BlueOcean & Cloudflare: Defying Expectations, Radical Prioritization and “Scaling” Culture
In this episode, BlueOcean Co-Founder Liza Nebel speaks with host Kate Barrett about her journey from the advertising world to starting a brand intelligence company, building a strong foundation to drive rapid growth, and the importance of aligning a team around shared goals. Throughout the conversation, Cloudflare Co-Founder Michelle Zatlyn and NEA’s Scott Sandell reflect on their decade-long journey working together, sharing insights and advice about what it takes to build one of the world's most impactful technology companies. Tune in to find out what inspired Liza and Michelle to become founders, the important lessons they have learned along the way, and their perspectives on often being the only woman in the room.
"This idea that the opportunity expanded over time, not narrowed, is something that I wish more entrepreneurs and founders would keep at the forefront, because it's really powerful if you can get that working."
TOPICS WE EXPLORE
- Audacious goals (and how to accomplish them)
- Safeguarding culture as your company grows
- How to choose the right investors for your business
- What it's really like to be a female founder in tech
On this Episode
Liza Nebel is the CEO and Co-Founder of BlueOcean, an always-on brand decision intelligence platform that delivers real-time, actionable insights. In this episode, Liza chats with host Kate Barrett about her journey from the advertising world to building an AI-powered platform to power brand decisions, the mechanics of growing a great business, achieving team alignment, attracting talent, and more.
Managing General Partner, NEA
Michelle Zatlyn is the Co-Founder, President, and COO of Cloudflare, a web performance and security company designed to make everything you connect to the Internet secure, private, fast, and reliable. On this episode, Michelle chats with Cloudflare board member, Scott Sandell, about what it takes to build an impactful company, the importance of expanding opportunities, and her experience as a female founder in the technology infrastructure space.
Kate Barrett (00:06):
This is Founder Forward, the podcast from NEA where we explore the company-building journey with candid commentary from founders and investors, some legendary, some just getting started, all moving forward. I'm Kate Barrett. On this episode of Founder Forward, I talk to Liza Nebel, Co-Founder of BlueOcean, an always-on brand intelligence platform. We discuss the mechanics of growing a great business, especially as the only female founder at the table.
Liza Nebel (00:41):
My name's Liza Nebel. I'm one of the Co-Founders of BlueOcean. We've been around for just a little over three years, and it's been an adventure.
Kate Barrett (00:49):
On every episode of Founder Forward, we like to fast-forward to get some insights from a founder and investor who have walked this road together before. Today we're hearing from Michelle Zatlyn, one of the founders of Cloudflare, and NEA Managing General Partner Scott Sandell. Michelle and Scott shared their decade-long journey as Cloudflare became one of the world's most impactful technology companies, and they talked about how Michelle navigated that growth as a female founder.
Scott Sandell (01:13):
My name is Scott Sandell, and I'm the managing partner of NEA. I've been at NEA since I started as an associate 27 years ago.
Michelle Zatlyn (01:23):
I'm Michelle Zatlyn. I'm the Co-Founder, President, and Chief Operating Officer of a company called Cloudflare. NEA was one of our investors who led our round back in 2010 for our series B.
Kate Barrett (01:33):
If you're building any kind of business, you will love how specific these founders get about the methodologies and processes that they develop to drive growth. Let's dive in.
Liza, let's get started with just a little bit about BlueOcean and why you started the company. What's the problem that you set out to solve?
Liza Nebel (01:59):
My first job out of college was working at Ogilvy in New York. I ended up in advertising intentionally after going down a route of thinking I was going to go into finance. I went to Georgetown, a lot of people study finance and go into investment banking. I got into some of that education and realized the creativity was lost from it. So, I ended up in advertising at Ogilvy, which was an amazing experience.
Something that I did there with massive brands like American Express and Time Warner and IBM was longitudinal, qualitative and quantitative research to understand, how should these brands operate? How should they act? How should they position themselves? These are big decisions that drive a market of global advertising that's $2.7 trillion. One of the most amazing quotes about advertising is, "I know basically half my advertising spend is wasted; I just don't know which half." We're solving the problem of that half wasted over a trillion dollars of spend. What does it actually do for brands? How is it actually directly correlated to performance?
A lot of people talk about bottom of funnel and demand gen, and over the last 15 and 20 years there's been incredible tech that's been created to solve bottom of funnel, but nobody's ever focused at the top of funnel, where the way you get to, what do I do next, how do you define a strategy, how do you find white space, is typically a multi-month if not longer process, up to a year of research, codifying it, coming together, putting it on paper, ideally figuring out how you actually action it, and then spending millions of dollars in media and hoping to God that your idea worked. That's just not a great process for how anybody should ever operate, and in today's digital world, we just can't move at that pace either.
I'll fast-forward a number of years and we can go back to some of my history, but I was fortunate enough to meet Grant McDougall, my Co-Founder, and our Chief Data Scientist, Matt Gross, and CTO Mike Semick along the way. We actually piloted the concept of this on some of the brands that we were servicing at an agency I started before this company, and it just made so much sense; it actually allowed us to get to the best ideas faster. For us, the whole idea was, "Let's use the technology, the tools of modern world, but apply it to problems that haven't been touched whatsoever with any technology, of really finding white space and driving action."
Kate Barrett (04:20):
Has that been something as you were starting the company and you would say, "Hey, we found a way to do this," did people look at you like you were crazy?
Liza Nebel (04:28):
Kate Barrett (04:29):
Or did they think, "Oh, wow, I get that. Let's run."
Liza Nebel (04:33):
We had two and a third type of reaction. Two core reactions: "That's impossible. You will not do that. You cannot create brand attribution." And I'm not saying we've even gotten there yet, but we're certainly on the journey to get there. "You basically are going to try to take all of our jobs away." So, two reactions, and what I responded to the first group was, "Well, just watch me," and what I responded to the second group was, "We're not about taking jobs away. Our vision at BlueOcean is about unlocking human creativity." Traditional researchers, brand strategists, planners, in a more old-world typical agency setting, you call them brand planners, we're about actually allowing people to be better at what they do. We think humans are innately creative. Machines aren't creative, but they certainly illuminate the opportunities you should be most focused on.
So, when we set out to do it, we brought along in the early journey believers, people that actually recognize the need for technology in this space and can see that it actually makes them better. One of my favorite quotes actually of one of our customers was, "You make me excited to do my job again." There's nothing more meaningful and powerful than when somebody tells you that you give them joy doing their job again. And for those that said we couldn't do it, I heard it a hundred times, we're doing it.
Kate Barrett (05:53):
"Just watch me," she says. It's funny; a lot of the AI companies that NEA has invested in, I've talked with founders and heard them say really similar things, that in one breath it's like, "Gosh, this is going to change everything, but what about all the jobs it's going to take away?" The answer is often something very similar to what you're saying, that it's actually creating opportunity and it's allowing people to do their jobs better. I think that's so profound when you can actually convey that to people in a way that they get.
I want to share an excerpt with you from a conversation that Michelle Zatlyn and Scott Sandell had about some of Cloudflare's earlier experiences trying to communicate the value proposition of what they were doing and people going, "What? Really? You think you can do that?"
Scott Sandell (06:41):
This really started for me in a funny way, which is that Ray Rothrock, who was an A series A investor in Cloudflare, walked into our office in Menlo Park on his way to a board meeting for another company called Tri Alpha Energy, which he had introduced to us some years before that. I was walking down the stairs, so I bumped into Ray. We have a nice relationship, and we greeted each other. He said, "By the way, Scott," he asked me specifically, "Do you have room for another board seat?" I said, "Well, I always have room for something great, Ray." And he said, "Okay, because I have this company, Cloudflare, which is really just starting to take off and they're getting a lot of investor interest, but you'd have to move really fast." I said, "Great. Give me the founder's cell phone number."
Obviously, I started calling. It turned out it was Matthew who I called first, and I kept calling Matthew, and his voicemail was full for about a day and a half. I think I bumped into Ray on Tuesday morning; I actually got through to Matthew on Wednesday afternoon, and we figured out that Friday morning we could meet for breakfast. That's when you and I met. Within about 20 minutes, I decided we just have to make an investment in Cloudflare somehow. But the funny thing was that probably only three or four people in the room really understood what Cloudflare was doing.
Michelle Zatlyn (08:13):
When we were describing how we want to build a global network, we want to make the internet faster, safer, more reliable for small businesses and large businesses and developers and governments and nonprofits, we had a lot of people who said, "That's crazy, that'll never work." We would get back up and keep riffing, but then we would meet people like you, Scott, who said, "Wow, that's amazing. Tell me more. Tell me more about how you're doing this." I really give you a lot of credit for being curious and asking questions and saying, "Tell me more," because again, I've had a lot of investor conversations over my career, and they don't always go that way.
Kate Barrett (08:51):
It sounds fairly similar in some ways to what you experienced.
Liza Nebel (08:55):
Exactly the same, and if not to the point, what was really meaningful for me along the journey was when we walked into a room, and we've met advisors and earlier-stage investors and later-stage investors, they actually could articulate our company and the potential before we even had to tell them what we do. They knew the space and category and the challenge, because the challenge that we're solving, most venture investors don't know anything about it. It's a really nuanced category in a sense. You have to believe brand and love brand to know the power of brand. There's a ton of studies and work out there that articulate that brand is directly correlated to overall shareholder value, yet you still have to constantly justify it. So, when we find that person that believes and understands it, can actually talk about our value proposition in equal footing as to us, it's really powerful.
Kate Barrett (09:48):
How do you find those people, and how do you know when that connection is right? You guys have raised $50 million over three rounds, I think.
Liza Nebel (09:55):
Certainly, along the journey it's a needle in a haystack to find the right fit. It really is. It's a relationship as much as it is a transfer of capital. That's what we exchange, but actually the way you end up working together with your investors... And I would even say some of our earliest investors have been extremely powerful in helping us to basically craft the journey and ensure we're taking the right steps. They've been in our shoes before. You just have to meet people and talk to them, and you have to have a connection and a spark.
I think it really is just like dating a little bit. You need to get out there and meet people, share your story, allow your network to work for you, I think is really important, because when people understand what you're trying to achieve, they've maybe had a similar conversation with somebody, and they're saying, "Hey, why don't you grab coffee," and you might unlock something or maybe you'll just meet the next great person that might be a good friend. I think it just takes a lot of meetings and a lot of feeling out of what you need, not just from a dollars standpoint, but what you're also going to need from a relationship and a support standpoint.
Kate Barrett (10:59):
It sounds like you have captured a really good way to interact with the investors, and that it's not just a board presentation or it's not just the formal communications, but the value that they can bring it sounds like is more in those interstitial moments, where it's, "I'm texting this person because I'm not really sure what to do next," or, "I could really use the expertise that they may have in this area." Has that been something... I'd love to hear a little bit about the company-building journey so far, and some of the really important inflection points or things that have been really great or really difficult, and were you able to be really candid with investors and have that relationship that you could just put it all out there?
Liza Nebel (11:41):
Such a good question. July 2019 we came together as a small group, and did a seed fundraise over a number of months that raised about $5 million. That was just when we were getting off the ground and really starting to productionalize what is our core product brand navigator for our customers. At that point in time, we had a smaller group of investors and first-name basis. I've had dinner. I know their kids in many cases, and I could call them at any time.
Kate Barrett (12:09):
There's just no substitute for the close and personal bonds that develop between investors and founders. I think if you listen to the conversation between Scott and Michelle, you can hear the genuine passion they have for the work that they've done together even 12 years after the company was founded.
Scott Sandell (12:30):
That's one of the things I most love about my job is I get to ask the questions and learn from the smartest people in the world, many of whom are entrepreneurs, what's coming around the corner and how it works and why it matters. It was just so clear to me that the ability to protect websites was going to be vital in an increasingly insecure internet. So, it was just obvious to me that this was a really great approach to protecting websites, and that once you're protecting a website, you're in a pretty strategic position, if you will, to start adding incremental features that would naturally flow to the owner of the website. That of course has been the product story ever since.
Michelle Zatlyn (13:14):
Well, I think that's a really good point to bring up what you're mentioning, because again, this is something that doesn't always get spoken about, especially for the founders listening, where what's been interesting, and it was actually you and Ray, I remember one of our board meetings a couple years later said this, and it really resonated. Again, it was one of those moments that resonated for me, where we were making good traction and we were launching new products that ran on top of this network platform that we were building. I remember at one of the board meetings you and Ray had the following conversation: "Hey, normally I make an investment, the opportunity narrows over time. But my best investments are always ones where the opportunity expands."
Fast-forward to today, we have over 25 products that we run on this global network, so many more than the original three that we had. We have more than 25. 80% of our customers use four or more of our products, which is a big number, which is great. It's just one of these things where on a daily basis we stop about 75 billion cyberattacks, with a"B," "billion" with a "B," on a daily basis on the same network. It's pretty cool that you're like, "Wow, we're making the internet safer, we're making it faster, we're making it reliable, and we have all these customers taking advantage of it." But it was this idea that the opportunity expanded over time, not narrowed, is something that I wish more entrepreneurs and founders would keep at the forefront, because it's really powerful if you can get that working.
Scott Sandell (14:33):
Well, there's no doubt about that, Michelle. But I think one of the other things that I remember early on that made a big difference is that you guys were on a mission. This wasn't about, "Hey, we have a big market opportunity; we could turn it into a valuable company." You started the company because you wanted to make the internet better. At the time, it seemed like a pretty audacious goal, honestly, but it also seemed plausible. I think maybe this month or next month we're going to cross the 20% threshold, where 20% of all global internet traffic on a daily basis goes through the Cloudflare network. Am I remembering that correctly?
Michelle Zatlyn (15:12):
Yes, 20% of the web. You're remembering it exactly correctly, and it's a huge privilege to help all of our customers be faster, safer, more reliable online, and it's also a big responsibility. But you're right, this mission to help build a better internet has been part of Matthew and Lee and I when we started Cloudflare, it's a big part of why we got up to solve this problem every day. If you look today why people come work at Cloudflare, why they stay at Cloudflare, it's because they're really proud of this mission.
Kate Barrett (15:44):
Backing companies on a mission is really at the heart of what we do at NEA, and it's easy to see why people gravitate to Cloudflare and the culture that they've created there. Liza, I'd love to hear a little bit about how you see culture and mission driving BlueOcean's success.
Liza Nebel (16:01):
I love that. I mentioned this at the beginning, our vision for unlocking human creativity. That's still what we're on. That is a journey, and when we think about it, we're not just trying to unlock the brand people, it's all of the people that have the ability to influence the growth of a company and how a company operates, and giving them information to allow them to do their job better. That's a long journey. We're just at the beginning, and we do see the impact we make, but I will say some of the journeys are going faster than you could ever imagine. It's unbelievable. We'll continue to see that, but I know that we're definitely just scratching the surface of the value we can create.
Kate Barrett (16:40):
But even scratching the surface, it's a ton, and you're growing fast and there's a lot to keep up with. How does that work for the founders and the broader team? If you're expanding rapidly and raising more funds and adding new products or expanding products, how do you prioritize and how do you grow with your company as a founder?
Liza Nebel (16:59):
You have to think of the difference between a vision and a product roadmap. I think for us, we are hyper-focused right now on the discipline of executing quarter over quarter our product roadmap, really getting it defined and tight. I was talking with a gentleman I work with named Nick, and the virtuous cycle I think. Employees come to join BlueOcean because they want to unlock human creativity. They see the vision, they love it. It's actually a really fun category to work in. It's always interesting and unique. Imagine if you're a customer success person and you get to talk to 15 different brands. Typically, our buyer is at the C-suite, which is pretty atypical for software. So, they get to interface with really senior executives. They're in the middle of these conversations hearing strategy. It's a pretty awesome moment.
But for us, I think let's have the vision, but we're finding getting discipline into our company of executing on the roadmap and that virtuous cycle of having our customers and our employees see, "I put this out there, I'm trying hard, I need this, and I'm getting it back out of the product," that's for us, it might feel incremental, but it's actually really validating to keep people on the journey with us; for them to see it unfold in real-time and to feel good about showing up to work every day or using this product, they know that they're getting it.
But also, we need to have the mid-level plan and the long-term vision. What are those big rock moments that are creative and generally driving towards our north star, which as the world unfolds, we have had a lot of tailwinds for our company with COVID. The continual rotation into privacy is a massive tailwind for our company, because we don't have any requirements for first-party data and we don't have any requirements for identifying individuals. It really sets us apart; that'll continue to help us grow. Imagine when Google ultimately does remove the cookie: we're about to go backwards 50 years in marketing. So, we've got a lot of tailwinds that keep us going.
How do we balance the incremental execution of the quarter over quarter with the long-term vision, and keeping the thread, the red thread between those, is sometimes what we talk about. I think making sure everybody has clarity of that is just important, and that they see the end goal.
Kate Barrett (19:09):
When you're charting a path for a company's growth, there are so many opportunities and directions. It can be overwhelming. How do you choose what to pursue and what to prioritize? Scott actually put this question to Michelle, asking how she thought about this in Cloudflare's early days.
Scott Sandell (19:28):
Well, Michelle, one thing I'm curious about is just, as you were going along on this journey, you had this passion emerge for building a better internet. But how did you prioritize the order in which you did things at the company?
Michelle Zatlyn (19:43):
Early on, I remember we used to say a lot internally "ruthless prioritization," because there's so much to do. You're building a company, you have to build everything. There's always way more things to do than people to do or time to do. First of all, acknowledging that as an early-stage founder, that's just how it is. That's actually a sign of success, that you have more to do than time and people to do it.
I think every business is slightly different, but what we did at Cloudflare that was actually really powerful, and we did it for a long time, is early on as a team, as one company, all of us, and we started this when we had eight people, we said, "What are we doing for the next three weeks?" And there was a board with everybody's name and what are they going to do, and today that would be all virtual, but back then we did it on sticky notes and a physical presence, because we all sat in the same room. It was, "What do we have to get done this week?" by person, and on Fridays we'd get together and sit around and each person would stand up and say... Chris would stand up and say, "I was supposed to do these five things this week, and I got these four done and I'm blocked on this one, and this is what I'm going to do next week." And at the end of the three weeks we tried to clear everything off the board, and then we re-said, "Okay, what's the most important for the next three weeks?"
It was really this fast cadence of what do we have to get done as a team, and it wasn't the engineers doing it and the go-to-market team doing it separately. It was all together, one company, by person, and it was interesting, because as we grew to 30 people there was interdependencies, and we found people saying, "I need you to do this. Do you have that on your list? Okay." We built this muscle in from really early on.
So, fast-forward beyond 30 people. This idea of what are we doing these three weeks, these six weeks, this quarter, the time frame continued to change. What is the most important thing? We always made time to get together and have a conversation about it at the top of the planning process. We'd write it down, and then we'd measure ourselves against it. There was a point when we had about 800 people in the company, a thousand people, and we were hiring all these senior executives and everyone said, "What's the priorities? How are you making decisions?" And I said, "I actually have a spreadsheet with the top 200 most-important projects that we are working on right now, with the owner, who owns it, who's working on it, and whether the project is green, yellow, or red." We used to pull it up in interviews and showing people, "This is what we're doing and this is what's important, by team." Why; we had it tied back to some overarching company goals.
We did that for a long time, up to over 2000 people, and that muscle of asking yourself, not just Michelle asked what's the most important thing for the company, but how do we get all the people across Cloudflare thinking, "If we're caring about product innovation, if we're caring about customer acquisition, if we're caring about better systems and efficiency, what are the most important projects that me and my team have to work on this quarter to help drive these priorities?" But we got really good at that, and I think it was one of the reasons why we were able to execute and make a lot of progress. At the end of the day, the reason why prioritization matters is because you've got to execute and you've got to make progress. You've got to build the product, you've got to help your customers, you have to grow the business, and that works if you're executing across the whole company.
Kate Barrett (22:55):
Liza, I'm curious if you've had a similar mindset about progress and prioritization at BlueOcean. Are there ways that your experience mirrors Michelle's?
Liza Nebel (23:04):
We've really had to flex a new muscle to get our PMO stood up, and it's exactly what she's describing. It's some real moments of honesty. It is ruthless prioritization. I think we are at the beginning of really fine-tuning our process, but we just spent the last four or five months really putting in the technology and tools layer to allow our teams to operate that way. I actually feel really confident. Maybe it's early days for us to do that, but I currently right now do have visibility into almost every track of work, if I wanted to, down to the details of the documentation and PRD on anything.
It's taken a little bit, it's a little bit of the concept of go slow to go fast; it's slowed us down, and everybody's like, "Oh, no, we don't have time for documentation. We don't have time for that." Well, we do have time for it, and it's actually becoming a massive unlock for us. I can't wait to share that with the team. I think it'll just really validate some of the work that's been blood, sweat, and tears, that we're just beginning to realize the value on it. It also makes you feel extremely relieved that we're on the right track. That isn't necessarily a pain point that just we've felt in the early days.
Kate Barrett (24:12):
Well, that is awesome to hear. I think it is a universal pain point, but maybe not as universal in terms of how people deal with it and how they react to it. It sounds like certainly with regard to documenting and tracking, you've put a lot of things in place. What about hiring?
Liza Nebel (24:29):
I think because I can't be in every room, nor can Grant, we have to hire people that have similar values to us. We live our values pretty closely in they're referenced all the time in our meetings, whether it's "hide nothing" or "care" or, one of the favorites because it's a fun one is called "get comfortable with being uncomfortable." We talk about them, we praise them, we actually have a connection point into Slack that you can just give somebody kudos for living one of our values.
We've hired pretty close to our values I would argue every time. I usually am the last interview when I'm interviewing people now, and they always say, one, "You've hired the nicest, most capable and competent team, and I would love to work with these people." Two has been eye-opening for me. I didn't realize this was such a thing. Candidates would get to the end of the journey and say, "All of your team is saying the same thing." That's a new experience for me.
Kate Barrett (25:24):
Spoken like a brand genius right there.
Liza Nebel (25:26):
And that was a crazy unlock for me, that I think when we hire people for our values and they truly embody them, that's who they are. I know that they can spread that same type of value in a meeting I'm in with a customer, or even just out in their representation of our company. I feel really good about that. I think if we keep doing that... I was on an interview today and he was talking to me, he's really looking for a solid culture, and I was like, "I think we have that in spades, because we're so focused on making sure we can find people that are going to thrive in our organization."
Thriving in our organization does not mean you are the same at all. In fact, one of our core values is "embrace difference." I want healthy debate, I want conflict in a sense. I think friction is required to move forward, and that's okay; doing it together and allowing it to be a value and not a bad thing I think has been incredibly powerful. So, hiring for values, hiring for of course capability and competency, but knowing people can live those values when I'm not in the room is really important.
Kate Barrett (26:29):
I'm curious if you think the presence of female founder DNA has had a role in the way the company has shaped and the way it's grown, or would it have been the same if it was three male founders or two female founders? Do you feel like that has been part of the dynamics in terms of how you guys have been building the company?
Liza Nebel (26:48):
I certainly know, because I've been told, that it has been a major benefit for me to be able to attract great women talent: women that would go to an Amazon or a Nike or somewhere else, but they chose to come here. That inherently is certainly something that can't be taken from me, which is amazing. It's one of those things, it's never been a man versus woman for me. I've never felt, "Well, that's a man, that's a woman.' Have I certainly experienced that in professional moments? Absolutely. Talk about being a woman in tech in early fundraising days, I was always the admin on the email. "So, Liza, does the meeting work for Grant at 9:00 PM on Friday?"
Kate Barrett (27:30):
You're relegated to the role of scheduler. That's nice.
Liza Nebel (27:33):
Usually, typically you do your research when you're deal-hunting. If you Google me, not to say I have a Wikipedia page, but you're going to see I'm a co-founder. I'm not the admin. But you know what?
Kate Barrett (27:43):
Doesn't that tell you a lot about who you're having a conversation with?
Liza Nebel (27:46):
Exactly. It helped me certainly shortlist who I want to work with and who I don't.
So, being a woman founder, has it shaped our company? Absolutely, because it's allowed us to get talent that normally we wouldn't have been able to get. For instance, one of our regions we're hiring into is Salt Lake, and we have hired the most amazing crew there, really diverse, from gender, ethnicity, neurodiversity. We really embrace difference, as I said. And all of them say the same thing of like, "Oh my god, you're a woman and a founder?" Not in Salt Lake. BlueOcean is such a different company there, which has been really surprising, just because I'm in the San Francisco... It's not surprising. I'm in the San Francisco bubble though, and things are different in San Francisco, but when you get outside and realize at scale and typical patterns, it isn't typical that I'm been able to live this life and be in these shoes and be able to fundraise. I think it's a benefit, and I think it's shaped just being able to have some amazing talent come to the table that normally might have taken a job somewhere else.
Scott Sandell (28:52):
One of the things that is of course obvious, but we haven't really talked about it before: How is that experience different for a woman than it might be for a man, and what advice would you give to female entrepreneurs?
Michelle Zatlyn (29:04):
There are so many more men than women in technology, but there are so many amazing women, let me just start, one, and I'm very optimistic for the future. I'll start with that. I feel really proud that I've been able to build Cloudflare and run Cloudflare and help build this great company; the headline. I am very lucky. Matthew and Lee always treated me like Michelle. They just treated me like an equal. It was great. My board members, I had great people like you, Scott, on the board, and Carl and Ray, where it just was never an issue. We were talking about the business and the successes of the business, and I never got treated differently because I was a woman. If anything, it was like, "Love having you here." And it was just very fair, which felt good.
Then over time at Cloudflare, if I look, we have so many great women at Cloudflare, and a lot of people, they come, they do great work. Over 30% of our team are women, and I'm really proud of that. I want more women to join our company, I want more women to join the industry, because the industry is not going away. Technology's only becoming more important, not less important. We need women to be in the decision-making seats, participate in the problem-solving, participate in the economic upside. It's really important. Those are all those sorts of things.
I will say, while my experience has been incredibly positive, it doesn't mean it's all perfect. Early on when we were raising money, and this is definitely not NEA, but it was another really famous firm who wanted to invest in us. We're an infrastructure company, we build infrastructure for the internet, and they went to Matthew and said, "Hey, we really like what you're doing, but Michelle and women don't really belong in infrastructure companies. That's not normal. We'll do it, but is there a way to get Michelle off the team?" That's a really terrible thing to have to hear as an early-stage founder, and honestly, I couldn't believe it. Something like that had never happened to me in my life. In what is probably the best response ever, Matthew said, "Screw that guy. We'll raise money from someone else."
That became a little bit of a chip on my shoulder a little bit, that story of, okay, for the investors who did bet on us, I want to make sure it's a really good return for them, and just almost to prove that person wrong. And we did. We did drive really good returns for our shareholders, and I'm really proud of that, because again, it was the people who didn't believe in all of us, including me.
But it was one of those things where there's also times as a woman leader in technology that, I saw a quote once from Justice Ginsburg; she's now passed away, the Supreme Court justice. Someone said, "How are you so successful as a woman Justice?" And she said, "You have to be a duck. I've had to be a duck many times in my career. Ducks let water roll off their back. That's how they float and stay buoyant." And I do think there's part of, sometimes you've got to be a duck and just let things roll off your back and pick your battles.
Kate Barrett (31:44):
It is a useful skill to develop thick skin and let things roll off our back. But I think it's just as important to call out and critique the bias that exists in this and in any field. Liza, I was actually really shocked at the anecdote you shared earlier about somebody thinking you were the scheduler. But when I heard Michelle say that too, it was just like, "The audacity."
Liza Nebel (32:12):
Well, you know, go back and you look at these great reports that companies put out, and they say percentage of women-founded companies that get investment, percentage of minority women in companies that get investment. Grant and I in our early days were looking at that, and I remember being like, "Sorry, I'm a check-minus in the box. I'm bringing our percentage of fundraise down." We did joke about that. When you look at it and there's percentages and reports put out in research that that's not where the money goes, I read it and was like, "I'm a little disheartened by that," but then I just stopped caring. You can't care about that stuff.
What is it about being a woman founder that makes me uniquely capable of building a business? To me, it originally made me think about stylistically what sets that apart. I don't know if it's about being a woman or not, but sometimes I do think there's a lot of men that have to be the smartest guy in the room. I don't have to be that, and I never have been. In fact, I love to learn from the smartest guy in the room. That's who I want talking. But I don't need the ego, I don't need the validation. Not to say that I'm overly emotional, but I'm totally fine with emotion as well. Some people are emotional, some people are not, and to allow people to... Particularly when you're early-stage, it is passion, and all the feels.
Kate Barrett (33:33):
If you're not emotional, you're doing it wrong.
Liza Nebel (33:35):
Yeah, if you're not emotional, you're doing... That's great. I'm stealing that quote.
Kate Barrett (33:39):
Liza Nebel (33:41):
I actually love that. To me, that's probably what stood out the most, is something that I'm going to share with the team and I'm going to remind myself of often.
Kate Barrett (33:56):
It's always inspiring to hear a founder talk about how they got where they are and what they've accomplished. It's inspiring and instructive to hear a founder really dig into how they did it and the approach they took, the methodology they used, the things they prioritized. I think getting to that level of detail about the company-building journey really offers a lot to any founder that they can take away and apply in their own journey.
Founder Forward is a production from NEA, made in partnership with FRQNCY Media. From NEA, I'm your host and executive producer Kate Barrett, with support from Ashley Mitchell, Erica Sunkin, and Shanna Hendriks. From FRQNCY Media, Michelle Khouri is our executive producer. Enna Garkusha is our supervising producer. Jordan Rizzieri is our producer, and Catherine Devine and Emily Krumberger are our associate producers. Our mixer and sound designer is Claire Bidigare-Curtis, with dialogue editing by Sidney Evans. For more on NEA, visit nea.com. You can subscribe to Founder Forward on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your favorite podcasts.
The information provided in this podcast is for educational and illustrative purposes only and is not intended to be an offer of securities, investments, investment advice or recommendations. New Enterprise Associates (NEA) is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission. However, nothing in this communication should be interpreted to suggest that the SEC has endorsed or approved the contents of the podcast. Any offering of securities by NEA is restricted to qualified investors and is made pursuant to offering documents that contain important disclosures concerning risk, fees, conflicts, and other important information. The company founders or other executives featured in the podcast are not compensated, directly or indirectly, by NEA but may be founders or executives of portfolio companies NEA has invested in through funds managed by NEA and its affiliates. The host of the podcast is an employee of NEA and is compensated in her role as a NEA employee. NEA has paid to optimize the placement of this podcast on certain online search platforms.
NEA makes no assurance that investment results obtained historically can be obtained in the future, or that any investments managed by NEA will be profitable. The statements made by the founders, investors and the presenters in the podcast are their own, and are not intended to be an endorsement of the investment advisory services offered by NEA. NEA has no obligation to update, modify, or amend the contents of the podcast nor to notify the listeners in the event that any information, opinion, projection, forecast or estimate included changes or subsequently becomes inaccurate or outdated. To the extent the founders and investors featured in the podcast discuss hypotheticals, projections, or forecasts to illustrate their views, such views are their own and are not verified or adopted by NEA, nor has NEA tested the validity of the assumptions that underlie these opinions. The companies featured in the podcast are not a representative sample of all current or former NEA portfolio companies. Listeners of the information contained in the podcast should consult their own legal, tax, and financial advisers because the contents are not intended by NEA to be used as part of the investment decision making process related to any investment managed by NEA.
About Founder Forward
Founder Forward is a new podcast from NEA that explores the company building journey with candid commentary and useful insights from entrepreneurs and investors at every stage of growth.View All Episodes