are among their customers. But four years ago, website security and performance service CloudFlare was little more than an idea scratched on the back of a cocktail napkin in a Sheraton Hotel bar.
In January 2009, Harvard MBAs Mathew Prince, 38, and Michelle Zatlyn, 34, were sitting in a presentation in Silicon Valley as part of a B-school trip when they locked eyes and stepped out in the hallway. After listening to a series of successful entrepreneurs, starting a company no longer seemed out of reach, Zatlyn says. “It was like, these people have done it and so can we,” she adds. “It became within the realm of possible.” That evening over drinks, they sketched out a vision for a cyber security service–the early stages of CloudFlare.
The idea piggybacked on an open source spam-tracking project Prince was developing with Lee Holloway, who rounds out CloudFlare’s founding trio. They refined the idea as an independent study under Harvard entrepreneurship guru Tom Eisenmann for Harvard’s 2009 Business Plan Contest. But they were missing something big–really big. A logo.
Prince contacted graphic artist Lindon Leader, who designed FedEx’s iconic logo for tens of millions of dollars. Would he create something they could afford on their $1,000 budget? Leader offered them a steal of a deal–$750 for a custom design. “Could you do that if you weren’t a student? Maybe, but probably not,” Prince says. CloudFlare won the HBS competition and still uses the same sunburst logo four years later.
Prince credits his MBA experience for key points in CloudFlare’s success–like bringing him and Zatlyn together. “I spent quite a bit of time in our second year trying to convince her that we should start a company together,” he says. “She’s the next Sheryl Sandberg.” Zatlyn, a former Google employee, has launched two successful startups and turned down top jobs at LinkedIn and lululemon to pursue the CloudFlare opportunity. Prince, who has a JD from the University of Chicago, is no slouch either, and wrote his first computer program when he was 7.
Despite their clutch of experience and first-place finish in the HBS contest, CloudFlare’s success wasn’t certain. “It wasn’t obvious that this was going to work,” Prince says. “I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay my rent the next month if we hadn’t raised funding.” They still referred to it as a school project until November 2009, when they raised more than $2 million in Series A funding. “At that point it was real–now we’re taking somebody else’s capital,” Prince says. “It’s not just our own time.”
Another $20 million rolled in with their Series B, and the CloudFlare founders discovered they were officially a big deal. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the startup the Most Innovative Technology Company of 2011, and they were flown to the World Economic Forum in Davos as one of the 25 Technology Pioneers in 2012. “Business school seems both incredibly far away and incredibly close,” Prince says reflecting on their journey. “I think we’ve both changed a ton…There’s sort of a humbling nature of building something like this, where at the end of the day, you can see that it’s a handful of people that make some smart and some lucky decisions along the way.”