Alan Johnson (Treehouse co-founder) talks about how having a mission has helped him focus on what’s important at work and how he uses the Treehouse mission every day to prioritize his daily tasks.
“I remember the day well. October 15th, 2010. I woke up at 4 AM, pulled out my shiny new MacBook Pro, and opened Skype to hop onto a call with the team in Bath, England. I was now officially the developer for Think Vitamin Membership, and part of the Carsonified team. I wanted to get a jump on things, so it seemed fitting to wake up at 4 AM and start the day with the team in England.
Despite my current title of co-founder, back then I was employee number four on the Think Vitamin Membership team. The new guy. I was intensely excited to start, but pretty much in the same way that I was excited to work at any of the other startups I had worked at. It was the fifth startup I’d worked for, and while I always threw myself in with intensity, I wasn’t sure if it would be much different than the others.
That first day didn’t end up feeling much different. The app died. Twice. It wasn’t my fault, but I was responsible for fixing it. That 4 AM morning meeting yielded a long list of features I needed to work on, but the app was crashing. A few of the features seemed like they weren’t important enough to spend my time on, when looking at condition of the app, but it was my first day. It was no time to start arguing yet.
This was a pretty typical start at a startup for me. We had lots of problems. I needed to fix them.
Over time something interesting changed. Where other companies I had worked at tended to be very team centric — What are we doing? What will webuild? How will we make money? — the Think Vitamin Membership team was rapidly growing out of that and into a place I liked a lot more. We talked about our students all the time. We heard from our students all the time. They were telling us that we were helping them. We’d hear stories about how the videos we made helped them make more money, and every once in a while, we’d hear them talk about how they got a new job in tech, or even entered the world of tech, and attributed to what we had taught them.
I was learning that nothing made me excited like finding out that I had helped someone live a better life, and that work was a place where I could do that.
While we were seeing these successes, they were few and far between. We wanted to hear more amazing stories. That meant we had to change the product. This realization kicked off a several month process that saw us rebrand everything, turning Think Vitamin Membership to Treehouse. It also saw us raise a seed round and start to ramp up hiring.
During these months of work on Treehouse, I remember Ryan, our founder, mentioning wanting us to work on mission statement. I certainly did a mental roll of the eyes, if not a physical one. Mission statements never change who you are. They just hang around for a while and then disappear.
Ryan felt pretty strongly about this, so he did a bit of work. He came back with what after a few word tweaks would be:
At the time I was rushing to fix problems after Treehouse’s launch, so I just pasted it into the footer like he asked and moved on. It was fine, and it matched who we were.
Strangely, though, Ryan managed to capture exactly who we are with those words. We’ve changed the mission statement very little since then, just to make sure that it was inclusive of everything that we teach.
Working With a Mission
Over time, the words of our mission have really stuck in my head, and I use them every day to make sure I’m doing what Treehouse does. Is it affordable? Is it technology education? Does it increase access? Does it help people achieve their dreams? Many mornings I wake up and start to think about what I’ll do that day, and end up reciting our mission statement. It’s part of who I am these days.
That original seed round has expanded to a couple of other rounds of funding, and that small team of 11 that launched Treehouse is now up over 70. I’ve moved my family from Greenville, SC to Portland, OR. My title was changed to co-founder as my responsibilities have expanded. Our mission stays the same.
Over that time, I’ve realized that I was right: Missions never really change who you are. That’s because when they work, they’re about putting who you are into action.
For me personally, I feel like working under a mission like this changes everything. I don’t have to personally struggle to figure out if I think we should or shouldn’t work on something, because the mission has a tendency to tell me. If I’m at a loss for what my next priority should be, I can usually look at the mission, get a feel for where we’re not doing as well as we could, and focus on it. Probably most importantly, the mission helps me know that I’m doing this for our students and for the world, not just for myself or for my team.
Right now, there’s nothing I’d rather do than work on Treehouse’s mission.