It's a warm March night in New York City. The Wix Lounge, a cooperative work and event space just off Union Square, is packed with a motley crew of corporate MBAs, entrepreneurs, and dreamers. Tonight, Wix is hosting the first U.S. installment of a popular speaker series put on by a London-based group called Escape the City. Its mission is to guide restless professionals toward alternative career paths, and everyone in the room wants to know what the man with the microphone knows: “How to Build a $70 Million Company in Two Years.”
Will Dean, the 31-year-old creator of the Tough Mudder obstacle-course series, stands before a projector screen beside his business partner, fellow Englishman Guy Livingstone, also 31. Dean is dressed in jeans and a black fleece jacket emblazoned with his company’s logo, a man running through a wall of flames. Handsome, with a boyish, aw-shucks smile, he doesn’t look like a ruthless capitalist or any of the much nastier names some of his competitors in the burgeoning $250 million obstacle-race industry use to describe him. “We’re trying to build a household name,” he tells the crowd, sounding modest and unassuming even as he describes his goals for global domination. “When a guy goes into a bar and thinks, when he tells a girl that he’s doing a Tough Mudder, that the girl knows what he’s talking about—that, for us, will be the sign that we’ve arrived.” He pauses for a beat, then delivers his punch line. “Whether the girl is impressed or not is frankly irrelevant.”
For the uninitiated, a Tough Mudder is a 10-to-12-mile run that features a set of sadistic obstacles: ice baths, fire, live electrical wires, tunnel crawls, barbed wire. Sadistic yet enormously popular. This year, Tough Mudder has registered more than 500,000 participants for 35 events, bringing in $70 million in revenue. Not bad for a two-year-old startup launched in the teeth of the recession.
“The truth is,” Dean says, his company’s growth charts projected on the big screen behind him, “this is a hundred times bigger than we ever thought.”
Raised outside Sheffield by lawyer parents, Dean attended the University of Bristol, where he graduated at the top of his class in 2003. He spent the next four and half years in the Middle East and South Asia, working desk jobs in the counterterrorism department of the British government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office before, as his company bio says, “getting it into his head that an American MBA would be a good thing to do.” He enrolled at the Harvard Business School in 2007, and it was there that he hatched his big idea.
“I was getting into triathlon and marathon at the time,” he says at Wix. “There was something a little boring about the training component of it. It was missing the camaraderie that I was looking for. I thought, I need to create something that makes running fun.”
In the spring of 2009, Dean entered his concept for a national mud-run series into Harvard’s business-plan competition. Every professor told him it was a bad idea. Still, the proposal was a semifinalist, and a few months after graduating Dean convinced Livingstone, his mate from boarding school, to ditch a corporate lawyer job and be his COO. In February 2010, they launched the Tough Mudder website and bought about $8,000 worth of Facebook ads promoting their first event, held a few months later at a small ski area near Allentown, Pennsylvania. Then: boom!
In the past few years, obstacle racing has experienced a rate of growth that may be unprecedented in the history of participatory sports. Roughly 41,000 people entered about 20 U.S. events in 2010. This year, some 1.5 million people will enter 150 events. There are dozens of races now in the game, but the great majority of participants will sign up for one of the sport’s Big Three: Tough Mudder; Warrior Dash, a 5K race launched in 2009; and the Spartan Race series, which debuted just two weeks after the first Tough Mudder.