The Brit who managed to tough it out in unfamiliar territory

Annabel Denham
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Annabel Palmer talks strength, endurance and electric wires with Will Dean, co-founder of Tough Mudder and Englishman in New York

THE growing obsession with wellbeing has now reached a point where 12-mile obstacle courses, designed by British Special Forces and incorporating icy cold water and electric wires, are among the most popular fitness events in the world. Tough Mudder, co-founded in 2010 by Brit Will Dean, is a forerunner in the industry, and organises what it describes as “probably the toughest event on the planet”.

Dean left a job six years ago at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for Harvard Business School – which he hoped would enable him to make the transition to owning and running his own business. But despite reaching the final 10 of Harvard’s prestigious Business Plan Contest, he was disappointed by the experience. “I was surprised by the extent to which it was a finance finishing school. When I met the careers team, in desperate need of advice on how to structure my thinking, they asked whether I had considered a career in management consultancy.”

Nonetheless, business school wasn’t entirely wasted: it taught him a number of valuable lessons. “I realised that while market research is helpful, and writing powerpoints can be a useful exercise, there is no substitute for putting your product out in the market and seeing if people will buy it. And the less money you can spend doing that, the better.” The first website he built for Tough Mudder cost $250 (£153), with a $8 daily running charge.

In the absence of business school guidance, Dean went with his gut. Six years ago, during the London triathlon, the zip on his wetsuit jammed as he was entering transition from swim to bike. “Now this was an amateur event, I wasn’t going to win. Neither were the two guys I asked for help but who refused, because they were ‘too busy’. It really hammered home how solitary and individualistic those races were.” He concluded there was a gap in the market for an event centred on teamwork and camaraderie, where the emphasis was on finishing, not getting a good time. Only 78 per cent of participants complete each Tough Mudder.

Dean describes the first two years as “tough”. “When you start a business, it’s not like having a job with long hours. You are de facto in charge of everything, from operations to marketing and human resources.” On completing business school, Dean had debts of over $100,000. He had moved to New York with his girlfriend (now wife), had bought a beaten-up Volkswagen Jetta, and urgently needed to get proof-of-concept.

“I knew nothing about hosting live events. I spent hours visiting over 50 venues, all of which were either unsuitable or unwilling to work with us.” He carried out research into racetracks and ski resorts out of season, but these small rural communities were concerned about the hassle and risk of liability. “I arrived late one afternoon at one venue, having driven all day to get there. I knew instantly that it wasn’t suitable. When I told the owner that I went to Harvard Business School, and was now organising a mud run, she said solemnly: ‘Your parents must be very worried about you.’ Looking back, it was funny. But at the time, it was completely breaking.”

Finally, a small ski resort in Allentown, Pennsylvania, agreed to host the event. But over the next few months, Dean and co-founder Guy Livingstone encountered a number of difficulties. To begin with, the owner was insistent that a diver check the resort’s ponds before allowing competitors to wade through them. At the time, Dean had $10,000 in his bank account, only a fraction more than it would cost for a professional diver to scour the pond. He decided to take matters into his own hands. “I had a summer wetsuit and a snorkel. It was January in Pennsylvania, minus 10C, and I have never been so cold.”

Six weeks before the race, the pair realised they needed 500 participants to break even. They had spent $2,000 on the venue and building their website, leaving $8,000 for marketing. “It was all done through social media. We were in the right place at the right time – Facebook had only begun to operate as an advertising platform. We got a great return on investment.” After 10 days, the budget was spent, and Tough Mudder had close to 5,000 participants, each paying $100. Tough Mudder now has over 2m Facebook fans, and over 100,000 followers on Twitter. But for that first event, in May 2010, the pair give themselves a C minus for execution.

When Dean and Livingstone allocated race numbers, for example, they based them on the order that people signed up. But when the labels arrived, they were in alphabetical order. “I thought it would take a few hours to allocate bibs to stickers and stuff envelopes. It took over 40.” And the night before the event, they were out, torches in hand, hammering signs into the ground. On the day, there were queues for parking, and bottlenecks at the obstacles. Today, however, Tough Mudder is a different beast, managed by “sophisticated systems, and event professionals”.

But the company has remained self-financed. In 2012, it had $75m in revenue, with 470,000 participants. This year, 750,000 people have taken part. “The business is growing quickly,” Dean says. This year, it launched Mudderella, a slightly shorter women’s event. It has expanded into new markets, and Dean wants to move into the training and media spaces. “People ask if we’re going to be a fad. I remember reading an article in the New York Times from 1963 with the headline: ‘Jogging – is it a fad?’ We want to be a lifestyle brand, like Harley Davidson. We want our participants to describe themselves as ‘Tough Mudders’”.

Dean thinks the key to successful entrepreneurship lies in a passion for the idea, and a resilience to get through the first two years. “There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money. But in my experience, people who try to set up a business exclusively with that in mind will seldom ever succeed. Frankly, there are other, better, ways of making money,” he says.

“But I’m passionate about this company. I’m fortunate that I could sell it tomorrow and never have to work again. But what would I do with my life aged 33? It may sound cheesy, particularly to a British audience, but I truly believe Tough Mudder makes the world a better place. We’ve helped raise over £500,000 for Help for Heroes, and we’re encouraging people to reconnect with their friends and get fit.” Dean himself has done 11 Tough Mudders. Has he joined the other 1,000 finishers who now have a Tough Mudder tattoo? “No. My wife might tolerate it, but my mother would be deeply upset,” he says.

Company name: Tough Mudder

Founded: 2010

Number of staff: 152

Company turnover: 2012: $75m

Job title: Chief executive

Age: 33

Born: Nottinghamshire

Lives: Brooklyn

Studied: University of Bristol (BSc) and Harvard Business School (MBA)

Drinking: Whiskey on the rocks

Eating: Anything I’ve never tried before

Currently reading: Influends: The Psychology of Persuation, by Robert B Cialdini. It is the latest pick for our Tough Mudder book club

Favourite business book: The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries

Talents: Simplifying things, perservering with kitesurfing, generally understanding Americans

Awards: National EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 Emerging Award; Fortune’s 40 Under 40: Ones to watch 2013; WWP Talkhouse Award 2013; Crain’s 40 Under 40 (2012)