Startup success with Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn

Plus, building an inclusive company

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What today’s startup founders can learn from tech leaders

August 24, 2020

Special guest: Michelle Zatlyn (Co-founder and COO of Cloudflare)

Beyond the business bio: Michelle grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Cloudflare in 10 words or fewer: A network that increases the security and performance of websites.

Fast facts about Cloudflare: Founded in 2009. More than 1500 employees. Raised more than $1.3 billion USD.

Michelle and her co-founders arrived in Silicon Valley without money, a track record, or connections. During an online conversation with the TechTO community, Michelle shared her perspectives on finding your first customers, securing capital investment, and deciding when you need to hire someone who knows more than you.

Straight talk from Michelle

“[If you want to go down the capital raising path], then build something big. It turns out that if you’re swinging for the fences, some people think you’re crazy, but other people are attracted to you. They’re like, “Wow! You’re really audacious.” Then they’re trying to discern whether there’s actually a meaningful problem here — that’s big. And whether you’re the right people to solve it.”

“Entrepreneurship is all about being a pufferfish. You’ve got to seem bigger and further along than you are. That’s true when you’re raising money, recruiting, and many other ways.”

“We’re a recurring SaaS business. There are only four metrics that matter — and I don’t know why everyone doesn’t sing them from the rooftops. [1] You’ve got to be able to acquire customers. [2] You’ve got to be able to keep customers. [3] You’ve got to be able to sell more to those current customers. [4] And then the fourth one is gross margin. Can you deliver the service in a profitable way or a high gross margin way?”

How can tech help the world?

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In late May, large crowds of people gathered in cities across the US — and around the world — to protest the unjust killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Abery, Breonna Taylor, and so many more. For many of us, the alarming videos of police militarization have prompted difficult conversations about racism, inequality, and privilege.

A number of major tech companies offered their support: Twitter updated its bio to “BlackLivesMatter” and YouTube committed $1 million to the Center for Policing Equity.

But public gestures do not always reflect lived reality. Consider, for example, this tweet from Erin Thomas (Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at UpWork):

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According to the mythology of the tech industry, founders rejected corporate structures and hired the brightest people — regardless of their academic credentials. Under such conditions, you might expect tech companies to excel in the recruiting of employees from historically marginalized backgrounds.

And yet, many tech companies have been part of the problem, not the solution.

The US census includes a category for people who self-identity as “Black or African American.” This demographic group comprises 13% of the American population, but only 3% of the Silicon Valley workforce.

Beyond the statistics, people of colour regularly struggle with the homogeneity and exclusively of tech companies. Consider this anecdotes from an article in Raconteur:

Paul Clark, principal user experience designer at Dell, says: “When they say ‘culture fit’, for me that means they are looking for a particular person they can personally identify with.”

He recalls a workplace interview when his taste in music was queried: “One guy asked me if I liked Radiohead? Personally I find them to be criminally overrated, so I said no. You could then see the guy’s facial expression that he was no longer interested in me as a candidate. I think cultural fit is code for ‘will you be my bro?’.”

Even apps demonstrate racial bias and perpetuate cultural stereotypes. Pokémon Go’s algorithm (which was based on information crowdsourced from a group of mostly white male professionals) offers typically fewer Pokéstops in non-white neighbourhoods. Computer scientist Joy Buolamwini founded the Algorithmic Justice League to challenge biases in artificial intelligence — an initiative she launched after discovering that facial recognition programs recognized her face more easily when wearing a white mask.

So how can we help create positive change, in both the tech ecosystem and the world?

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of social injustice, consider specific actions that your company could embrace — immediately. As one example, Crescendo is a platform that shares diversity and inclusion resources inside of Slack. Employees receive actionable tips to help them consider the perspectives of their colleagues, customers, and contacts. Crescendo Co-founder and CRO Stefan Kollenberg joins TechTO Together on Monday, June 8 to discuss ways to scale equity and inclusion.

In closing, you’ve probably heard TechTO use the phrase “win together.” In many situations, the phrase refers to financial success, so that companies work in a spirit of supportive collaboration, rather than divisive competition.

But let’s be explicitly clear: we can only win together when our companies celebrate diversity. And not just with token phrases for special events; we need ongoing efforts to respect, value, and welcome everyone.

Good news from Insiders

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We are happy to share some good news from TechTO Insiders and friends:

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