Welcome to Cloudflare Impact Week

If I'm completely honest, Cloudflare didn't start out as a mission-driven company. When Lee, Michelle, and I first started thinking about starting a company in 2009 we saw an opportunity as the world was shifting from on-premise hardware and software to services in the cloud. It seemed inevitable to us that the same shift would come to security, performance, and reliability services. And, getting ahead of that trend, we could build a great business.

Matthew Prince, Michelle Zatlyn, and Lee Holloway, Cloudflare’s cofounders, in 2009.
Matthew Prince, Michelle Zatlyn, and Lee Holloway, Cloudflare’s cofounders, in 2009.

One problem we had was that we knew in order to have a great business we needed to win large organizations with big IT budgets as customers. And, in order to do that, we needed to have the data to build a service that would keep them safe. But we only could get data on security threats once we had customers. So we had a chicken and egg problem.

Our solution was to provide a basic version of Cloudflare's services for free. We reasoned that individual developers and small businesses would sign up for the free service. We'd learn a lot about security threats and performance and reliability opportunities based on their traffic data. And, from that, we would build a service we could sell to large businesses.

And, generally, Cloudflare's business model made sense. We found that, for the most part, small companies got a low volume of cyber attacks, and so we could charge them a relatively small amount. Large businesses faced more attacks, so we could charge them more.

But what surprised us, and we only discovered because we were providing a free version of our service, was that there was a certain set of small organizations with very limited resources that received very large attacks. Servicing them was what made Cloudflare the mission-driven company we are today.

The Committee to Protect Journalists

If you ever want to be depressed, sign up for the newsletter of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). They're the organization that, when a journalist is kidnapped or killed anywhere in the world, negotiates their release or, far too often, recovers their body.

I'd met the director of the organization at an event in early 2012. Not long after, he called me and asked if I wanted to meet three Cloudflare customers who were in town. I didn't, I have to confess, but Michelle pushed me to take the meeting.

On a rainy San Francisco afternoon the director of CPJ brought three African journalists to our office. All three of them hugged me. One was from Ethiopia, another was from Angola, and the third they wouldn't tell us his name or where he was from because he was “currently being hunted by death squads.”

For the next 90 minutes, I listened to stories of how the journalists were covering corruption in their home countries, how their work put them constantly in harm's way, how powerful forces worked to silence them, how cyberattacks had been a constant struggle, and how, today, they depended on Cloudflare's free service to keep their work online. That last bit hit me like a ton of bricks.

After our meeting finished, and we saw the journalists out, with Cloudflare T-shirts and other swag in hand, I turned to Michelle and said, “Whoa. What have we gotten ourselves into?”

Becoming Mission Driven

I've thought about that meeting often since. It was the moment I realized that Cloudflare had a mission beyond just being a good business. The Internet was a critically important resource for those three journalists and many others like them. At the same time, forces that sought to limit their work would use cyberattacks to shut them down. While we hadn't set out to ensure everyone had world-class cybersecurity, regardless of their ability to pay, now it seemed critically important.

With that realization, Cloudflare's mission came naturally: we aim to help build a better Internet. One where you don't need to be a giant company to be fast and reliable. And where even a journalist, working on their own against daunting odds, can be secure online.

This is why we’ve prioritized projects that give back to the Internet. We launched Project Galileo, which provides our enterprise-grade services to organizations performing politically or artistically important work. We launched the Athenian Project to help protect elections against cyber attacks. We launched Project Fair Shot to make sure the organizations distributing the COVID-19 vaccine had the technical resources they needed to do so equitably.

And, even on the technical side, we work hard to make the Internet better even when there’s no clear economic benefit to us, or even when it’s against our economic benefit. We don’t monetize user data because it seems clear to us that a better Internet is a more private Internet. We enabled encryption for everyone even though, when we did it, it was the biggest differentiator between our free and paid plans and the number one reason people upgraded. But clearly a better Internet was an encrypted Internet, and it seemed silly that someone should have to pay extra for a little bit of math.

Our First Impact Week

This week we kick off Cloudflare's first Impact Week. We originally conceived the idea of the week as a way to highlight some of the things we were doing as a company around our environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. But, as is the nature of innovation weeks at Cloudflare, as soon as we announced it internally our team started proposing new products and features to take some of our existing initiatives even further.

So, over the course of the week, in addition to talking about how we've built our network to consume less power we'll also be demonstrating how we're increasingly using hyper power-efficient Arm-based servers to achieve even higher levels of efficiency in order to lessen the environmental impact of running the Internet. We'll launch a new Workers option for developers who want to be more environmentally conscious. And we'll announce an initiative in partnership with other leading Internet companies that we hope, if broadly adopted, could cut down as much as 25% of global web traffic and the corresponding energy wasted to serve it.

We'll also focus on how we can bring the Internet to more people. While broadband has been a revolution where it's available, rural and underserved-urban communities around the world still suffer from slow Internet speeds and limited ISP choice. We can't completely solve that problem (yet) but we'll be announcing an initiative that will help with some critical aspects.

Finally, as Cloudflare becomes a larger part of the Internet, we'll be announcing programs both to monitor the network's health, affirm our commitments to human rights, and extend our protections of critical societal functions like protecting elections.

When I first was trying to convince Michelle that we should start a business together, I pitched her a bunch of ideas. Most of them involved finding a clever way to extract rents from some group or another, often for not much benefit to society at large. Sitting in an Ethiopian restaurant in Central Square, I remember so clearly her saying to me, “Matthew, those are all great business ideas. But they're not for me. I want to do something where I can be proud of the work we're doing and the positive impact we've made.”

That sentence made me go back to the drawing board. The next business idea I pitched to her turned out to be Cloudflare. Today, Cloudflare's mission remains helping build a better Internet. And, as we kick off Impact Week, we are proud to continue to live that mission in everything we do.