Ryan is the Founder of Treehouse, an online technology school with over 80,000 enrolled students. He’s passionate about creating the future of education to change as many lives as possible.
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(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
[01:02] – Ryan was born and raised in Colorado
[01:09] – He studied computer science in college and moved to England
[01:41] – Ryan started as a web developer and was shocked at the disconnect he felt with his job and his degree
[02:40] – His area of expertise is in taking normal people from zero to job ready as developers
[03:44] – Share something we don’t know about your area of expertise that as Entrepreneurs, we probably should: You don’t need a college degree to be a developer. People don’t know how to get a job in technology, and the reality is it’s not binary. Learn how to code and offer your services step by step to increase your charges as you go
[05:48] – Worst Entrepreneurial Moment: Ryan was a web developer from 2000 to 2004. He quit his job for an idea he had. He built a simple web app and started selling. Unfortunately, he didn’t anticipate it would be that hard — thinking it was easy to build a business. 6 months into the business, Ryan only had 4 sales. Times got worse, and he only got discouraged. One night, he went to his wife and told her that his business was failing
[10:09] – “If you think you’re bad at sales, you can learn”
[10:59] – Entrepreneurial AH-HA Moment: Ryan figured out how not having a degree in tech could actually work for people who wanted to work as developers. This year, Ryan focused on people, color, and women who are underrepresented in tech. He went out and talked to these people to understand what he didn’t know. These people didn’t trust him, and told him to partner with someone they trust. Ryan partnered up with the Boys & Girls Club to share his message and talked to employers like Nike
[12:56] – If you dig deep into a problem, you can do great things
[13:21] – Lengthen your timelines for your projects
[14:15] – If you have a longer timeline, don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it
[15:10] – The Lightning Round
- What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur? – “Just believing that I can’t do things”
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? – “Do not stop doing the daily, ridiculously, boring tasks. Do them over and over again for years”
- What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success? – “I get up everyday at 4:30am”
- Share an internet resource, like Evernote, with Fire Nation – How I Built This
- If you could recommend one book to our listeners, what would it be and why? – Good to Great – “it is transformational”
[19:01] – “Just don’t quit”
Ryan Carson: Oh yeah, woohoo! I’m super excited, let’s do it.
John: Ryan is the founder of Treehouse, an online technology school with over 80,000 enrolled students. He’s passionate about creating the future of education to change as many lives as possible. Ryan, take a minute, fill in some gaps from that intro, and give us just a little glimpse of your personal life.
Ryan Carson: Born and raised in Colorado, was really lucky to have great parents that loved me and supported me. So, went to college, studied computer science. Then I thought, I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life, so let’s to move a foreign country. So, I watched the film Notting Hill and I thought it looked nice, so I moved to England. I was gonna stay for a year, and then I met a girl. Of course, that girl changed my life, we got married, and I stayed in England for 12 years.
I started out as a web developer, got a job as a coder because I studied computer science. When I got my first job, I was shocked at this crazy disconnect between my degree and the job. And we’ll talk about it more later, but that is really the seed of where the idea came from for Treehouse. It really bothered me that we had invested $50,000 in this degree, but I didn’t really use any of it in my job. So then, fast-forward 10 years later, and I started Treehouse to fix that problem. That journey took us all the way to Portland, Oregon. Now, our headquarters are here. It’s been an amazing, fun, hard, crazy journey.
John: Well, we will put some fertilizer on that seed, Ryan, to see how it sprouts into what is now Treehouse, of course. But, before we get into your journey a little bit more, what would you say, today, is your area of expertise?
Ryan Carson: It is taking normal folks from zero to job-ready as developers. That’s really what I know everything about. On top of that, I’ve learned how to be a CEO that can do that. I really don’t have any business training, so I’ve had to learn everything on the fly. So, I’ve really learned how to build a business, how to make it through tough things. But, most of all, how to teach normal folks how to code so they can get a job. Related to that, we’re getting really good at helping businesses create that talent by actually creating a talent pipeline where they can create developers instead of battle Facebook for expensive developers. So, getting really good at that stuff.
John: Ok, well, let’s not be vague, don’t go broad here, don’t give me some obvious answer, I want a specific thing that we probably don’t know as entrepreneurs about that area of expertise, about becoming a coder, XYZ. Tell us something awesome.
Ryan Carson: The secret is, is that you absolutely do not need a college degree.
John: Ok, check, we get that. That’s not specific. Let’s get specific. You don’t need a college degree, what’s something – just one thing, one tip, Ryan, one tool, one tactic, that you just find over and over again that people come to you not knowing but you wished they knew.
Ryan Carson: People do not know how to actually get a job in technology. What they need to understand is that it’s not binary. You don’t all of a sudden become employed versus being unemployed in tech. What you do, this is a secret tactic, you learn how to code. And as you are learning how to code, what you do is, you go to a friend, or a neighbor, or a local business, and you say, “Can I build a website for you for free?” They’re gonna say yes. After you do that, which is gonna be hard, it’s not gonna be that great, then, you go out and ask another small business and say, “Can I build a website or an app for you for $100?”
And then, once you do that, then you keep repeating this process until you eventually are charging $1000’s for your work. You now are a developer as a job. So, it isn’t this binary thing. There’s this way to actually ease your way into this industry. It works time after time after time.
John: Step by step, inch by inch, row by row, Fire Nation. You need to build up your library, and who should give you a chance if you’re gonna charge them money that first time? No, you’re gonna do that work for free. You have to be willing to build up that library and make that happen so that you can prove to others that “Hey, I am a value, look at a what I’ve done.” Now, you have that proof of concept.
Ryan, let’s to do a little bit of a shift here, because you’ve kinda given us a background of your story, it’s ended up in Portland, Oregon with Treehouse. But, what, throughout all of this, has been your worst entrepreneurial moment? Take us there, tell us that story.
Ryan Carson: I was a web developer from 2000-2004, and I looked at my boss and I thought, “I can do his job. I mean, how hard could it be?” So, you know, he just comes to work in his fancy car and makes a ton of money, and we do all the work here. So, I bet I can do that. You know, that classic kind of naiveté that all of us entrepreneurs have. So, I quit. I had the idea for a product; it’s a very simple product, send large files that you can’t email. It was 2004, that was still really hard. So, I built this simple web app to do it. I was inspired by Jason Fried and David Hansson from 37signals, now Basecamp, to charge monthly for this product. I built it, and I quit, and I started selling it.
It was hard. You know, I had all of these Excel sheets that were showing our revenue growing and growing and how we were gonna make millions of dollars someday. And I showed my wife this, my wife is a successful magazine editor, she was a journalist, and I said, “Honey, we’re gonna build a big business here. Just watch.”
John: “Honey, we’re gonna be rich, just wait.” [Laughing]
Ryan Carson: [Laughing] Who’s heard that before?
John: Talk about setting expectations, good job.
Ryan Carson: Yeah, I learned that lesson. So, I started working on it and, of course, it was really hard. I had priced the product totally wrong, it was something like $500 a month and I was selling to businesses, and I did not even know how to do that. So, I had this chart on the wall that was a thermostat. It showed sales, and how, as they were gonna go up, we’d eventually hit the top of the thermostat and we’d celebrate. I got to about four sales, we’re talking – we’re at six months in now, and it got worse. And I just got more and more discouraged.
I remember, one day it was lunchtime, and I worked by myself in my top bedroom at a computer, I remember lunch came, and my wife is at work and I was by myself, and I thought, “I think I’m gonna watch a movie over lunch, because I’m depressed.”
John: I had a Downtown Abbey marathon a couple of weeks ago, I’m not gonna lie. It happens.
Ryan Carson: [Laughing] That’s ok.
So, I was depressed. I thought, “I don’t wanna think about this right now.” So, I watched a movie over work. Then, afterwards, I was like, “Something is wrong. If I’m watching a movie during work hours, something is not right and I need to get real. Is this gonna work or not?” After some thought, I realized I don’t know how to fix this. I think we’re gonna fail.
So, the worst moment was one night where – my wife is an amazing cook so she was cooking dinner, I kinda came down and I said, “Jill, I don’t think this thing is gonna happen. I literally think we’re gonna fail.” It was humiliating to say, “Hey, all of these graphs that I showed you were wrong, everything I said I could do didn’t happen, and I’m failing. It was the worst. You know, she was loving, and kind, and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.” I’m lucky to have a partner like that. So, we did pick it up, and look at Treehouse now. So, there you go.
John: Well, that obviously hurts. I can feel the agony in your voice as you’re telling your wife, “Hey babe, this is not gonna happen.” That hurts, Fire Nation. That’s what happens when we’re entrepreneurs. We take these big risks and a lot of times they do end up in failure. But, you know, we learn from that.
So, on that note, Ryan, I mean, you did a ton of things wrong. We don’t have time to go through all of them, oh my goodness, but you mentioned pricing as one thing, but what’s one thing that you really think would help Fire Nation, that you specifically did wrong? Just give us one sentence Ryan, keep it short, keep it sweet, give us one great lesson learned from that experience.
Ryan Carson: You think you’re bad at sales, you can learn. Sales is something you can learn. So, if you don’t feel like a natural salesperson, that doesn’t matter. This has been transformational for me and my career, it’s kinda black and white, and I wish I would have learned this six years ago.
John: Fire Nation, the episode just yesterday I had Wes Schaeffer, the Sales Whisperer, on the show. If you didn’t hear it, maybe after this episode, go back and listen to that one, because he drops value bomb after value bomb about sales. And how to sell even if you hate selling. Deep down, selling sucks and it’s tough.
Ryan, let’s talk about one of the greatest ideas you’ve had to date. You’ve had a lot, but break down one of them. Tell us that story.
Ryan Carson: This is something we’ve figured out in the last year and I am ridiculously excited about it. So, I said earlier you don’t need a college degree to get a job in tech. Well, we decided to actually figure out how that works. So, this year, I specifically focused on people of color and women, who are massively under-represented in tech, and I realized I was not doing a good enough job to equal the playing field and to empower folks to get in the industry.
So, we decided to dig in and figure out what we could do. So, I went out and talked to Black folks, and Latin folks, and women, and said, “Please help me understand. I am a white guy, with a ton of privilege, teach me.” And they said, “Ryan, because of who you are, you can’t walk into a group like us and tell us we can get a job in tech without a college degree, we don’t believe you. Sorry. You don’t have credibility; you don’t look like us. So, you need a partner or someone that we trust, then you need to go to employers and tell them to hire people without computer science degrees, because people are still demanding that.” I said “Okay, I’m gonna try to make this happen.”
So, we set up a partnership at the Boys and Girls Club and said, “Please communicate this message, this amazing news, that you can get an amazing job that’s creative and fun without a college degree, and it pays really well.” So, they started doing that. And then, I went to employers and said, “Put your money where your mouth is. You say you wanna hire diverse talent, well, you have to stop requiring computer science degrees because there just isn’t a huge number of diverse folks coming out of computer science.” And they said, “We’ll do it.”
So, we booted up this pilot, it’s called Future Tech, and there’s amazing employers like Nike hiring out of it. What I’ve learned, if you dig into a tough problem, and you’re willing to have a long timeline, like years, to solve it, you can do crazy things, crazy things.
So, after a year of hard work, we literally have this system that we can plug into any company and say, “Hey, you can actually hire the diverse talent you want.” We plug it in, and it’s a product now at Treehouse. Everyone listening, I just wanna encourage you, try to lengthen your timelines on your projects and have extremely – literally ten year timelines in front of you, and it’s shocking what you can achieve with patience.
John: Fire Nation, this is a marathon that we’re on, this is not a sprint. You’ve never seen anybody win at a high level that’s looked at this like a sprint. You just don’t. There’s a great quote, I think it’s Peter Drucker, I’m not sure, maybe you know because you were just talking a lot about this, Ryan, but “People often overestimate what they can accomplish in a year, but they way underestimate what they can accomplish in ten years.” You can accomplish amazing things in ten years, but you need to have that long term horizon. That’s my biggest piece of advice and takeaway from your story, what do you wanna make sure our listeners get from your story?
Ryan Carson: I want to make sure that they understand that, if you have a longer timeline, and you truly believe in your mission, do not let people tell you you can’t do it. They will tell you over and over, “You can’t do it, you’re gonna fail.” You just have to have this deep, deep “why”. It took me 32 years to find it, so Treehouse was founded when I was 32. So, I don’t wanna tell everybody your first idea’s gonna be your “why”, but once you get it, which you will, you will be unstoppable. You just have to not give up.
John: Well, that was a magical year for us. I started Entrepreneur on Fire at the age of 32. So, Fire Nation, if you’re not yet 32, maybe that’s your year. If you’re older than 32, don’t worry, 42, 54, 82, it all works. It all works, just start now.
Ryan is gonna be dropping some value bombs when we get back from thanking our sponsors.
Ryan, are you ready to rock the Lightning Round?
Ryan Carson: I am, let’s do it.
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Ryan Carson: Just believing that I didn’t know how to do things. I couldn’t sell, I couldn’t market things, I couldn’t raise money, I couldn’t do these things. I just had to get over that.
John: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Ryan Carson: Do not stop doing the daily ridiculously boring tasks. Do them over and over again for years, and then you get crazy results. I just wanna props to you, I mean, look at this, you’re at episode 1907 with Lawrence Wu, that is ridiculous.
John: [Laughing] Are you saying this is boring?
Ryan Carson: I bet it is, let’s be frank. It’s laborious, right? Everyday, you have not quit. It’s a really good example to your listeners.
John: Fire Nation, that’s one reason why I stress the daily routine so much. You just gotta have that daily routine, because if you just make that boring part of your day part of the routine, it just becomes habit. Then, you just do it without even thinking about it. It’s just done. I just add small little things into my morning routine that just benefit me, like skin brushing. I didn’t even know what that meant a year ago, now it’s part of my daily routine. Do I really know that it’s really helping me out a ton? No, but my functional medicine doctor says it is, and it takes 30 seconds, so I do it. Who knows? Maybe it’s helping out a lot.
So, what are those small things that you can and should be doing every single day? The Compound Effect, The Slight Edge, those are two great books that talk about this at length, ad nauseam. They’re amazing.
What’s a personal habit, Ryan, that contributes to your success?
Ryan Carson: I get up every day at 4:30 a.m. whether I feel like it or not. Yup, I love it. I’ve actually been only doing that for the past year, it has been transformational. Then, I immediately look at my yearly Gantt chart. So, I lay out my yearly goals, and then I expand it and I say, “Okay, what have I already said I need to be doing today?” Then, I transfer those to-dos to my written moleskin, and I focus like an animal on completing those things every day.
John: What time are you typically falling asleep if you’re getting up at 4:30?
Ryan Carson: Not early enough. Unfortunately, it’s probably 10:30 and I’m working on that. It really needs to be a little earlier.
John: I gotta say, I think it does. I’m definitely not a doctor, but I know that I treasure my eight hours and I don’t always get it, but I definitely strive for it. I’m an early bird too, I love getting up early. But, gotta get those eight for me.
Internet resource, Ryan, share one and why.
Ryan Carson: One that has been transformational for me is How I Built This. Which, in addition to Entrepreneur on Fire, you should be listening to because the stories are so brutally honest. It’s like going to a therapist, it’s so good.
John: So good. The Ben and Jerry’s one, unfortunately, got me on a little Ben and Jerry’s ice cream kick, and I can’t get off it now. And I’m like, “Oh, I love these guys, I gotta go support them and I gotta eat their ice cream.” [Laughing]
Ryan Carson: I was literally listening to the episode of Clif Bar this morning during my workout. I mean, the guy was crying on the episode. It’s just – it’s so powerful. It’s great.
John: One book, and share why.
Ryan Carson: Good to Great. It is transformational. It’s fact-based, it’s research-based, and it’s opposite to what you’re told from the media and from Silicon Valley.
John: Ryan, let’s end Today on Fire with you giving us a parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Ryan Carson: Parting piece of advice, I’m gonna reiterate, just don’t quit. Go until you find your “why”, don’t quit. If you wanna find me, I’m on Twitter and Instagram as @ryancarson. If you wanna check out Treehouse, we are teamtreehouse.com.
John: Fire Nation, you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with and you’ve been hanging out with RC and JLD today. So, keep up the heat. Head over to EoFire.com, type Ryan in the search bar, this show notes page is gonna pop up with everything that we’ve been talking about today. These are the best show notes in the biz, timestamps, links galore. Of course, check out teamtreehouse.com.
Ryan, thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that, brother, we salute you and we will catch you on the flip side.
Ryan Carson: Been a joy, thank you. Buh-bye.
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