Will Dean, the founder and CEO of Tough Mudder, visited Bristol as part of the Richmond Lecture series, and we caught up with him to discuss the company’s meteoric rise.
Welcome back to Bristol, how would you describe your time at the university?
WD: I graduated from Bristol in 2003, with a degree in Economics and Politics, and had a great time here. The university gets the balance right between creating a nurturing environment and pushing students academically. For me it was perfect, and I’m not sure I could have done the things I’ve gone on to do had I not come here.
Tough Mudder has become a worldwide brand. How would you best describe the company?
WD: I’ll start by telling you what it’s not: it’s not a race. It is a challenge, centred on teamwork and camaraderie. The basic event itself consists of a 10- 12 mile course, filled with military style obstacles designed to test participants mentally and physically. Also, it is good fun. I set the company up without a sophisticated idea or plan. I believed that it was something I would do, and something my friends would also. I thought I’d have a go, and 5,000 people turned up to the event. The rest is history.
Since then, the company has grown to an incredible size, with over two million participants. What do you think has been the key to this success?
WD: We tapped into three basic societal trends. Firstly, over the past fifty years or so, there has been a trend of people being interested in health and wellness. We realised that people are more likely to achieve fitness goals with a macro goal in mind, such as a marathon. Secondly, we live in a weird age where we are all increasingly connected but equally have become increasingly lonely. It is a paradox but these things are correlated. We see others doing things on social media, but it is not real life, it is a curated set of images people want you to see and so I think people began to spend more and more time with smartphones and less time with other people.
I think what Tough Mudder does is force people to put their phone down and spend some time challenging themselves with their mates. You’ve probably read this, but if you’re the type of person that holds the door open for people you’re probably a happier person – small acts of kindness make people happier. Tough Mudder is an extreme version of that. Finally, the event is just good fun, and also a leveller. The starting line of the UK event plays host to a diverse group of people. In the mud, everyone is the same.
— Bristol University (@BristolUni) January 31, 2017
In the past, you’ve described Tough Mudder as a marketing company that puts on events. Would you say that your strong brand identity has helped to set you apart from your competitors?
WD: I’ve learnt that it is not simply enough to have a great product. You also need great marketing around that. The average human has a vocabulary of around 5,000 words, and in the US alone there are over 3.5m registered brands, most of which you would never have heard of. The brain doesn’t have room to hold on to all these brands, so you have to be differentiated in a crowded market place. We didn’t invent the mud run or obstacles. What we did was put them together in an interesting way, with unique brand values, and communicated that in an engaging way. There are only two ways to make money in this world: innovate or market- everything else is cost.
And an element of that strategy that caught my eye was the fact that you give out colour-coded headbands to successful participants, which correlate to the amount of completed runs. What do you feel has been the effect of this gamification element?
WD: People like status and rewards. We tried to create a recognition programme, as Tough Mudder has become a big part of people’s lives. That is epitomised by the fact that 10,000 people have the company’s logo tattooed on them. We are a way of life, for a lot of people. We talk about Tough Mudder as being a tribe and within it we have hierarchical status symbols.
You mention the way in which the event appeals to individuals. How would you describe the benefits of taking part, and do you think the skills required are transferable say to the a business environment?
WD: Tough Mudder’s values are tied to life. We have four key values. Firstly, we emphasise team work. There are few things you can achieve alone, almost everybody works as part of a team. After university, you quickly realise that being smart is 5% of the equation, the other 95% is down to your ability to get on with others. Secondly, it encourages people to have fun, and teaches them not to take themselves too seriously. Life is about having fun, not every minute, but it’s important. Thirdly, participants are able to demonstrate courage.
Tough Mudder is as much about doing something that scares you as it is a fitness challenge. That’s the thing I am most proud of. After every event we get people sending us letters describing the impact the event has had on their lives, which is really cool. I believe the best companies blur the line between social enterprise and enterprise – I don’t think it is binary. Finally, we focus on personal accomplishment. The most important factor in determining happiness is having a purpose in life. Tough Mudder provides this purpose.
Would you say these values have permeated into the company itself? What drives your employees?
WD: People don’t work for bonuses, at most organisations they work because they want a sense of ownership. For example, to go on a bit of a tangent, Michelangelo was once given a project to figure out how to improve productivity digging stones in a quarry. People thought this was an engineering challenge, but his answer was far simpler. He said to tell the workers they’re building a cathedral, which happened to be true. At that time everybody was very religious, and productivity doubled as a result. People want to know where they fit in and why they’re doing something.
Tough Mudder’s work for charity no doubt contributes to that sense of purpose. In the past the company has raised over £2m for Help for Heroes, alongside a charitable partnership with Team Rubicon, how important is this to you?
WD: It is very important. I know these events have changed people’s lives. Tough Mudder is not curing cancer or bringing peace to the Middle East, but it is making a meaningful difference to a lot of people’s lives and I’m proud of that. I think those organisations, particularly their mantra of not leaving anybody behind, were consistent with our values. In the mud everybody helps everybodyeverything else becomes irrelevant.
You’ve recently announced a deal to broadcast televised content with Sky. How have you enjoyed this challenge so far, and are there other areas you see Tough Mudder breaking into in the future?
WD: I’ve found that it’s not about doing everything all at once. It’s better to be super-disciplined and do a few things really well. We have powerful content, and so I thought TV coverage would be a great way to tell their story and for me it’s all about things staying fun, I have been able to learn about all these new things as a result of the deal. We have thought about a number of new things, such as our own gyms and merchandise line, but it is important to do things well and keep the organisation focused. “I think getting out of your comfort zone is a really healthy thing to do
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us- before you go, what would you say is your favourite obstacle?
WD: I like King of the Swingers the most. It is one of the more complicated from an engineering perspective, and it is cool for people watching. You get big buff guys who freeze at the top shortly followed by a middle-aged woman just jumping from the top terminator style. You can’t really predict who is going to get it, or have difficulties. I think getting out of your comfort zone is a healthy thing to do.
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