Published April 07, 2014
Sprinting through mud-covered fields, army-crawling under live wires, climbing walls and running past fires all on the same course will test the endurance of any person. And it’s a big business.
While attending the 2013 Annual EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in Desert Springs, California I had the opportunity to sit down with Will Dean, founder and CEO of Tough Mudder.
I asked him what spurred the idea of the 12-mile challenges and how his own values and lifestyle play a role in his growing business. Here’s what he had to say:
Woody: What is Tough Mudder?
Dean: Let’s start with what Tough Mudder is not first. What Tough Mudder is not is a race. It’s a challenge you do it with your friends. It’s about teamwork and camaraderie. It’s a 12 mile military style obstacle course with about 20 obstacles spread out over that 12 miles designed to test you physically, mentally, and as a team.
Woody: What is it that inspired you to launch Tough Mudder?
Dean: About six years ago I did a triathlon and this was not a competitive event. There was no prize money and it wasn’t like I was at the front anyway. The zipper jammed on my wet suit and I turned to the guy next to me and I said, ‘hey can you just give this a quick pull?’ He said sorry, I’m kind of in a rush. And then the second guy said the same thing. Then the third guy, he helped me, but what I realized is this is an incredibly solitary pursuit. A lot of endurance events are very much about the individual and one of the things I saw with marathons in particular is when you do a marathon what people ask you is what time do you do it in. For a lot of people that’s not really the metric of success.
What I wanted to do was build an event that was all about team work, camaraderie, having fun, absolutely testing yourself physically and mentally, but at the end of it feeling like you’ve done it as part of a team.
Woody: So what is it about you personally and your personal experience that gave you this desire to facilitate team work and get that out there in the world through Tough Mudder?
Dean: I played a lot of sport growing up in the UK and one of the things that’s emphasized a lot in the UK, and certainly in Brittan, is it’s not just about the winning, it’s being part of a team, it’s taking part in something, something that’s bigger than yourself. I very much wanted to try and find an event that did that and I was looking around for something to train towards and I just didn’t see something out there that really resonated.
I thought I’m probably not the only person to think this way. I probably have friends and there are others out there that like the idea of something that’s about all around fitness, but isn’t about racing all the time because too much of life is one big rat race. Why can’t exercise be fun?
Woody: What are some of the challenges you have faced growing your team?
Dean: I think the key to scale is company culture. Company culture, culture in general, is just how people behave when you are not looking. When you’re walking around, people tend to be real saints. They tend to do exactly what you want when you are looking. The trouble is we are putting on events in 53 fields all around the world. Live events tend to rely on a lot of young people to execute them and so you have to be confident you have people who are actually going to behave the way you want them to in those tough situations when you may have to deal with an injury on a course or when you are dealing with a storm coming through. So it’s about recruiting the right people.
One of the things my co-founder and I always said was we’d never hire anyone that we wouldn’t have dinner with, and that’s something we’ve always been able to hold true to. I think really strong cultures-- not only are they about getting the right people in and creating the right behavioral norms--but it’s also making sure the organization itself, when you get someone who doesn’t fit into that organization, rejects that individual. I think we’ve done a very good job of building a culture where people take a lot of personal responsibility. I think in the live event space that’s very, very important. But it’s certainly a challenge to build, grow, and maintain that culture.
Click here to view Dr. Woody’s full live-taped video interview with Dean