Will Dean Built Tough Mudder From Zero To 3 Million Participants – What Lessons Did He Learn?

RISING has done a fair few obstacle course races, including the Granddaddy Tough Guy Race (the horse-shit swamp still haunts us...), but in terms of turning OCR into a worldwide phenomenon no brand has done more, with more success, than Tough Mudder – which became a $100 million business within five years of launch…

RISING What was your underlying inspiration for Tough Mudder and why do you think it caught on so well?

WILL DEAN ‘Tough Mudder is fun. It’s about bringing people together – for me, my passion isn't just running in the mud or climbing over obstacles, it’s this belief that the creative things that we as humans achieve, we do when we work together. There’s two or three things that are really interesting going on in society at the moment and I think Tough Mudder was borne out of those. The first is, unfortunately, we live in this age where people spend more and more time on social media looking at pictures of each other, and less time actually interacting – you see the rates of loneliness and depression are going up.

‘Then speak to someone under the age of 30; they won’t tell you about their car, they'll tell you about what they did last weekend. Experiences, particularly shared experiences – we wouldn't trade them for the world. The third part – I do believe that living a healthy, active lifestyle, and challenging yourself to take on new things is fundamental to being happy in life; that's how we build confidence.’

‘The tribe and the community have taken on a life of its own, and I'm really proud of that’

RISING It sounds like the ‘shared experience’ part of the formula is what has driven your business?

WD ‘I think people crave this community and sense of connection and shared experience. Unfortunately, many of the things that used to bring us together are on the decline, and Tough Mudder is one of those things that I think brings people together. Am I surprised at the scale? Absolutely – three million people have done our event now; it kind of blows my mind, frankly. The tribe and the community have taken on a life of its own, and I'm really proud of that.’

RISING I personally know people with Tough Mudder tattoos – how did you go about building that tribe?

WD ‘Great communities are predicated on shared values, and I think the values come out very clearly in the events. It’s all about teamwork – we design the obstacles to be able to do things together, but also to be about not taking yourself too seriously and being able to laugh. Even the headbands, this kind of slightly goofy retro thing – you don't get a medal, you get this weird orange headband. The values are borne out of the event and I think all good communities have rituals and things that bring them together. We have, ‘Wear Your Headband To Work,’ the day after the events, and we've built the Mudder Legion. There are those that have done World's Toughest Mudder, there are those people that have done ten Tough Mudders – like any other good tribe, there's some kind of hierarchy associated with that.’

RISING How do you think Tough Mudder is different from any other ‘active lifestyle’ brand?

WD ‘I think if you look at what Tough Mudder's building, this community, we're trying to create multiple levels in which you can engage in it. People talk about lifestyle brands all the time, and I think the phrase is becoming a bit meaningless. I hear all the sports apparel companies calling themselves lifestyle businesses, and I go to the gym and I see someone wearing an Under Armour T-shirt, Nike shoes, and Adidas shorts, and I think: “well, if these are all lifestyle brands, that person’s a schizophrenic.”’

RISING After growing at such speed, you must have had a period of having to let go of various parts of the operation?

WD ‘Letting go, as a founder and entrepreneur, I think it's one of the hardest things. When things are small you can feel like you're in control of everything because it's small and it's nimble and you can change direction, and it all happens quite quickly. Then you become bigger and that becomes much harder. My daughter's only two years old, and other entrepreneurs tell me one of the greatest things about being an entrepreneur is it makes the process of watching your children grow up, and letting go of worrying about every little thing they're doing, easier – because Tough Mudder's my baby as well as my children.’

RISING The Tough Mudder community is so big now that’s it’s become its own beast – what’s that like to witness?

WD ‘Sean, the start line MC here in the US, he coined this phrase: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” It really gets this idea of challenging yourself, doing new things, courage, personal accomplishment, and it is something that I see now tattooed on people, on T-shirts, and all the rest of it. It's brilliant, but it's kind of strange that this thing that started in my Harvard Business School dorm room has now spawned all these phenomenal leaders within the community, and all these wonderful ideas that kind of transcend anything that I initially came up with.’

‘Only ever hire people you can have dinner with – culture is so important’

RISING In terms of your original success, how important was timing to that, and how important was recognising a demand?

WD ‘I think any entrepreneur that doesn't think they’ve had a huge dollop of luck is deluding themselves. Yes, you have to work hard. Yes, you have to get a lot of things right, and I do think execution matters hugely; but you have to be in the right place at the right time. Things that seem like small decisions at the time end up being huge. I think we identified there was a demand, a need for events that were not timed, that were about teams, getting people together. I think we identified there was a need for an event that was about all-round physical fitness, not just aerobic fitness.’

RISING A large part of your initial success was in using social media well in 2010, when it was blowing up – did you do anything particularly clever at that point?

WD ‘Social media strategy at its core, it has to be interesting, and it has to be social, and maybe that sounds blindingly obvious, but a lot of companies fail to grasp that. What Tough Mudder did right from the very start, was it put the stories in first-person. There are these 20 obstacles, each of which creates its own unique content. And it was all about getting people to build the team. In a group of friends there's always that one friend that's going to sort everything out, and so we made those people the captains. You put the user at the heart of the story, give them tools to create stories around themselves, and then you give them a reason to share. Those things were deliberate.’

RISING Were there any hard lessons that you had to learn in the first few years that could have derailed you?

WD ‘Yes. It’s a cliché to say resilience is important as an entrepreneur – what drives that resilience is probably a more interesting thing. For me, it was a deeper sense of purpose. We scaled from ten employees to 150 employees in the space of 18 months between the beginning of 2011 and the end of 2012. I mean, that was just exhausting. I'm proud that we went through it, but with hindsight I wish we could have grown just a little bit slower, because I look at a photo of me at the end of 2012 and it looks like I've taken up heroin or something! I just look exhausted. It's an irony that Tough Mudder's all about of living a healthy lifestyle, and all I seemed to do that year was sit at my desk, or on planes.’

‘To focus and to do a few things really well, is to be entrepreneurial’

RISING So ‘resilience through purpose’ seems to be one key lesson: do you have two more that you could pass on to other entrepreneurs?

‘Only ever hire people you can have dinner with. Culture is so important. Culture is just how people behave when their boss isn't looking. You know, it's nothing to do with beautiful tables or beer in the fridge, or anything like that. It's just irrelevant, that stuff. It's about people trying to make the company better tomorrow than it is today, and getting the right people into the organisation, and crucially, getting the wrong people out as quickly as you bloody can.’

RISING And the final lesson?

WD ‘To focus and to do a few things really well, is to be entrepreneurial. Don't try and do 50 things badly, try to be very selective and do two or three things really well, and do it in a systematic fashion. We launched Tough Mudder Half about 18 months ago; coming up with a half Mudder was something of a no-brainer. But we purposely held off on it for five or six years until we got to a stage where we had enough brand equity, in terms of we stood for something, that we felt we could do that. A lot of other companies would have done that on day one, and it's very tempting to bite off a little bit more than you can chew – try to be very, very disciplined about that.’

RISING Fun is a very important part of Tough Mudder – how much fun do you have as an entrepreneur?

WD ‘Entrepreneurship is so rewarding; it's one of the most rewarding things you do, growing and building your own thing. I think a lot of people think it's going to be fun, and some days it's really fun, don't get me wrong. We launched a new event on Friday called TMX, and that was a really fun day. But a lot of it is unglamorous, gritty, sometimes repetitive work, and I always tell people: “Don't become an entrepreneur because you think it's going to be fun, become an entrepreneur because you want it to be rewarding,” but it's bloody hard work.’

WHAT NEXT? If you want a functional circuit workout with a lot of blast for your buck try Tough Mudder’s Ultimate Workout below. RISING doesn’t recommend sit-ups (your spine isn’t designed to flex repeatedly like that) but you can replace those with a 30-second plank – take an arm or leg off the floor to progress the move…

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.