PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s Friday afternoon, and the funky, open floor office of Treehouse LLC, a fast-growing tech company, is empty. The lights are off. Rows of computers are silent. The food in the well-stocked pantry, the ping-pong table and video-game consoles untouched. And gone is Monty, the Great Dane that typically lounges on the couch.
To investors and clients alike, that the four-year-old company is shuttered today comes as no surprise. Treehouse is closed every Friday. The 80-and-counting employees work a 32-hour work week Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, employees are expected to be home, with their families, having fun, doing something, anything, other than work.
That’s exactly how founder and chief executive Ryan Carson, 37, has been working since 2005. These days, on Fridays, he gets his two young sons off to school and spends the day hanging out with his wife, Gill. “It’s like dating again. We go to coffee shops. We read books together. I really feel like I’m involved in my kids’ lives and my wife’s life,” Carson said. “This schedule has been absolutely life-changing for me. I can’t imagine anything more valuable.”
Carson, whose company offers online courses in computer coding, is one of a handful of tech entrepreneurs who are seeking to disrupt not only existing markets but also the grueling tech start-up culture that, since the dot-com boom, has been wedded to the idea that toiling faster and longer is the only way to hit it big.
BambooHR software in Utah has an “antiworkaholic” policy. Christian Rennella instituted a four-day work week at ElMejorTrato.com, a search engine in Latin America. And Jason Fried, co-author of the book, “Rework,” and co-founder and CEO of Basecamp, an online project management and collaboration Web site based in Chicago, has his 46 employees work four days a week May through October, and five days a week the rest of the year. “But we’re an outlier. . . . I don’t think people are creative when they’re tired. ”
This new breed of tech CEO — though few in number — and their experiments in what they call working smarter, not harder, are nothing short of heresy. In the world of tech start-ups, a four-day work week — even a 40-hour work week — is about as rare as a thunder lizard, the tech world’s name for the tiny handful of start-ups that actually become $1 billion businesses.
Books, business journals and news stories abound detailing the insanely long hours tech workers put in, sleeping under desks, napping in broom closets and missing parents’ funerals and children’s births. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has said she worked 130 hours a week at Google. And in a post that went viral, Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch and now a tech investor, wrote: “Startups are hard. So work more, cry less, and quit all the whining.”
“As far as I’m concerned, working 32 hours a week is a part-time job,” Arrington, said in an interview. “I look for founders who are really passionate. Who want to work all the time. That shows they care about what they’re doing, and they’re going to be successful.”
Others cite the need to best the competition and meet investors’ demands.
While Mike McDerment no longer works himself into the ground like he did when he moved into his parents’ Toronto basement to launch his start-up, he still views long hours as necessary.
“It’s really about survival,” said McDerment, CEO of FreshBooks, a cloud-based accounting software firm. “It’s this kind of us-against-the -world mentality. You’re competing with multibillion-dollar companies that want to crush you out of existence. You have to work your ass off just to survive until tomorrow.”
Treehouse founder Carson says he worked around the clock when he was starting out as a Web developer for a start-up in the United Kingdom.
“I remember trying to sleep under my desk for 20 minutes, and feeling delirious and frustrated,” he said. “And then, getting to the end of that and realizing it was all for nothing. We were building a Web site for some tobacco company. That’s when I realized, this is where it goes, if you work hard and never stop. It’s like being on the treadmill and not even understanding why you’re there.”
Indeed, Shikhar Ghosh, a Harvard business school lecturer, studied 2,000 tech companies that started up between 2004 and 2010 and found that 90 to 95 percent fail. “Failure is the norm,” he has said.
Carson, who is originally from Colorado, started his first company in 2004 in the U.K., thinking it would give him more freedom with his time. But he soon found himself working that same intense pace until his wife asked him why he was working more and making less. She suggested taking Fridays off.
“At first, I thought, ‘This is insane; We’ve got way too much work to do,’ ” Carson said. “But the more I thought about it, really, running your own company is about creating your own universe. So why not create a universe you’d want to live in? That’s when the idea went from stupid and crazy to, maybe we should actually do that. So we tried it one week, and never looked back.”
Carson, who acknowledges his outsider status on his blog, “The Naive Optimist,” has kept up the schedule through three start-ups, one of which failed, one he sold, and now Treehouse, which he moved to Portland, Ore., in 2012 because of its walkability. With Treehouse, Carson said he hopes to, again, buck conventional start-up culture, and not cash out by selling the company, the brass ring for most start-ups, but continue to run it as a sustainable business.
So far, the company, which promises that students will be job-ready in one year, is thriving. Already, the 103,000 students enrolled in Treehouse courses outnumber the 10,000 students who graduated with computer science degrees in the United States in 2012. The company has raised $13 million, saw 100 percent revenue growth last year and has close to 100 percent employee retention.
“I’m trying to build a culture that will last,” Carson said. “It makes recruiting and retention so much easier. It’s almost funny. When someone is considering us or Google or Facebook, we say, ‘Well, are you going to work a four-day week there?’ It’s almost like our amazing ace up the sleeve. It’s just something nobody can beat.”
The employees they attract, Carson said, tend to be a little older, many have kids, and most have been ground down by what Carson calls “the lie” of start-up culture: working their guts out, chasing the dream of a big pay off that never came. They are workers like Andrew Chalkley, 31, who took a pay cut to work at Treehouse as an expert teacher. But, with one young son and another on the way — the empty Treehouse office was decorated with tiny onesies from a recent baby shower — Chalkley said he made the right choice.
“I used to stay up until 5 a.m., then go back to work at 8 a.m. Those jobs pay nicely, but for someone with a family, you have to ask yourself, why am I doing this?” he said. Now, on Fridays, he goes on field trips with his 3-year-old and to doctor appointments with his pregnant wife. He was about to take one month of paid parental leave.
To set a sustainable pace in four days, Carson has restructured how work gets done. There are no managers. Instead of a flood of distracting, internal e-mails that interrupt your day, Treehouse uses Canopy, an internal Web forum, for different groups to communicate.
“That’s the key. Do what’s important for you. Then, when you have time, respond to things,” Carson said. “I’ve definitely worked in environments where all I did was e-mail. Now, internally, there’s almost zero. That’s a huge, huge win for the company.”
Workers use HipChat to send messages to each other, rather than walk over, which reduces interruptions. Everyone in the Portland office has lunch together. Half the company works from home.
Clients such as Heidi Sipe, superintendent of the rural Umatilla School District in Oregon, where 73 students are enrolled in a pilot with Treehouse, said they didn’t realize Treehouse was only open Monday through Thursday. “They’re exceptionally responsive,” she said. And if students have questions on Fridays, they can go to very active student forum boards for answers.
The four-day schedule actually cost Treehouse one of its initial investors. “He said, ‘I don’t think you’re serious,’ ” Carson said. “I said, ‘Thanks for being honest, but I’ll prove you wrong.’ ”
But another Treehouse investor, Chamath Palihapitiya, who was one of the longest-tenured members of Facebook’s senior executive team before going out on his own, is in for the long haul.
“The idea that working longer equals working smarter or creating more value is completely false,” he said. “The most forward thinking and successful companies are realizing that giving employees more time to be creative and connected to other things besides their job creates a better and more productive employee. Ryan just had the courage to go and do that.”
Some Treehouse workers are still adjusting to the schedule. “My kids are grown, so I feel a little guilty, like I don’t deserve the time off,” said Nancy King, head of recruiting. “And I don’t have any hobbies, because coming off a grueling work environment, I didn’t have time for any for so long.”
Carson understands the pull of work, especially when you’re passionate about what you do.
“I love my work and I could work crazy hours. But the kids are growing up fast,” he said. “And when I sit down and imagine my gravestone — what do I want it to be about? Metrics and money? Or relationships. It’s really that simple.”