Think about this. You spend thousands of dollars for college, work late into the night, and when you graduate, you realize you never learned what you wanted to. Ryan Carson experienced this first hand and came out of college with a computer science degree without learning any of the programming that he wanted to learn. 10 years later, he created a solution to solve for this issue that has bothered him ever since he graduated.
We recently sat down with Ryan Carson, founder of Treehouse, to learn more about the inspirational story behind his business.
Turbo Pascal to Treehouse
Ryan Carson first discovered coding in high school. One day, a teacher pulled him aside and asked him if he’d ever thought about trying programming before. Ryan at the time had no idea what it was, and that teacher began to explain what programming entailed and what you could do if you learned it.
Ryan replied, “That sounds amazing. I want to try that.”
Ryan Carson’s lifelong love affair with programming began in a hallway in a high school, accelerated through a turbo pascal class, and carried him out into the real world.
When it was time to choose majors for college, Ryan went along with what he assumed would be the best choice: computer science. He said, he wanted to do “something related to coding … and I chose computer science because it was the only degree about coding, programming, and computers”. Luckily, Ryan’s parents could pay his college tuition, but upon graduation, he felt disillusioned with the whole college system.
Instead of doing all the modern, front end developing that he imagined programming to be, he ended up overpaying to learn how to code low level system applications, something that he didn’t want to do. Imagine: four years of nothing but work and money, and then after leaving with a degree, you realize you never learned anything that you actually wanted to learn. This disillusionment would provide as a backdrop to Ryan’s eventual startup of treehouse. Between 2000-2010, he worked a series of software engineer jobs and began to develop a unique entrepreneurial identity as he went.
When he got out of university, he “moved to England immediately after just for adventure and excitement”. He got his first job as a web developer in Cambridge and lost it right as the Dot Com bubble burst. Afterwards, he headed towards London and became a web developer again. In 2004, he got married, and at the same time, started his first company.
It wasn’t a success.
His first startup was called Flight Deck and the purpose was to help send large files. It was a basic web app, built off from all of his years working as a web developer. Ryan admitted, “that business failed because I got the pricing wrong and I didn’t understand how to do sales”. Although the business failed, it represented a milestone of his career, and helped him realize that entrepreneurship wouldn’t be easy.
At that point, his second business had survived for quite a duration, but there were a few problems at the back of Ryan’s head. First, the business wasn’t scalable. This meant he couldn’t reach as many people as he wanted. The second aspect was pricing. He felt the classes were too expensive for the attendees. Finally, rising from the grave again was the issue of college degrees. Ryan wanted to build a better school. He wanted others to feel the same about programming as he did in high school, and he wanted it to be accessible to everyone. That year, he started Treehouse.
What is Treehouse?
The first person he hired was Alan Johnson, an extremely talented, sharp minded developer. Ryan saw in him many of the traits that he thought were important: integrity, intelligence, diligence, and helpfulness. Soon after he promoted him to co-founder.
Treehouse is a company focused on being the best in the world at creating beginners. What is a beginner? Basically, Treehouse wants to introduce programming, web development, and other aspects of coding to as many people as possible to set them on the right path towards software engineering. Treehouse has fulltime in house teachers dedicated to teaching the many concepts on the website. They use video content to best help new, aspiring students learn the nuances and beauties behind code. A quick look at the website tells you a lot about what the company aims for.
Prospective students can learn anything from app development to building a website. Most importantly, because Treehouse focuses on beginners, they can help anybody get started.
Creating Treehouse and Marketing Mishaps
Treehouse took off fast. Ryan pointed out “I had worked for five years in this [computer science] conference and event space and built up an audience so I was able to launch Treehouse to that audience so it grew very quickly, but it was only because I had done 5 years of hard work to get to that point.” Many of Ryan’s old clients helped build the base for his new startup and it flourished.
Even with everything going well, Ryan could easily list from the top of his head the most difficult aspects of starting his company. “It was hard to create the content initially, it was hard to figure out how to teach, and it was hard to figure out how to do marketing.”
One obstacle in particular proved particularly hard, and is still one of the main hurdles that the company has to get over today: acquiring customers profitably. Ryan found the task daunting. There were many areas to it. When you market to prospective customers, you have multiple places you can potentially reach them. Learning to spend money in the right ways to get these students wasn’t easy either. Ryan had to learn a lot of this the hard way.
There was one marketing mishap for acquiring students that Ryan remembers clearly. When code.org first launched, Treehouse decided to bid on the term so that if people searched for it, they would appear in the search results. Treehouse wasn’t a competitor of code.org, but they hoped that appearing in the search results would help them out. It turns out that Google ended up messing up the terms, and the search results made Treehouse look horrible. Afterwards, the founders of code.org banned them and wouldn’t work with them for a while because they thought Ryan and his team were trying to sabotage them when in reality, they was just trying to make an ally. Ryan still cringes when he thinks of it, and he admits that this was probably one of his biggest mistakes since he first started.
Treehouse’s Marketing Strategy
Ryan thinks that “there is no Silver Bullet” in marketing. For him, it’s constantly grinding away and figuring out which ways are best to appeal to potential students and how to best curate their content. Creating useful and relevant videos and classes is a cornerstone to his marketing philosophy. He believes that you can’t expect to build a product and have it become an overnight success. In a way, his approach is long term, slow, and steady. He compares it to running, saying “put your shoes on and get ready to run a marathon”.
One area in marketing that has helped Treehouse has been YouTube ads. Most people who have watched some videos on coding have probably seen a Treehouse ad pop up every now and then. Ryan thinks it’s particularly helpful because the video advertisement format builds off their own native video classes.
Through the ups and downs of starting and running a company, Ryan sometimes finds himself thinking about giving up or questioning his motivation to continue when things happen, such as when an employee quits or one has to be fired. Digging deep and realizing why he started Treehouse and believing in his cause has helped him get through the tough times over the years.
Regardless, throughout everything, Ryan feels like his biggest achievement has been being able to connect with his students. He said, “I’ve spoken to hundreds, thousands of students personally, and so many of them have changed their lives by learning how to code, and we played a big part in that. It’s just so satisfying.”
Reaching out to so many students is a soul satisfying task, and that’s also why Ryan believes his company’s done well. Their focus hasn’t changed over the years; they still focus on creating good content. No matter what, Ryan envisions a better future. He sees Treehouse changing people’s lives through the power of coding, one line at a time.