The CEO of Tough Mudder Talks About the Future of Adventure Racing
Forget ropes courses: Big business’s new favorite bonding exercise is a grueling 10-mile, mud-soaked obstacle course called Tough Mudder. But the company Will Dean built isn’t just about events. This year, Tough Mudder is launching a gym chain called Tough Mudder Bootcamp, and Dean is releasing a new book called It Takes a Tribe. He sat down with Fortune to talk about the lessons he’s learned at the races.
What’s the biggest takeaway that you want people to have from reading It Takes a Tribe?
I think the key lesson I hope people walk away with from having read the book is the importance of purpose in any organization. I really believe the best companies don’t just exist to make money. They serve a higher purpose. They have a set of goals and a set of values they aspire to live by. At Tough Mudder, we don’t pretend to we’re curing cancer, but we are getting people to live more healthy, active lives and spend time with one another. I think there’s a lesson in there for anyone who aspires to start a company or be a manager in any organization.
What is the target market for a Tough Mudder?
Well, the simple answer is it really is anybody who aspires to take part. One of things I’m most proud of is what a broad church we are. If you go into the parking lot at one of our events, you’ll see 15-year-old F-150s right next to brand new BMWs. Tough Mudder is a leveler in the mud. Everyone’s the same. Everyone’s helping everyone. It’s almost exactly equal male-female now. We have a split that actually looks very similar to the demographics of the United States.
There are a lot of corporations that use Tough Mudder as a bonding exercise. Was that cultivated, or did it just happen?
Well, initially it just happened. We saw that companies’ business managers and CEOs were saying, “This is a great way for me to get closer with my team. Show everybody that I am a normal person, that I can get covered in mud just like anybody else.” So that was sort of happening in spite of itself. And then we decided this is something we should probably try and promote. We now have a corporate sales team whose job it is to try and bring large teams large company teams to the event.
Is that a significant source of growth?
The corporate side has become quite a significant part of our business. I think somewhere between 15 to 20% of tickets will come through that channel.
How do you find the balance between making a course that’s exciting and scary, but ultimately pretty safe?
The first thing to tell you is that the most dangerous part of doing a Tough Mudder is the drive to a Tough Mudder. You’re far more likely to injure yourself in your car getting to the venue that you are running the course. We’re very proud of our safety record. At our events we have over 400 staff on site. At every obstacle we have medical professionals and the relevant diving professionals, and we’re very, very proud of that. Of course, we can still create something that is intimidating and scary—part of the event is about challenging people mentally as well as physically. And the analogy though I use here is a rollercoaster. You don’t expect a rollercoaster to be dangerous. You do expect it to be scary, and we use that same kind of principle when designing the obstacles.
Can you give us a sense of the design process for a course?
It starts with ideation—essentially brainstorming, having lots of ideas out there—not worrying about whether they’re practical or feasible or whether they could be done at scale, or the economics of them. Just get all the ideas out there. And then we go through a very rapid iteration process of building prototypes, trying to understand what the economics of what this might look like. And then we go to actual testing. We have an obstacle innovation lab out in Pennsylvania, where we have five mad scientists. And then we bring people in to try them. We have them sign a waiver, we confiscate their phones and their GoPro so they can’t release footage of this thing. And then we have a big unveil once a year.
How long does it take to create a new obstacle?
We have the obstacle innovation process, which is a 12-month process. But if you ask me how long will it take to build the obstacles at an event. The answer is two weeks.
Who came up with the electric shock therapy obstacle?
I’m afraid I have to take some credit for that. I’m not an engineer, so the actual underpinning of how the mechanism works I can’t take any credit for. But conceptually, I said ‘Let’s finish the event with something that is mentally challenging, that people can get through to get to the other end. They can feel very proud that they overcame a fear.’ It is a scary thing to go through. I’m not going to lie, it does sting a little bit when you go through it, but you get to the other end and you really feel that you accomplished something.
How Many Tough Mudders have you run?
I have run 22.
What part of the sports industrial complex are you most aiming to disrupt? Is it gyms? Yoga classes? Marathons?
Well, I think when we first got started, we really were disrupting the mass participation events business. We came into the market saying that we thought marathons were boring. I know some people love marathons, I’m not actually anti-marathon, but I wanted to create an event that was much more about team inclusiveness, less about a race. I think we changed the way people think about mass participation events.
Then if you look at the business today, I think we’re really in two or three different areas. So of course we have the events business. We also have media business. I do think with what we’re doing with CBS and Sky Sports in the UK, has started to challenge some of the conventional norms within the sports media space.
And then I think one area where we’re definitely challenging assumptions is in the gym and the training space. We launched the Tough Mudder Bootcamp this year. In certain markets, like in New York or in L.A. or London, of course there are thousands of fitness studios to choose from. But in most parts of the United States, that’s simply not true. We’re definitely trying to disrupt what the fitness market looks like outside of those tier 1 markets, with what we believe is a very compelling fitness concept.
What’s your assessment of the obstacle racing space? Running USA reports that adventure race participation is down 40% since 2013. Is that part of the reason your expanding more into other areas, like the boot camps?
Obstacle course racing is an interesting industry. I think you see one or two players rising to the top—the long tail is disappearing. I think to be successful today, you have to really have an integrated business. You have to, of course, be good at the events, but you also have to be good at marketing, you have to be good at media partnerships. You have to have ancillary businesses, such as the training business, to support that. Events companies are very much becoming sports media entertainment and lifestyle brands.
And notably, we’re adding new products. We have the Tough 5K and the Tough Half, which are entry-level products. We’ll have the most participants this year that we’ve ever had, because of those new products, in addition to the elite event concepts like the Toughest Mudder.
So you’d say the industry’s overall declining numbers are more of a shakeout in the market—a healthy reorganization—rather than an systemic problem?
If you look at what’s happening in the space, it’s something that tends to happen in all industries. You have hundreds of players that have entered the space, and ultimately you see a few strong players rise to the top.
Can you say anything about the rivalries between the big adventure race players? It seems like there’s historically been some tension.
People always ask me about the supposed tension between the various concepts. I think this is probably overblown. The truth is I think most of us at least at some basic level believe that getting people outdoors is a good thing. I think whenever you have a Coke-and-Pepsi-type rivalry the media likes to stoke that. But I honestly, I think the truth is there’s enough space in the industry for several players.
And if you look at ourselves, versus one of the other players, actually our products are pretty different. So I understand the superficial similarities, but though there are superficial similarities between a minivan and a Porsche, that doesn’t make them the same.
So no hard feelings toward the Spartan Race guys?
I believe the best companies are focused on beating themselves. And no, genuinely no hard feelings toward Spartan Race or anyone else out there.
Can we at least agree to dislike the Color Run?
The Color Run is a fun event. For a lot of people, it’s their first mass participation event. And people enjoy taking part in them. I should also add the CEO and the founder of the Color Run is a close personal friend of mine.
That’s okay. You know, it is interesting, I think a lot of the traditional players are secretly hoping we’ll just all go away. They’re thinking, this is going to be a fad. But there’s an article from the New York Times in the 1960s that asks, ‘Is jogging a fad?” That was in the 1960s. And a thousand people are now taking part in the Boston Marathon, while decades ago they questioned whether jogging could ever get any bigger. Not the most prescient of articles to ever have been written.
What’s the best way to describe the Tough Mudder Bootcamp? Is it similar to a Cross Fit?
It’s often easier to start with what it’s not—just like the main event is not a race, I would tell you that the Bootcamp is not Orange Theory and it is not Cross Fit. Though maybe it sits somewhere between the two. Crucially, it’s designed not just to work in in New York or in L.A. It has a much lower price point, and will hopefully attract a much larger audience.
A more general question: What’s something that you hate?
I sometimes struggle, being a Brit in the United States, with trying to make myself understood, even with quite easy words. I already did it! “Quite.” In England, “quite” means “a bit less than otherwise would be.” In the United States, it means “a lot.” So when Brits say that something is “quite good.” They mean it’s less than good. An American says it, it means it’s really very, very good indeed. So my wife would tell me that I was “quite handsome.” I spent four years sulking about that.
A version of this article appears in the Oct. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Business of Getting Dirty.” We’ve included affiliate links in this article. Click here to learn what those are.