Meet Will Dean – charming British man, happy husband, and big believer that sweat, tears, and mud will change your life.
From the outside, his company defies logic: participants pay up to $150 get electrocuted, poked, prodded, injured, and thrown into vats of mysterious green liquids. (In one obstacle, you crawl 30 feet under a plastic sheet that is weighed down with one hundred pounds of water.)
But at the end, you’re begging to do it again. And in just five years, Tough Mudder has gained 1.3 million participants and a valuation of $70 million.
Hear Will’s story.
The Importance of Keeping it Simple
Tough Mudder is really just about two things: teamwork, and great obstacles. If you can remember that in the thousands of decisions you make every day, life is lots easier. People tell us things like: “Dude, this event is so hard.” Well, trust me, we could make Tough Mudder really, really hard – it could be 1000 miles long and we could shoot everyone on finish line. But it’s all about teamwork, and amazing obstacles. You can actually do it. I would stress the importance of simplicity in everything you do.
4 Ways to Build Great Teams
First, as you build a team, be honest when someone will fit in or won’t fit in. Never hire anyone you wouldn’t have dinner with.
Second, don’t feel that you have to accommodate every personality. We’re not the Marriott Hotel. We’re not all things to all people. We’re not trying to make an enjoyable experience for everyone. People can choose where they work, and you don’t have to be a pluralistic society that everyone fits into.
Third, be very honest about what kind of a team you are – warts and all. There are some great things about working here, and even so, some of my best friends would never dream of it.
Fourth, people talk a lot about company culture and often that gets boiled down to whether you have a foosball table in your office or not. Instead, I would think about only one thing, which is how your employees behave when you’re not looking. When the CEO walks around, of course everyone is going to act like an angel.
Toughing it through the worst times
I’ll never forget one rainy day five years ago, when I was just starting Tough Mudder. I went out to see a potential venue in Connecticut. It was further away from the city than I realized, and I was in my old, beat-up car in the pouring rain. It was the third venue I was seeing that day, and I thought: oh God, what on Earth am I doing here? This lady came out, and I gave her a pitch, and she said, “You came all the way from England, and you have a Harvard MBA, and now you’re starting this?” She said that my parents must be very worried about me.
Starting a company is just really, really scary. I graduated with debt, didn’t know anyone but a few MBAs in this country, and none of them had worked in sports or sports marketing. My parents are also really risk averse people, and they were also not thrilled that their son was an MBA and starting a mud business.
Now, my parents are happy. But my mother stressed a lot. She still thinks that if I sell Tough Mudder, maybe I’ll get a real job.
The reason for rapid success
Functional fitness has been booming for last ten years, and we tapped into that. Also, as a society, we spend increasing amounts of our time away from our friends, or on social networks where we’re not interacting in person. I created something that requires people to put down their iPhones for four hours. You bond not only with your teammates, but everyone who has ever been through a Tough Mudder. Someone from New Zealand can talk to someone from Germany and discuss how they’ve been zapped in the exact same way.
Case studies help company morale
We teach HBS case studies for three reasons. First, we are a company that is genuinely committed to learning and development. Compared to Wall Street, we’re never going to win on salary alone, so we better offer an interesting environment in which people can grow. I want to be able to retain top talent.
Second, when you’re a CEO of a company and you get above fifty people, you can’t hope to have a connection with everyone just by walking the floors and saying ‘hi.’ If you’re not careful, you will lock yourself in an ivory tower. The case studies are a great way to connect with everyone in company. It’s a great leveler.
Third, the case studies look at challenges that have existed elsewhere, so we can draw parallels between what other companies did, and what we’re trying to do.
Will Dean is an IVY Thought Leader. To learn more about IVY, please visit www.ivy.com.