Disclosure: I am not an investor in Cloudflare. I have no ties to the company other than a friendship with the two founders.
Amidst all the WeWork IPO hoopla, Cloudflare’s incredibly successful IPO was lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame because the amazing journey that these two founders have undertaken to build a business now worth $5 billion is worth studying.
As depicted in what has become a classic HBS case written by my colleague Professor Tom Eisenmann, Cloudflare founders Michelle Zatlyn and Matthew Prince met as students at Harvard Business School in 2008 and started the company as they were graduating. The two were a powerful combination: Matthew was a hard-charging, technical visionary while Michelle was a skilled operator with an off-the-charts emotional IQ.
The company’s intense culture resulted in a rocky start. Attrition was high and morale low at the time of the case, despite the company’s early success. What happened next is a great lesson in leadership. The founders doubled down on culture and created a more welcoming, nurturing environment while retaining accountability and ambition. Prince and Zatlyn matured as founders and executives alongside the company’s maturing business model. Importantly, they stayed together as co-founders, even as Zatyln’s role evolved with the company’s meteoric growth and despite her taking time off for maternity leave. This summer, in the midst of the intense IPO process, the NY Times portrayed the company’s decision to ban 8chan in the wake of the El Paso massacre. Read the NY Times interview with Prince and you get a glimpse of a leader that isn’t too proud to admit when he’s wrong and willing to tackle tough decisions with a values-based compass.
Ten years after its founding, Cloudflare is a fast-growing, $300 million revenue company worth $5 billion. The company has quietly become a fundamental part of the Internet’s infrastructure and its leaders have become role models for other entrepreneurs for years to come.