Michael Watson has all of the relaxed, almost sleepy, characteristics of a native Californian. Chatting to AccountingWEB from his home in Portland, Oregon, his voice never wavers from a deep monotone, punctuating his sentences with long pauses.
Watson, still a young man, is the CFO/COO of Treehouse, an online educational platform that teaches web design and development. After attending Tufts University and INSEAD in France, he worked in in private equity before joining Treehouse as a sales representative so he could learn coding.
“I took the job against the best advice of pretty much every person I spoke to,” Watson notes wryly.
Within four months, he was promoted to CFO after Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson recognised his financial experience. Treehouse is Carson’s baby; he built the company from scratch and subsequently took Treehouse through two funding rounds.
“We raised $12m,” says Watson with a hint of pride, “and we’ve currently got over $7m in the bank. So we’re doing quite well”.
Being a start-up on America’s innovation rich West Coast is not exceptional. What sets Treehouse apart, though, is that it operates for only four days a week. Every one of Treehouse’s roughly 100 employees, from CEO to CFO to sales reps, works 32 hours a week.
But how can a CFO operate effectively with a day lost from his working week?
Watson freely admits he made that argument with when he first arrived. “I’ve gone on the record as saying that, at first, I thought ‘this is crazy’,” says Watson. But now, his perspective has changed to one that looks beyond just metrics.
“The main benefits you’re going to get out of this are always going to be intangible, unless you find some way to quantify those intangibles,” he says. In fact, he admits he doesn’t have time to measure things like turnover and employee satisfaction.
“Maybe in a few years, when we’re better resourced,” he says.
Trimming the work week is not something that can be done in a snap, he adds. Treehouse can absorb the lost day because of the industry it’s in and the fact that it doesn’t bill hours. “We’re not a management consulting firm, not an accounting firm – it’s not like we’re leaving stuff on the table there. We’re not a manufacturing firm in the traditional sense; it’s not a case of the less we manufacture, the less we make,” says Watson. “We’re trying to create an amazing online education platform.”
The Treehouse ethos is based on taking care of our employees, which means they’re not going to be burned out. “They’re going to be more excited about going to work – all this stuff cascades down into the product,” he says.
“But not everyone will be able to do that,” Watson acknowledges. He isn’t a starry-eyed tech utopian and recognises that in some instances a shorter week would make no sense.
“If I was beginning a start-up today and I didn’t have the resources to operate at a loss for a while, then I wouldn’t go straight for a 32-hour work week. All else being equal, that would be silly.”
But he defends the four-day work week’s benefits for those who can afford it: “People who are driven, not burnt out, that care about their product, are going to try and find ways to work hard and work smart.
“Ultimately what ends up happening is you measure people on the results of their work.”
On a personal level, as a person with a life and a marriage, Watson says Treehouse’s shorter week is “amazing”.
“I can’t believe we live in a time and an age where this is possible, even feasible. That’s super fortunate. I’m so grateful and lucky to be in this position,” he says.
And it’s not just about the freedom from work. Rather, it’s about the freedom to choose. “I believe in the value of hard work, I often find myself working on Sunday afternoons and that’s not because anyone tells me, but because I believe that’s what helps me get ahead,” he says.
“The added sense of freedom and ownership over your life and just time – it’s something that you’ll never get back. I can sleep in on a Friday and not think twice about it, I can go out on a Thursday evening and get the best camping spot when I’m backpacking. It’s all these little mini things.”
It’s safe to say Watson is happy where he is and content to accept the challenges posed to a financial director by Treehouse’s unique culture.
He has grown to admire his CEO’s bravery. “Anyone who is in a leadership position is going to have to weigh pros and cons,” he says. “The question is, can they make tough decisions that might look bad initially, that aren’t just going to make you money in the short term because in the long run that’s the kind of culture you want to have?”