I was fortunate enough to sit down with Will Dean, founder and CEO of Tough Mudder. For anyone who’s been living under a rock these past four years, Tough Mudder is the enormously popular endurance event series which launched in obscurity in 2010 and has since gone on to attract over 1.3 million participants and is today valued at $70 million.
I asked Will about coming to work in the U.S., his meteoric success, and his top five tips on starting a successful company.
Dan Simon: As a fellow Brit, I’m interested in hearing how you came to start working in America?
Will Dean: I came here to get my MBA and there are a lot of good things about Harvard but it is such a bubble. You may be living in the states studying American businesses but you aren’t interacting very much. I think there was a personal interest in sticking around longer and really seeing America properly.
Additionally, there is a simple economic part to it – America is a far bigger market. When people talk about the ease of doing business often you see metrics on how easy it is to set up a business. All that is relevant but there’s something more than that. There is a positive attitude that I found so much more encouraging and inviting. Certainly when you are smaller you feel it; people say “good for you,” “well done,” “best of luck,” rather than “why are you doing that? Your parents must be worried!”
Simon: What do you think you tapped into to achieve such success so quickly?
Dean: There are a few things that have helped us succeed. Firstly, there is the basic human desire to prove and challenge oneself and we provide that with something tangible. Additionally there is the social currency aspect; people know what Tough Mudder is. People have heard of us and will know what you are talking about if you say you have completed a Tough Mudder as opposed to a race where you climbed up mountains and swam through icy water. Social currency is so vital in the age of social media; pictures of people running through flames are exciting and, importantly, shareable. Thirdly, I think we have tapped into a 30-year trend in fitness. Lastly, there is a lot of talk about the current generation (the social generation) and their focus on experience. We say internally, “Experience is a Luxury Item’. Tough Mudder is all about team and doing something as a group – and this is what makes us so different from marathons and triathlons. Other brands like Crossfit tap in to these trends also. We joke that if Crossfit is the church then Tough Mudder is the cathedral . You go to Crossfit every week and it becomes part of your routine, but when you go to a Tough Mudder it is this enormous and absolutely riveting experience.
Simon: How much was in the business plan from day one versus looking back and realizing you stumbled upon it?
Dean: The basic elements were there in terms of creating a team challenge that also uses social media. I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea there were going to be so many other people that felt that way. A lot of businesses start with an insight which essentially is “I have a problem” or “I would buy this product and other people might also need it”. However, if you had told me there were 800,000+ people a year that think like me I would have been really surprised.
Simon: What was the problem you saw that you set out to fix?
Dean: Problem may not be the right word. A big issue I have is that when you run a marathon, one of the first questions you’ll get is about your time. “What was your time?” To most people, I think simply completing the race is accomplishment enough, but you inevitably get compared to others based on time. My inspiration came while doing a triathlon. The zipper jammed on my wetsuit and I asked another guy in transition to help and he said no because he was focused on his time. Keep in mind this was not an event either of us were about to win! I believe being so focused on time creates unhealthy behavior. I wanted something that was team driven; I had done a marathon with friends but aside from starting and crossing the finish line together, we were separate and it felt meaningless. I didn’t think there was a problem until someone pointed it out. The opportunity was there because I thought people were under-served by what existed.
Simon: How did you build Tough Mudder to become such a recognizable brand?
Dean: I realized if you look at the events space, there tends to be both a network and first-mover effect. Looking at Ironman in the distance triathlon space, people pay a premium because Ironman is the real thing. You get momentum and then have a network effect. People will ask me if I think we are a fitness fad. I can’t prove we’re not a fad but we are not a fitness business. We don’t say Tough Mudder will get you fit. They are challenging and running around obviously will help you burn calories but Tough Mudder is not a fitness business in the classic sense of the word.
Simon: So what business are you in?
Dean: I tell people we are in the self-esteem business. I feel strongly that Tough Mudder makes people feel good about themselves; people will say “if I can complete a Tough Mudder, I can do anything.” They write to us and tell us they were getting bullied at work and they went after their race with an orange headband and told people “You can’t speak to me like that anymore, I am a Tough Mudder.” They tell us about how they lost their jobs or a loved one and needed something to rebuild their lives around and training for a Tough Mudder was what helped them. That says more about the human spirit than it does about Tough Mudder but it’s cool to be part of that.
Simon: The communal aspect presumably plays into that as well. People are making friends, connections and have all been through a shared experience together.
Dean: There is research that shows if you hold the door open for people you are likely to be a happier person. Tough Mudder is an extreme version of that. If you boost people up and help them over walls, you feel good about yourself. I think it’s relevant to why people like Tough Mudder because they are part of something bigger than themselves. You come to an event and see an investment banker pulling up in a BMW 7-series next to a construction worker in a Ford F-150. In that moment they are Mudders together and everyone is covered in mud so it is even difficult to tell the difference.
Simon: It wasn’t VC-backed, correct? Did you just start with one event and go from there?
Dean: We were organic from day one and have never taken money. I didn’t think nearly as many people would come and participate in the events. The first event we were hoping for 500 and we got 5,000! It was a remarkable experience because I thought we would need to raise money after the first event and when I looked at the books, I saw we didn’t need to.
Simon: Let’s talk about some of the challenges, one of which I imagine is scale.
Dean: Oh yes, scale is a challenge! It’s not like tech. You can’t just buy another server and double your capacity. You have to hire real people, train them and put them in a field where they follow protocol and are not overwhelmed. You have to keep innovating the product, making sure it is always new and fresh. That’s hard enough if you are trying to update a website but now you need to build a new obstacle course on three different continents.
Simon: What does the team you work with on a daily basis look like?
Dean: Starting with the easy stuff: we have a Chief Legal Officer, a Head of Finance, a Head of People as well as a full marketing team. We have two business units; North America and Rest of the World. Rest of the World is based in London and they worry about the P&L of the business and deal with sorting out the technical stuff – where’s the parking, is the water deep enough? etc. Mark Darbon, former Chief of Staff of the London Olympics, runs that business for us. Mark has three race directors that he works with and they run the P&L on an event-by-event basis and have teams under them who travel to each event. We have a lot in common with something like Cirque du Soleil; there is a large tent city that gets packed up and shipped to the next location. We have massive trucks bouncing around and they will rock up in a field outside a major city and get set up. Some obstacles are modular and they get taken around, others – a mud pit isn’t going anywhere – are constructed on site.
Simon: You mentioned innovation. I can see that with a tech firm. How important is it in your business?
Dean: Extremely important. Thankfully this is where the first-mover advantage and network effect come in to play. Because we have the most people we can invest in the biggest and newest obstacles, because we have the biggest and newest obstacles we can have the most people. To build new and innovative obstacles is a complex business, to invest in the research and development to make it modular is complicated and then each year you must have new stuff. This year we launched ‘Fire in the Hole’ which is a slide that goes through a wall of fire. It’s not easy to create: you have to find material that is slippery but also fire retardant! You have to make the flames big enough that they are exciting but not so aggressive that they barbeque someone. Then to do it all in a way that is inspiring and exciting, easy to describe and great visual imagery is not easy. While it’s tough to innovate, if you can do it well it acts as a great barrier to entry for potential competition.
Simon: Do you ever think about what other experiences you could be creating?
Dean: We tried doing things early on that were close to the core business because my concern was that I had too many ideas and would overwhelm my team. On the flip side it’s been really important to me to send a message to the company that we were going to do things that aren’t necessarily Tough Mudder. Mudderella, a six mile event with fewer obstacles focused on female empowerment, is a great example. We work with an organization called Futures without Violence, an anti-domestic abuse organization. It was really about us recognizing that women enjoyed the idea of a Tough Mudder but many didn’t like the idea of the electric shock and big intimidating male teams. Getting people in the company comfortable with the idea that Tough Mudder might do something different was a transition.
Simon: A lot of the entrepreneurs I speak to are constantly innovating and have a million ideas. How do you retain a focus?
Dean: One of the things that I am trying to focus in my personal life is living in the now. It is so easy to think about where you want to be in five years. The future is exciting; we could be doing all of this stuff in Asia, we could be starting Urban Mudder and having a competition in Lower Manhattan. When we started out I was worried people would say I didn’t sign up to produce a women’s event, I thought we were producing the top events on the planet. It sounds cliché but success comes through focus. You have to be disciplined with yourself in that yes we could launch an apparel line, yes we could launch a fitness business, yes we could expand into Asia, and all are valid options that I can make credible arguments for but we can’t do all of that well simultaneously.
Simon: Do you get a work-life balance?
Dean: It’s a challenge. Ultimately you have to enjoy your life as an entrepreneur. It’s great to provide professional satisfaction from work, but work can’t be everything. You have to be able to say that this weekend I am going to enjoy something and not think about the work I could be doing. Focus is a big issue but it’s true, you have lots of ideas and anyone can have good ideas but you must filter them.
Simon: Do you have a sense of what that next thing is?
Dean: I think the next thing we will do and have already committed to is Urban Mudder where we will do a slightly shorter event inside a city. It will probably be a little easier just because it is aimed at a different kind of customer but it will still be a real challenge. Beyond that we have a few strategic options; I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of continued international expansion because the idea of tailoring a Tough Mudder to a different culture is fascinating.
Simon: So what advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
Dean’s Five Tips
1. Don’t become an entrepreneur for the money. The chances are pretty high you won’t succeed. Do it to solve a problem , to build something. I had no idea the scale of success Tough Mudder was going to achieve when we began. Our first event I was hoping for 500 participants. We had 5,000.
2. Be Resilient. Sh*t will go wrong so you need to be resilient. When we started Tough Mudder we faced some incredibly dark times. Most people would have given up – and sensibly so. If you don’t have that piece of your rational brain missing enabling you to bear outsized pain, perhaps consider whether you should embark on the journey in the first place.
3. Don’t hire anyone you wouldn’t have dinner with . People overlook the importance of cultural fit but it’s so important. Also be honest about your strengths and weaknesses and hire people to complement your deficits. I, for example, make a pretty poor cheerleader, which is why we have a Chief Culture Officer who is great at rallying the team. In your 20s you say: these are skills I must work on. In your 30s you realize: these are skills I need to hire in.
4. Live in the now. Make time to enjoy yourself. Entrepreneurs obviously spend a lot of their time thinking about the future and the ‘next thing’. But if you don’t take time to relax, celebrate your successes and be happy, you will burn out.
5. Stay focused. One of the biggest fallacies is that to be focused is to be unambitious. It’s not. A single project could be hugely ambitious. As an entrepreneur I have 20 ideas a day. The challenge is deciding what to focus on. If I were to action them all I would only do a bit of everything just slightly well. The key is to channel your ambitions into one project and do it amazingly.
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