Ryan Carson might be so passionate about his fourth startup, Treehouse, that he wants the company name engraved on his tombstone – but that doesn’t mean he wants to work himself to death. Just the opposite, Carson has combined modern Web tools and a laser-focused planning approach to reduce his entire team’s work week from the typical five days down to four days.

Treehouse is an online education platform that teaches people how to code for a fraction of the cost it would cost to learn in College or University. Carson has chosen a path to less profit for Treehouse, but to more time for its employees.

Carson came to realize that traditional education is too expensive. The debt students incur at University isn’t worth what they get especially in technology where the pace of change is only accelerating. There are too many people in debt trying to get an education that isn’t meeting the needs of the workplace, in dire need of skilled technical workers and more scientists and engineers.

I’ve broken his keynote into 2 sections, this one focuses on the Treehouse work style.

IMG_0013
Ryan on stage and pumping iron

Treehouse values personal time above everything and as part of that commitment, it has a four day work week not five. I bet everyone who works five days just got very jealous of the crew at Treehouse, but Carson says his workers manage to pack a full work week into those four days.

Carson wants his employees weekend to be their own. He makes it a habit of not sending work-related emails on the weekends, using boomerang to schedule them to come on Monday so they don’t get pulled back into work on their own time.

The Treehouse Reddit clone
The Treehouse Reddit clone.

To work this way Carson wants to keep email focused on actionable items only. Often email becomes a time sink full of conversation and dialog that Treehouse has expunged and put on CONVEY, their own internal forum, a Reddit clone that took one of their programmers only a day to develop.

CONVEY is a place for conversations, Carson says it acts as their “digital water cooler” where employees can share thoughts, ideas, articles and whatever else they are thinking about. Listening to Carson they use Internet tools and the structure of their work environment to facilitate a sense of community.

By keeping conversation off of email, Carson keeps email laser focused on important items for that individual. By replacing email for conversation through CONVEY they’ve expanded their company’s options for communication which takes on an even more vital role because they have a distributed workforce. The ability to connect for work or play allows everyone to stay connected no matter their location.

For meetings across locales they’ve used GoToMeeting and currently use Google Hangouts religiously, according to Carson. To use either one of these tools there are a few considerations you need to keep in mind. To make best use of these tools you need to have a wired setup because Wi-Fi causes lag in the stream.

Carson states outright “you need really good gear” they all have mics and or headsets so that everyone can hear and be heard. You also need to be in a quiet place setup to hold the meeting to keep the audio nice and clear. These are just the technical issues you need to be aware of when using either tool. Once you work out all these details it becomes an impressive way to meet and interact with everyone on your team no matter their location.

Carson says that the “last thing that ties their company together is that we meet up physically.” It’s important for people to meet, talk, socialize and have a drink every so often. They do a company-wide meet up once a year, that’s a week long where they can see the person attached to the posts or conversation they have online, internally.

With 50 employees, 30 work in Miami (lucky folks) and 8 in Portland and the rest working remotely keeping people feeling connected becomes even more important.  The assumption that people work remotely means that Treehouse makes use of several tools to work and communication with each other and it means planning plays an even more important role.

Part of this commitment to a four day week requires a lot of planning and one of the tools they use is Trello. From the folks at Stack Overflow is a simple app that allows Carson and his employees to manage tasks in a visual and simple way. Asana is another task management tool they use for their teams that just helps them keep in sync.

Carson also realizes that when they are up against a deadline they may have to work five days a week to get things done. They’ve created a culture that demands a lot but provides the flexibility and appreciation of their time that makes everyone at Treehouse work harder than they would if it were just another 9 to 5.

They use Campfire to allow people to rooms so they can chat. All the tools and approaches Carson and Treehouse take helps to keep their team focused and their individual email clean, free of noise that most people have to wade through every day. They’ve done this while expanding their employee’s ability to engage and converse through these tools in ways email never could.

This comes from the top down and is something that creates something more than employees, it creates a team everyone on board will gladly give their all too. My next post will talk about Carson’s diabolical plan for world domination in education by making post secondary education inconsequential for technology at least, especially for the type of education students will need to get the jobs of today and jobs of tomorrow.

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