Tech Dispatches from Davos: Why They Invited the Little Guy

By Matthew Prince , written on January 29, 2012

From The News Desk

Now that it's over, I have to confess that I was quite surprised that CloudFlare was ever invited to the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting. While today we have some national governments and Fortune 500 companies that use CloudFlare, our bread and butter is bringing the resources of the Internet giants to the rest of the web. So it was somewhat odd for the giants to invite us to the party.

For instance, CloudFlare powers many of the Occupy movement's websites, along with some other controversial sites, so I felt a bit like mole while sitting at a dinner sponsored by Goldman Sachs. I was the only one in the room in jeans and no tie. I snuck out quietly at the end feeling good about having scored a free dinner from the great vampire squid.


The media tried to make a story about protesters at Davos, but there was little evidence of them. I tried to track down the Occupy WEF camp to find out if they were CloudFlare users, but couldn't find it. I'm told at its apex the camp had only three occupants.

On Friday morning, word spread that there was going to be a protest outside the main conference hall. Reporters rushed outside, cameras in hand, to find not scruffy protesters but three Ukranian models who stripped topless and held up signs reading: "Gangsters Party in Davos." I didn't get word whether they were invited to the DST party later that evening, though the party did feature several Ukranian models.

It's interesting who attends the Annual Meeting and who does not. Microsoft sent six people, Google five, Facebook two, Apple none. While venture capital was represented by firms like Accel, Founders Fund, Index, and Redpoint, there was no one from major players like Sequoia, Benchmark, NEA, or Kleiner Perkins. Oil companies like BP and Chevron were well represented, but ExxonMobile only sent two people from their Russian subsidiary. And, out of the 2,500 attendees, only 16 came from companies or organizations with "China" in their name.

Davos, the city, is naturally isolated from the rest of the world. It's tucked in a picturesque Swiss valley ringed by towering mountains. Adding to the remote location, there were reportedly two members of the Swiss military guarding the city for every attendee of the conference. I overhead a "Global Shaper," one of the 20-somethings who were flown for the first time this year in to bring a younger perspective, lament that she was the only communist at the event. I asked about the 16-plus Chinese in attendance. "They're not real communists anymore," she retorted. Fair point.


On Saturday afternoon, I, along with three other Technology Pioneers, were invited to give a talk. It was setup like an Ignite talk: 6 minutes with 18 slides automatically advancing every 20 seconds. The other three talks were great, and topics ranged from designing medical care based on a person's particular genetic profile, to on modernizing education, to accurately and efficiently tracking greenhouse gas emissions.

We weren't allowed to use any words or logos in our slides, just abstract images. So, for my talk on how to build a faster, safer, smarter Internet, I had pictures of things like a cheetah, a dripping faucet, and a muzzled protester. Looking out at the audience of business and government leaders, suffice it to say I was nervous. It didn't help that, while I talked, an artist illustrated points from my talk on giant whiteboards that also held the collective points from the week's previous sessions. Somehow, in the end, it kind of came together, made some sense, and I survived.

After the presentations, the audience broke into groups each to discuss one of the four talks. What was interesting to me was who went where. Two examples: Niklas Zennström, who created Skype and knows a thing or two about Internet protocols, went to the group to discuss the future of health care. At the same time, David Blumenthal, a prominent physician who worked as a senior official for the Department of Health and Human Services, joined my group to discuss the future of the Internet.

It's easy, as you rise in your field, to become increasingly specialized and siloed. My first night in Davos I sat next to a guy who had been coming to the WEF's Annual Meeting for the last 20 years. "The best advice I can give you is to avoid any session or meeting with the word 'technology' in the title," he said. "You know enough about that, go learn about something else."

For all its faults, this is likely the greatest virtue of Davos: The massively interdisciplinary nature of the conference and its attendees. People at the top of their respective fields actively seek to learn about things they didn't know or understand before. That's the kind of petri dish from which real innovative ideas can occasionally emerge.


For the last five days, everyone I happened to talk with was dumbfoundingly interesting and collectively they spanned a mind-boggling breadth of fields. On the bus back to Zurich this afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a guy who happened to be Daniel Goleman, the psychologist and science journalist who authored the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence. I sought his advice on how to build a healthy, sustainable workplace culture, something I worry a lot about at CloudFlare.

At some point we started talking about Twitter. He was skeptical of its value, but I showed him how we used the technology at CloudFlare to stay connected with our customers. By the time we pulled up to the airport, I think I'd convinced him to set up a Twitter account. I'm not sure that counts as progress, but I look forward to reading his Tweets.

I'm on a plane back to my comfortable and familiar stomping grounds in San Francisco early tomorrow morning. Until next year, over and out.