I haven’t said much publicly about what happened at Treehouse recently. For anyone who may not know, Treehouse is an online tech education company that I worked for as a video producer for over seven years. I was laid off in 2019 and now, just this past week the company laid off all but a handful of its staff without severance pay. So here are my thoughts.
When I started at Treehouse in January of 2012, everything about the job was a godsend. Salary, benefits, 4 day work week, enjoyable work environment, great coworkers, etc. The company had recently rebranded as “Treehouse” just two months prior. At the time it was literally the dream job. It felt like everything that I’ve been hoping for in a day job, and it even blended my passions for storytelling and filmmaking into my daily duties.
The “boss” and owner, Ryan Carson, didn’t even live in the country, he lived in the UK. So the idea of not having a boss breathing down your neck was very exciting as well. Other than a few zoom meetings (it was actually Google hangouts at the time) the team rarely saw or heard from him.
I met Ryan in December of 2011 just before coming to work for the company, when he was in town to meet with the team. I liked him, he seemed nice, passionate and straight forward. He was in town for something that was called “Idea Week” in which he and some other out of town employees would come to Orlando (which was where the company started) and the entire team would work and brainstorm new ideas for the company.
I have to say when I first heard about Idea Week, I was a little conflicted about the company. On the one hand the company prided itself on things like the 4 day work week, respecting it’s employees and their family and personal time.
However, on the other hand, when Idea Week would come along, team members would explain to me that when Ryan would come to town you could expect to not see your family that week and work 15 hour days, and you might even be “asked” to let some random out-of-town teammate stay at your house.
I just figured, OK, the job is great “most” of the time. I guess even if I had to deal with a crazy week every few months, it’s still a great job.
To be honest, I never felt comfortable at Treehouse in terms of job security. Most of us on my team didn’t. From day one it didn’t feel like a “real” company. It felt like some weird experiment. I mean, we had a ton of money from investors in the bank. We got the best computers and software to use. We even had our lunches and phones paid for in the early days. Everything was great but something in me knew this wasn’t sustainable. I feel like just about everyone on some level knew this couldn’t last.
After a little more than a year at Treehouse I was promoted to team leader. There were some challenges with this change of course. There were a few people on my team that were at Treehouse longer than I was and I was promoted up over them, and now expected to manage these people. One person in particular really didn’t like this change and all but let me know it.
But for the most part my move to management went pretty smooth and my team seemed happy. However, apparently during that round of promotions, I understand that it didn’t go as smoothly in other areas of the company. We didn’t have an HR department and no real management training, so oftentimes with no leadership experience, someone would be asked to take over managing people.
This must have led to some bad blood throughout the company, because after about 18 months of management, Ryan was in town and I received a call from him late one evening when I was home. When I saw it was him calling around 8pm I had a bad feeling. I mean this is the guy that runs a company that says, we greatly respect your time with your family.
When I answered, Ryan got right to the point. He told me the next day he and the co-founder would announce to the team that they wanted to offer the option for the company to go “flat”. No managers. I, of course, was very confused. No managers? Aside from the obvious questions like, who is going to be in charge, set the direction? Who will make sure work is distributed and is getting done on time? I also wondered, what did he mean by give the company the option?
I knew that if you ask a company if they would rather have a manager or no manager, most everyone will say no manager. So why even ask? I figured the only ones that would say to keep managers would be the managers themselves. I was pretty crushed. I felt like things were going well and at least my team seemed happy and productive. Plus if this happens, I now have to tell my family, “oh hey, remember that promotion that I got last year? Yeah, they took that away from me.”
This was the first example of something being taken away from me, yet I still had to act like it was all for the good of the mission. But OK, I was a team player. After a very long walk and talk with Ryan and the co-founder the next morning, I was on board. Let’s go for it. We took a company wide vote. I ended up voting to remove managers and go flat. Which of course most of the company did as well. I don’t remember the exact numbers but I believe it was somewhere around 90%.
I have to say, the first 6 months of “flat” were amazing. It was actually nice being part of the team again and not having the stress of management. There was a system set up where projects that needed to get completed were dropped on a board and you would simply sign onto the projects you wanted and get them done. You could stay as busy or as slow as you wanted to. It was nice and I know for us, the video team, we stayed busy and got a lot done.
However after the first few months I started seeing some things I didn’t like. People weren’t just dropping available projects on the board and allowing anyone to sign on. Some people began coordinating with only the folks they wanted to work with, so they would always work with the same people. This actually benefited me because I was reliable and fast and people wanted to work with me. But there were some others on the team that began to find themselves without work most of the time because all the projects were snatched up too quickly. I also heard about some people throughout the company that weren’t getting much done at all.
We even had a few rounds of hiring under flat as well. As a team, we voted on who would get hired and everyone had an equal vote. Whichever candidate would get the most votes got hired. Sounds good right? Not really. Some people brought in friends they wanted hired and they had an equal vote, which they of course voted for their friend. Some people didn’t show up to meet or interview any candidates, but still had an equal vote, and I guess would just vote for whoever looked good on the surface. There were no standards on how to conduct an interview. There were often times 6 or more people interviewing one candidate and all asking questions at once. Most of them not trained on how to conduct an interview.
So yeah, after more than a year of flat it was becoming clear it wasn’t working. But what could be done about it? I remember saying to Ryan when we talked about going flat, once you do this, you can’t go back. You can’t just take it away if it doesn’t work. I guess I was wrong.
Around 2014, I once again got a call from Ryan, this time at least it was at the office. He had moved to the states by this point and set up an office in Portland, OR. He told me the company was going back to managers and asked if I would manage the video team in Orlando again. I asked, how is this going to work? A slow roll out? Just some basic team leads or someone to make sure the work is disturbed? He said no, we are going back to full on multi-level management again and it will take place all at once.
This put me is a very weird spot. As a career move, of course I should just say yes, I’ll manage again. However it was really nice to be part of the team again and I knew whoever took over managing the team, there would likely be some resentment, maybe even viewed as a traitor. I just wanted to work, I hated all the drama.
I told Ryan I needed to sleep on it, I couldn’t give him an answer right away. I think this took him by surprise, but he said that was fine and to give him a call the next day. I spent some time thinking it over and talking with some people close to me about it. Eventually my father-in-law, Ron, said something that stuck with me. He said, Fred, if you don’t take the management position, someone will, and you might not like who they go with. So I agreed and called Ryan the next day to accept the position as Video Team Leader once again.
The next couple of weeks were pretty awkward. I knew we were going back to management, but most of the team didn’t know. They went about their business as usual not knowing that in a short time I would be their manager again. This wouldn’t be the last time I knew about a huge shift in the direction of the company but had to act as if everything was normal.
Going back to managers was just weird and although I was told to jump right in and have weekly 1 on 1s, daily stand-ups and start assigning work as I saw fit, I decided to take things very slow. I was honest with my team. This was as awkward for me as it was for them. For the most part, the video team had shown over the past year and a half that they really didn’t need a manager telling them what to do. Maybe there were problems in other departments, but honestly our team was running pretty smoothly. So I really took my time asserting any team management back in.
The company had a few rounds of management training after that. Some helpful, some really really not. In one case the managers were all flown to Portland and we had a pretty well known corporate trainer, which I won’t name, come in and work with us. He may have been the most arrogant, name dropping, self-centered person I’ve ever been around. However I did appreciate that we were getting some kind of training as leaders. Around this time we also got an HR Director, which was awesome and so needed.
It wasn’t long after this that we unfortunately had our first big round of layoffs. I can’t really remember all the details on why this happened, I only remember that one day in an all hands meeting the team was told everything was great and the company had years of runway and then the next month was told we had to drastically cut the size of the team by around 35%. We had around 100 employees at this time.
There was a few weeks between getting the news of cuts and the cuts actually taking place. So I was put in the position of continuing to be a leader and keeping my team on track, motivated and continuing to launch content, all the while not knowing whether they would have jobs soon. And I had to do this while also not knowing if I would have a job soon. It’s pretty tough to be asked to keep a team feeling positive about a company that may be letting you go soon. And now that Ryan lived in Portland and started an office out there, that office became the Treehouse headquarters. So all of the staff in Orlando, the staff that actually started the company, was suddenly looked at as the smaller satellite office that could potentially be cut out completely.
I finally got word that Orlando was not being cut out and I would still have a job. However I had to cut my team in half. From 12 people to 6. I was relieved and shocked at the same time. I figured I might have to cut 2 or maybe 3, but 6? At this time I shared management over the video team with another manager in Portland, so the two of us had to decide who stayed and who got cut. In the end I fought hard to keep more than six and was able to save one team member’s job and only cut 5 from the team. 2 in Portland and 3 in Orlando. Still sucked.
However after the dust settled from those cuts things improved again. We had a solid executive team at that time and it felt like they acted as a good barrier from Ryan’s impulsive decision making. That next year Treehouse felt like it was changing from a fun, but irresponsible company, into a real sustainable company. We were putting our big-boy pants on. Maybe this crazy experimental company might actually work?
Things seemed to go pretty well for a while after that but then we started hearing some odd things coming out of Portland. Like Ryan was starting to take over different teams. He took over personally managing the sales team and we heard he would ring bells in the office every time there was some kind of sale. This made us nervous because to our knowledge Ryan didn’t have any real sales training, so why take over the team? He was also starting a new podcast every other week with a slightly different focus, requiring assistance from my team, taking them away from content production.
Then the announcement that the 4 day work week was being taken away because we needed to be more productive. Meanwhile the people I managed would look at me and ask, are we not being productive? Are we missing deadlines? I’d of course say, yes we are very productive and no, we haven’t missed any deadlines, ever. But I still had to push the company messaging that overall the company needed to move to 5 days to improve our output. I didn’t believe this at all but I had to do what I had to do.
And then in 2018 came this shift in the company. By this point I was managing the entire video team, both in Orlando and Portland. We were suddenly not focused on making content for the app and trying to keep the content that was there up to date. We were now starting to focus a lot of attention on some new initiatives, like diversity in tech. Now let me be clear, working towards getting more diversity in tech or any industry is a worthwhile pursuit, but something felt out of balance. Practically with the Treehouse content. Having great, up-to-date content is what has always made the company what it was. A lot of the staff that should have been dedicated to producing new content and/or refreshing older content, was now stuck on projects that had nothing to do with content at all.
Most of us that spent the last few years building up the Treehouse library and took a lot of pride in it, were very confused on what the priorities were. We all thought we were a content driven company, that’s how we are teaching people. For me, as a manager, I was in plenty of meetings about the direction of the company but to be honest, the direction seemed to change so often that I sorta lost track.
Some folks on my team sensed that something was happening and it wasn’t going to be good. For me, as a leader, I always tried to stay positive about the stability of the company and reassure my team that once we kick off some of these new initiatives, we would be right back to burning through making new content.
Then I got word that we were changing the company mission statement. I was like, what? Can we even do that? I mean, that’s the company mission statement. That’s what the entire company journey has been about all these years. That statement is how I justified everything I did for the company, both good or bad.
The original statement:
“Treehouse brings affordable technology education to people everywhere in order to help them achieve their dreams and change the world.”
“Our mission is to diversify the tech industry through accessible education, unlocking the door to opportunity, and empowering people to achieve their dreams.”
Again, that second one is not a bad mission, but what happened to the first mission? Did we just give that up? Bringing “quality” technology education to people everywhere, and allowing “them” to achieve “their” dreams, was a great mission. It was focused on offering a way for people to change their own lives for the better. We were helping people. Lots of people, all kinds of people. Changing it felt like an admission that we were no longer the company I thought we were.
Within weeks of this change someone in a management meeting mentioned how bad our signup and retention numbers were looking and that something needed to change quickly or the company could be in trouble. Now from my perspective, I thought, yeah, we stopped focusing on content production. We were falling way behind our competitors in what we were offering our students and a lot of our content was getting pretty out of date. But I don’t think that’s how they saw it.
Right after this meeting my manager called me directly and gave me the news. We were heading for another reduction in the team, and it could be big. Once again I had inside knowledge that the company was in for a huge change and no one else in Orlando knew. For the next few weeks I would be in 1 on 1s with my team as they asked about title changes or would request time off, meanwhile I couldn’t help but think to myself, dude, you and I might not have jobs in a month. I couldn’t say that of course. I really hated this level of dishonesty.
As it turned out, with this round of layoffs I wasn’t so lucky. My manager called me at home on a Saturday to give me the news. The company was cutting about 35 employees. She would be leaving, along with some other execs and the entire Orlando office would be closing.
It was devastating. Let me remind you that Treehouse started in Orlando. When I came to work for the company in January of 2012, there were around 20 employees and the majority were in Orlando. Nick Pettit, one of two original teachers for Treehouse was here. I couldn’t help but think, we built this. Treehouse would not exist without these people. We had just signed a lease on this space until 2022. We put tens of thousands of dollars into the studio here. How could we close this office?
Personally I was really hurt as well. I went through so much as a leader for this company. I was the only manager in Orlando for several years, which was really hard. I wanted to be part of the team, but I also had more responsibility than everyone else there. As a leader, navigating through things like layoffs, hurricanes, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the death of one of our teachers, Jason Seifer, was so emotionally draining. But I pushed thought it all because I “thought” I was part of a company and a mission that meant something. And I thought I meant something to that company.
But it didn’t matter. I was told that Ryan was presented with a few options, some of which would have the Orlando team work remotely, some options had us downsize our space. Ryan apparently chose the most drastic option, cut the entire Orlando team. So that was it. I was told on a Saturday that in a little more than a week, on the following Monday the announcement would be made. I was looking at having to go into the office for a whole week and work around people that would all lose their job the next Monday.
I couldn’t do it. I didn’t go in. I canceled all of my 1 on 1s that week and I just sort of disappeared. Everyone knew some big announcement was coming and I couldn’t stand it if they asked me about it. I knew at this point I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. So I just didn’t go in.
On June 3, 2019, I made my way into the office. There were two zoom meetings that morning, one for those being let go and one for those that were staying. Ryan was also supposed to have a third, smaller zoom meeting with only a few long-time Treehouse team members, which happened, but some that should have been in it were left out.
People were in shock. Especially the team in Orlando. It felt so cold. Treehouse was more than a company to some of us and we were being told by someone 3000 miles away, thanks for building this thing for me, you can go now.
I want to be clear, I don’t think Ryan Carson is a bad guy at all. That seems to be controversial to say these days, knowing that he let most of his team go recently without severance, but that’s how I feel. And unfortunately sometimes things like that happen in business. I think he’s basically a good dude, even if he can be pretty self-centered. He’s super impulsive, sometimes to a fault, he can be stubborn and yes, he has an ego, but he wouldn’t have gotten where he is without that. Honestly, I believe that (for the most part) his heart is in the right place and he really wants to make a positive difference in people’s lives. But I’m not going to make excuses for him, he should have figured out a way to offer severance to those he let go.
However, a major criticism I have about Ryan is that he always felt like “he” created Treehouse. That’s just not true. Ryan took what Jim Hoskins and Nick Pettit were already doing at the time, put in some money to hire creative and talented video professionals like Michael Poley, and then myself and the rest of the amazing video team. Pair that with some great devs and designers and bam! The team created Treehouse.
I am very grateful for my time at Treehouse. I made some lifelong friends. I got a chance to work with some of the best in the tech industry, like Jim, Nick, Zach Gordan, Dan Gorgone, Andrew Chalkley and the late Jason Seifer, and so many others. Not to mention the friends and contacts I’ve made in the video and filmmaking world. Our entire video team was simply the greatest!
My journey at Treehouse ended in mid-2019, so I’ve had a couple of years to process everything, unlike some of the folks that are dealing with this most recent round of layoffs. I feel for them, I know it’s tough.
Now, for me, I try to keep my focus on the good things I got from my time there. Unfortunately though, it feels like Treehouse did irreversible damage to my views on company culture, especially when that culture says things like “we are one big family here.” If you hear that statement at your place of employment, take it with a huge grain of salt. I mean, you have a family, a real one. Let’s not get confused.
I’m sad to see Treehouse stumble like this. It’s like watching an ex-girlfriend fall into a deep depression. I mean sure, she broke up with me and it’s not really my problem anymore but it’s still hard to watch. In the early days at Treehouse we all felt like we were onto something big and that this company had the potential to help a lot of people. And I guess on the bright side, we did. There are a lot of people out there right now that have careers, making good salaries because of the work we did there.
For the people recently let go, I’m sure that doesn’t make them feel any better right now. However one thing about Treehouse, it always had a way of bringing on some super talented people. So I have no doubt that they will land on their feet and likely find themselves better off in the long run. I’ve already heard of some of them getting some really great job offers. I really hope that continues.
Because in the words of the great Martin Luther King, Jr. “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”