MOST students don’t even consider setting up a business, but at university Will Dean founded an alternative graduation t-shirt company to compete with UK universities’ offerings. He later took near-monopolistic control of the global supply of antique Bollywood posters. But this was small fry compared to his current company: Tough Mudder.
After finishing university he worked on counterterrorism for the Foreign Office, but realised he saw his future self owning and running his own business. His next step was to take an MBA at Harvard. Despite reaching the final 10 of Harvard’s prestigious Business Plan Contest, Dean didn’t get the experience he wanted: “Business school is basically finance school – 99 per cent of people don’t come out of Harvard and start their own business, which surprised me.”
Being in the US was useful for developing his ideas, though: “As a Brit in the states, I was uniquely positioned to find things that were working in Europe and bring them to the US.” He notes, upon observing the Europeanisation of lifestyles in the US – for example, cycling, cafes and fashion – that “arbitrage isn’t just in one direction.” A stongman run, put on by Fisherman’s Friend in Germany, attracted his attention. Although this event wasn’t put on for profit, he thought it could be. Harvard’s final judging panel in the Business Plan Contest weren’t as convinced, but Dean knew he had found the Holy Grail: “You get paid in advance, you have no capital risk and it is scalable.” Upon graduating he called Guy Livingstone, a friend from school and then a “bored corporate lawyer”, who flew out to the US to help set up the business.
Business school wasn’t totally wasted; he learnt two things. Firstly, “always figure out your minimum viable product – a very small experiment can test your assumptions.” And secondly: “Marketing is the true core competency of all small businesses.”
The first Tough Mudder event was in May 2010. They were hoping for 500 people to break even, but in 5 weeks they had sold all 5,000 tickets. Dean and Livingstone had gone from investing $20,000, to having $500,000 sitting in the bank – now they just had to put on the event. It didn’t run entirely smoothly – with cars backed up in parking lots and bottlenecks at obstacles – but they learned from this. Last year there were 14 Tough Mudder events in the US, this year there will be over 25, with even more in Australia, Canada and the UK.
Dean is plugged in and switched on – he even claims Tough Mudder is one of Facebook’s biggest advertisers, remarkable for a company going only two years. He likes the fact that it can target extremely focused adverts in real time, running tests for as little as $0.80.
Staff are offered $2,000 to leave in the first month, while Tough Mudder Ventures provides seed financing for former employees. He has big plans for his company and certainly seems as dedicated to it as the 1,000 Tough Mudder competitors who have had the blazing logo tattooed on them.
CV | WILL DEAN
Turnover: $25m (2011); est. $75m (2012)
Number of staff: 55 (full-time)
Born: Sheffield, UK
Lives: Brooklyn, New York, US
Drinking: Brooklyn Lager/London Pride (depending on location)
Talents: Simplifying things, persevering with kitesurfing, generally understanding Americans
Favourite business book: The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker – a truly timeless classic
Motto: “95 per cent of business is execution, 95 per cent of execution is marketing and 95 per cent of marketing is empathy.” (Harvard Marketing Professor)
First ambition: To be secretly recruited for MI5 and to grow taller than his father