CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince On Beating Disrupt Battlefield Nerves And Avoiding Site Meltdowns

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CloudFlare launched almost exactly two years ago at the first TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. It was an incredible experience for us, and we owe a significant amount of our success to the stage Disrupt provided us. Since then, we’ve rolled out 23 data centers (one per month since launch), added more than half a million customers’ websites, and powered nearly half a trillion page views through the CloudFlare network. It’s been quite a two years.

Living Vicariously

One of the most rewarding things for us has been getting to help other companies during their launches at the four Disrupt events since: New York 2011, San Francisco 2011, Beijing 2011, and New York 2012. CloudFlare’s bread and butter is keeping sites running fast and stable even during huge bursts in traffic. And if launching at Disrupt does one thing, it’s deliver a huge burst of traffic. By our count, we’ve helped about 25 percent of the Battlefield companies over the last two years ensure their sites stay online even under the crushing load a Disrupt launch brings.

On the eve of Disrupt San Francisco 2012, I thought it would be cool to reach out to some of the standout companies that launched a year ago in order to give you a behind-the-scenes peek at what it’s like to launch there. Tony Gauda, CEO of Bitcasa (Battlefield Finalist), Rebecca Woodcock, CEO of CakeHealth (Battlefield Finalist), and Jevon MacDonald, CEO of GoInstant (acquired by Salesforce) were all standouts from last year’s competition. Their sites were also all on CloudFlare for their launches, so we have the actual log data on what their servers saw. They agreed to let me share their experiences and details from their traffic logs in order to prepare companies in the Battlefield for what to expect.

What to Expect if You’re Launching

To get a sense of what Battlefield companies can expect, we aggregated the log data of 20 companies that were on CloudFlare’s network when they launched. While the exact numbers vary, here’s what happens to their websites:

  • Over the three days at TechCrunch Disrupt, expect your site to get an average of a 3x to 10x surge in traffic. For the average company that doesn’t make the finals, expect between 10,000 – 20,000 page views per day during TechCrunch Disrupt, about 20 percent of that traffic concentrated during the hour that you’re on stage.
  • If you have a consumer appeal you can expect to get more traffic than if you are business or enterprise focused.
  • If you effectively leverage social media, you can use the Disrupt audience to further amplify the traffic to your site.
  • Traffic builds over all three days of the competition, even if you don’t make the finals. The largest spike for most companies occurs when TechCrunch publishes the article about your company (usually shortly after you’re on stage).
  • For companies that do make the finals, traffic can reach hundreds of requests per second during the time you are on stage and when the winners are announced.

Nerves and Details

You only get to launch once. Doing so in front of a live, tech-savvy audience of 3,000, not to mention untold numbers of people watching via the live stream, is nerve wracking. There are horror stories every competitor hears of sites that crash during their presentations, becoming inaccessible just when the world is trying to access them. I remember getting dinner with my co-founders Lee Holloway and Michelle Zatlyn the night before our launch at a little Italian restaurant in SoMa called La Bricola. CloudFlare still wasn’t fully working, and we all planned to work late into the night, but for a few minutes the three of us took a break to have dinner and some wine. Our toast that evening: “Please just don’t let the servers melt.”

Just about every company as they get ready to launch at Disrupt has the same concern. “Leading up to TechCrunch Disrupt, we were super nervous. We didn’t know what would happen with our site when we stepped on stage,” recounted Jevon MacDonald from GoInstant. Below is a screenshot from the CloudFlare control panel showing exactly what did happen to GoInstant’s site. GoInstant launched on stage September 13 and traffic to the site continued to climb, peaking at over 20,000 page views on the 14th, as the company demoed the product and Disrupt attendees checked it out. The dashboard shows traffic from big press hits in Forbes, PC Magazine, and ZDNetlater in the month, but they were dwarfed by the traffic that Disrupt sent the site.

“You’re always nervous that something will go wrong or something will crash,” Rebecca Woodcock from CakeHealth recounted, “but you need to focus on your presentation and telling the story of the product you’ve built.” CakeHealth launched on Monday and was one of the seven companies to make it to the Disrupt Battlefield Finals. Traffic to the site continued to grow over the three days. In total, CakeHealth’s site received more than 2 million hits in less than 72 hours. When Rebecca was giving her final pitch the site was seeing several hundred requests per second.

Bitcasa was another of the seven Disrupt Battlefield Finalists and saw an even bigger spike in traffic. “We had a couple EC2 instances for our website,” explained Tony Gauda from Bitcasa. “We’d spent our time focusing on ensuring the backend and the product were built out, we hadn’t worried about building out our web infrastructure.” Bitcasa had a consumer appeal and saw an even bigger spike in traffic. Over the three days of the conference, 85,318 people sign up for their beta. “Disrupt sent the initial traffic of influencers to our site and we then encouraged them to tell their friends about Bitcasa via social media. The result was beyond what we could have ever imagined.”

Everyone I’ve talked to who has launched at Disrupt remembers the experience extremely fondly. Whether you win or lose, once you’ve been on that stage you will forever be a part of the TechCrunch family, and that’s something that pays dividends for your company for years to come. At CloudFlare, we’ve been proud to help a number of Disrupt companies with their launch.

To everyone who launched at this year’s Disrupt SF, best of luck from the CloudFlare team.