CloudFlare’s Matthew Prince on tracking down the bad guys

The publicity that comes with being a tech entrepreneur can have its downsides

Matthew Prince, founder of CloudFlare, speaking at the Web Summit in Dublin

Matthew Prince, founder of CloudFlare, speaking at the Web Summit in Dublin

 

Setting up a successful technology company is a great feat, but the publicity that comes with being a tech entrepreneur can have its downsides, according to CloudFlare co-founder Matthew Prince.

“Someone spoofed my number and rang the police. They said there was someone in my house with a gun. A Swat team stormed my house in the middle of the night. They looked under every couch and chair and in every closet.”

Prince, who was in Dublin for the Web Summit last week, said he told the armed rescue team that there was no-one in his house with a gun, but for fear he may be being held against his will, they still had to search the entire place.

“It’s something I have in common with Justin Timberlake. The same thing happened to him. I changed my number afterwards and moved. It is very difficult for people to find out where I live now.”

On a mission to build a better internet, Prince started CloudFlare with Michelle Zatlyn and Lee Holloway shortly after finishing his MBA in 2009. The company offers a cloud-based website security solution that will protect any website from spam, hack attempts and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

Prince, a former attorney, had been invited to a conference organised by Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham to speak about the law and spam.

He had spoken about that exact topic at a previous conference, so wanted to find something new to discuss. He set up an open source project “to track the bad guys online” in order to have something new to discuss.

“I’m a former lawyer. I created Project Honeypot to have something to talk about at the conference. It grew and grew from there.”

The project allowed website administrators around the world to install specially constructed spam traps in order to track the robots stealing email addresses from their websites. It had more than 10,000 participants in more than 90 countries on every inhabited continent.

“We knew from that, that people putting content online faced problems.”

From that CloudFlare was born, but it wasn’t his first start-up, Prince says.

Unwanted solicitations

Back in 2001, he co-founded anti-spam start-up Unspam Technologies, so people could stop receiving spam emails and other unwanted electronic solicitations.

He pioneered patented technology that allowed the establishment of no-contact registries that maintain the security and secrecy of the registrants’ email addresses, allowing marketers to protect their proprietary lists, and providing an effective legal tool for parents to protect their children from unwanted messages.

“I made all the possible start-up mistakes with my previous business Unspam Technologies.

“I started it with two close friends. We were too similar and would have epic fights. We raised money from family and friends which was a colossal mistake. We got sued by the pornography industry, as we were essentially blocking their emails. We went through a very nasty lawsuit which we won but took three years to resolve.”

“I didn’t speak to one of the co-founders for two years. I only called him when we wanted to licence technology from Unspam (for CloudFlare) and he was the second largest shareholder. He agreed but said he wanted a shot at investing as he was working in a venture capital (VC) firm at that stage. They did invest. The business is now worth 200 times what they put into it back in the day.”

Prince’s lawyer said he couldn’t work in the company while a lawsuit was pending, advising him to return to college and do an MBA, which he did.

He says the hardest thing for entrepreneurs is justifying what they do to their family.

“I was finishing up business school. The plan was to take over my dad’s chain of restaurants. I really didn’t want to. I created CloudFlare to avoid doing that. I was running away from the family business. It was hard as we knew our business would only work if it got really big.”

He believes a disproportionate number of entrepreneurs are left-handed, atheists, only children, have a learning disability, live more than 2,000 miles away from home, etc.

“It suggests that it’s easier to be an entrepreneur if you’re an outsider. It’s harder to do crazy things when you have a community around you.”

He said a lot of people’s lives are recorded by their credit card, smartphone and sites they interact with, adding that people must decide if it is worth giving over this information.

He believes there is a nihilistic view that the tech industry is out to destroy privacy rights.

“Stewart Baker said (at the Web Summit) the NSA is okay spying on you because you let Facebook spy on you. The thing is you have a choice to let Facebook or Google spy on you.

“You could not use their service. But you do because they offer value and provide you something of value. People can decide if the value the company is giving them is worth giving up some privacy for.”

Government spying Prince says there should be transparency with regard to governments spying. If you are giving up some privacy, you should be told what you are getting.

“The government and the NSA should make clear what benefits the people get for allowing them to do some spying.”

He said teams at companies such as Google were now going line by line through their software that makes up the core foundation to see if they there are any errors.

“The NSA revelations were bad for our business as people said they can’t trust us. Edward Snowden was good for business in that everyone decided to look more into security encryption. That’s why they are finding flaws such as Heartbleed.”