After a 10-year rollercoaster ride during which the online coding school Treehouse went through a pivot, several rounds of layoffs and a couple of management overhauls, co-founder Ryan Carson sold the company to private equity firm Xenon Partners.
Carson, who had held the CEO mantle since the company’s inception in 2010, announced the news via Twitter in December 2021.
Details of the deal have not been disclosed, and Carson declined to comment for this story. Jason Gilmore, principal at Xenon Partners and Treehouse’s new CEO, did not respond to requests for comment.
The acquisition came three months after the company laid off nearly 90% of its workforce without severance when a different acquisition deal with Skillsoft fell through.
Carson later said in a statement to Business Insider that he and his board reduced the size of the team “from 45 to 18 people,” retaining 10 full-time employees and eight contractors. The company, which has helped more than 600,000 students learn how to code, had raised about $14 million from venture capital investors including Chamath Palihapitiya’s Social Capital and Greylock Partners.
In 2018, Treehouse had 80,000 paying subscribers and was making around $24 million in revenue, Carson told podcast host Nathan Latka. Two years later, in 2020, Carson said the company was making “tens of millions” in revenue and that the business was growing like a “rocket ship.” But recent media reports suggest otherwise.
According to local media outlet Portland Inno, Carson told employees in August 2021 that Treehouse’s revenue declined 59% between June 2017 and May 2021. He also said the number of new subscribers had fallen 79% since 2018 and, at its current run rate, the company would run out of money by November 2022.
On an internal message board, Gilmore, Treehouse’s new CEO, said that he plans to release new content, features and services to continue serving the student community. Meanwhile, Carson is investing in NFTs and other web3 projects, according to his Twitter profile.
What happened at Treehouse? A timeline
Treehouse is one of the first and longest-operating online coding schools. It was created by Carson and co-founder Alan Johnson in 2010 with the mission to bring “affordable technology education to people everywhere.” As coding gained popularity, Treehouse became one of the go-to schools that taught these skills online.
A few years after its launch, the startup captured national headlines for its unconventional management tactics. Carson implemented a four-day workweek and decided to run a flat organization, meaning he got rid of titles, bosses and managers.
“The first six months of ‘flat’ were amazing,” Fred Zara, a former Treehouse employee and manager, wrote in a blog post describing his experience at the company. “[However] after more than a year of ‘flat,’ it was becoming clear it wasn’t working.”
In 2015, Carson nixed the no-bosses policy, hired an HR Director, and soon conducted Treehouse’s first round of layoffs. Employees were told Treehouse had to downsize its then 100-person team “by around 35%,” according to Zara’s account. Around this time, co-founder Johnson left the company, according to his Crunchbase profile, which is based on a since-deleted LinkedIn profile.
A year later, Carson ended the company’s 32-hour workweek experiment. According to Zara, the transition out of these experiments led to some internal friction and confusion.
In 2018, Treehouse shifted its focus to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and away from updating and creating new content, wrote Zara. The company also changed its mission statement to better reflect its new priorities. The new statement included that their mission “is to diversify the tech industry through accessible education.”
Another round of layoffs came shortly after the debut of the new mission statement, and Zara was laid off in 2019. Through all of the changes, however, Treehouse’s students continued to love the product. The company’s NPS satisfaction score was “well above industry standard,” according to a Medium post written by a self-described “Treehouse insider.”
In August 2021, Carson told his employees he was in talks to sell the business to Skillsoft, given that the company was due to run out of cash by November 2022. The sale would allow Treehouse to “hire more employees and reach goals unavailable previously due to budgetary constraints,” explained the insider in the same Medium post.
Ten days after the sale news, Carson announced on Treehouse’s Slack that the deal had fallen through and layoffs were coming. Employees were laid off without severance in September, and three months later, Carson tweeted that his company had been acquired.