Because It Can: Cloudflare’s Mission to Make the Internet Work Like It Should

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Cloudflare founders Matthew Prince and Michele Zatlyn (image)

The company could seek rent. Instead, it finds false market moats and merrily breaches them.

We don’t usually cover news here at NewCo Shift, this is more of a place for analysis and Thinking Out Loud. And it’s rare that one company appears more than once here in any given year. But today – again – Cloudflare has upended an important piece of Internet’s real estate, and it’s just too rich to not note the why of it.

So first the news. To celebrate the company’s eight birthday, Cloudflare is announcing the launch of a domain registrar. And because the company operates at massive scale, and can afford to do things most companies simply can’t (or won’t – looking at you, Google, Amazon, Facebook) – the company is offering domains *at cost.* In other words, Cloudflare isn’t making one red cent when you register a domain with them. What they pay to register a domain (and yes, that number is fixed, and the same for all domain registrars), is what you pay to register a domain.

Go ahead, go sell (or short) your GoDaddy stock. I’ll wait.

OK, you back? Look, I’m not writing this post because I think the news is *that* exciting, though I’ll tell you, I’ve not found many folks who love their domain registrar. I certainly don’t. Most of them are experts at confusing you, at upcharging you, and at scaring you that you’re about to either lose your domain or miss some important feature you didn’t know you want or need. I pay an average of about 15-20 bucks for each of the domains I own each year. Cloudflare’s price is about eight dollars.

I own close to 50 domains. That means I’ll save nearly $400 a year when I move all my domains to Cloudflare. That’s real cheddar.

But the real reason I’m writing this post is to point out what a merry market discombobulator Cloudflare has become. This is a company that operates at Google scale, is independent (it’s on a path to an IPO and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars), has a core business model that drives profitable growth (it’s a content distribution network and secure infrastructure vendor), and most importantly, a philosophy which is utterly unique in today’s venal, steroidal capital markets (more on that in a second).

Cloudflare’s scale and financial power (it’s privately valued at what I am told is well past $5 billion) allow it to do things most companies simply can’t. Things like…rolling out a Domain Name System that protects your data from prying ISP eyes, for free, because it can. Or leading an alliance of bandwidth providers dedicated to eliminate markups on peering (it’s complicated, but net net, it means less costs for everyone).  Or totally upending the sclerotic economics of Over the Top (OTT) streaming.

With every one of these steps, Cloudflare is doing two things: First, it’s refusing to view the Internet as property to be cornered, as real estate where infrastructure owners can camp out and collect rent. That’s utterly unheard of in a world where Amazon has cornered commerce and hosting, Facebook has cornered social attention, Google has cornered search, and AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are competing to be as walled as a garden can possibly be. Secondly, Cloudflare is actively exercising a core philosophy which can be honestly described as embracing the best (and most earnest) values of Internet 1.0: The web should be open, freely accessible, and an equal playing field upon which anyone can frolic.

Companies like this are very, very hard to find at scale. At some point, most firms with a “make the world a better place” philosophy succumb to the reality of Peter Theil’s maxim: Every world-beating company must be a rent-extracting monopoly.   Maybe I’m missing something, so please, name me one (in the tech space anyway) that isn’t operating under this assumption?

Cloudflare is proof that great companies can also be forces for good, down to the molecules of their DNA. This is a company that defines what I mean when I use the word “NewCo.” I can’t wait to see what they do next. And, of course, they’re not perfect, and sure, this post might look naive in a few years.

But gosh, I sure hope it won’t. The world needs more Cloudflares, if only to remind us that it’s possible to move past the endless, exhaustingly brutalist architecture we’ve managed to build around ourselves. Perhaps in fact we can trust ourselves to do what’s right for more than just us, more than just our company, more than just our shareholders. Perhaps our industry can dream to reach just a bit further, and imagine we are agents of larger purpose; and that, if we practice enough, we might earn the right to become what we’ve always imagined we could be, over these so many years: A force for good.

Lord knows it’s been a while since that’s been true. Right?