Will Dean, founder of extreme obstacle course Tough Mudder, shares the thrilling inside story of how a scrappy startup grew into a movement whose millions of members feel like co-owners. He shows how other companies can embrace the Tough Mudder playbook by nurturing tribes of passionate fans while constantly experimenting with new risks.
After five years as a British counterterrorism officer and two years at Harvard Business School, Dean was determined not to follow his classmates to Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Instead, he pursued his unique vision for an extreme obstacle course—a ten- to twelve-mile gauntlet pushing participants to their limits and helping them surpass those limits together. Instead of cutthroat competition, Tough Mudder would be about continual self-improvement and collective energy.
It would be about the power of a tribe.
Dean and his small team launched the first Tough Mudder event in May 2010, hosting 5,000 pioneers at a deserted ski resort in Pennsylvania. Just seven years later, more than 3 million people on four continents have participated at least once, and hundreds of thousands have done so repeatedly. More than 20,000 are so committed that they sport a Tough Mudder tattoo.
Mudders prove the power of fierce and unshakable loyalty to one another and the challenge itself. Proudly sporting orange headbands and team uniforms, they’ll run through mud, climb steep walls, face electric shocks, and slide down the side of a mountain. The tougher the experience, the greater the satisfaction.
It Takes a Tribe shows you how to embody the Tough Mudder spirit and capture the same magic. As a Tough Mudder slogan says, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In the Beginning The First Mudder
One jumps into the fray then figures out what to do next
In May 2010, I found myself halfway up a small mountain in a deserted ski resort in Allentown, Pennsylvania, surrounded by piles of long metal poles. There was a fine rain in the air. Shouts of desperation could occasionally be heard from the pinewoods in the distance, as if from a retreating army. I was speaking to a reporter from Allentown's local paper. It was the day of the first Tough Mudder-the first day of the rest of my life-and things were not going entirely to plan.
The reporter was looking at me with some concern. I had not slept for a week, and for a couple of months had existed solely on caffeine and anxiety. A large, angry boil had erupted on one side of my face. To hide it I was scraggily unshaven and standing oddly at an angle, as if squinting around a corner, affecting what I hoped was an air of lofty British authority.
"So, Will," the reporter said, trying to catch my eye, "what are you doing here today in Allentown?"
This was a question that loomed large in my own thoughts. Though usually with a couple of stronger words added between "what" and "are." There was a short answer and a long answer.
The short answer went something like this. "I am trying to create seventeen obstacles-partly out of these long metal poles-on the edge of a town I know only from a Billy Joel song. These obstacles must be both dramatically risky and generally safe and spaced out over a seven-mile course up and down this mountain and through these pinewoods. Neither I nor my team of volunteers-mostly friends from England-actually have any direct experience building obstacles. Nor do we have any blueprints for them. Still, we have been doing this (with the help of the ski resort maintenance department) to the best of our ability so that several thousand people, many of them veterans of the world's most demanding endurance events, or members of the U.S. military fresh home from war zones or officers serving in the local police and fire departments, will not shortly be chasing me up this mountain, over those obstacles, and demanding their money back."
The longer answer was even more complicated.
I was twenty-nine years old. Two years earlier I had walked out on a fast-track career in the British Foreign Office, in which I had worked intensively for five years on classified antiterrorist operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. I had spent those subsequent two years and the little money I had saved acquiring an MBA at Harvard Business School, in the possibly misguided belief that by doing so I would learn how to be an entrepreneur.
Most of my peers from Harvard, who had also spent two years and all that money, were by now counting the zeros on job offers from Wall Street private equity firms. Or playing volleyball with their stock options on a campus in Silicon Valley. My own efforts in that career-oriented direction consisted of a six-week trial at the elite management consulting firm Bain & Co., mostly, if I'm honest, on my mother's long-ago insistence that I at least "try a proper job." My enthusiasm for suit wearing and salary drawing had become boredom by day three. Boredom that I imagined would be my primary experience, had I stayed, for the remaining thirty years of my career.
My subsequent inactivity, and its effect on my personal balance sheet, had not gone unnoticed, however.
My girlfriend, Katie, herself recently graduated from Harvard Law School and equally weighed down by debt, had generously, if pointedly, offered to support me "for a year" if bad came to worse.
Citibank, the owner of my student loan, was proving less supportive. My "relationship manager" had called earlier that week to ask the $100,000 question: when, and by what means, would I start making payments against their bet on my future? He gave me the helpful advice that, if I did not start now, my $100,000 question would quickly become a $150,000 one.
I had, I believed, developed habits of strategic thinking in practice in my years working in counterterrorism and in theory in my time studying at Harvard. Still, standing halfway up that mountain, my strategizing had somehow led me to decide that the most logical next step in my life was this: I was going to create a weekend adult obstacle course, with the help of some coerced friends, at Bear Creek Ski Resort outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, in the off-season.
Neither of these answers, short or long, was what I said to the reporter.
I talked instead about my hopes for what we were billing as "probably the toughest event on the planet," and I took a stab at describing our as yet unformed Tough Mudder tribe. "If you are going to describe what a Tough Mudder is," I said, "you have to describe what they are not. They are not marathon runners or triathletes. They are not guys who wax their legs so they can save five seconds on their finish time. There is no pretense about them or showing off. They get on with it. They don't moan. A Tough Mudder has fear but he or she overcomes it."
I talked about how Tough Mudder had been deliberately conceived not as a race or another Iron Man or marathon but as an untimed challenge. About how the course could only be negotiated with help from friends and teammates and strangers-and that as such it tested a particular idea of achievement, based on mutual cooperation, not winner-take-all competition. And I ended by saying how, working out of a corner of borrowed office space in a half-abandoned building directly under the Brooklyn Bridge, we had hoped that five hundred people would sign up for this first event after we advertised it on Facebook but how nearly forty-five hundred people had actually done so.
As we spoke, for better or worse, many of those forty-five hundred people were making their way to Allentown. The first Mudders.
Some had already arrived the night before, camping out in tents or sleeping in cars, mostly men, some shirtless in the early morning, all pumped up, expectant. They had enthusiastically taken the Tough Mudder pledge that I had invented with my old high school friend Guy Livingstone, my cofounder, late one night a few weeks earlier. We had tried to pitch the pledge somewhere between Boy Scout's honor and Navy SEAL passing-out parade. It was as serious as it needed to be:
I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
I do not whine-kids whine.
I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
I overcome all fears.
The pledge demonstrated our belief that there was a craving among people, particularly young people, not only for challenging experiences but for an authentic set of values they might sign up to and, over the course of the afternoon and beyond, believe in. To test that belief, we had installed tattoo artists at the finish line to ink the whole pledge free of charge on the backs of those Mudders who had taken it most to heart. They were already doing brisk business.
Those forty-five hundred people, those first Mudders, were our great hope. They represented the first evidence that my belief that people would be intrigued by this event-maybe even would flock to it and love it-was not entirely insane. At the very least, they were the best answer I had found so far to the Harvard professors who had greeted my original idea, presented as a business plan in an annual competition, as "too optimistic" and "simplistic" and advised me to persevere at Bain & Co. "Mr. Dean, do you really think anyone will pay you to run through mud?"
My professors, whose lives were spent measuring and ranking their students and being measured and ranked themselves, did not get the attraction of a difficult challenge in which nobody was measured or ranked. It seemed to go against everything they held sacred. "Who on earth wants to jump into ice baths and run through fire and wallow in mud on a Sunday afternoon just for the hell of it?" they asked.
My gut feeling, beyond the statistics and research of my PowerPoint presentation, was: plenty of people. I suspected, too, that Harvard professors, while undoubtedly world-class experts in many aspects of business and human behavior, were not the best people to judge a start-up based in part on paying to get muddy.
These days I occasionally lead seminars at business schools myself. Some students ask me, "What qualities make an entrepreneur?" I tell them that one of the key qualities I'd discovered-and I grew up in a mining town in England, so I was raised on the subject-is the stubborn will to prove that you are right when everyone around you, and even most of the voices in your head, are explaining why you are wrong. I'd had plenty of opportunity to listen to those voices in the months preparing for the launch of Tough Mudder. One stuck in my mind and stayed there: the voice of a woman I had met one night in Connecticut when we were trying to get Tough Mudder off the ground.
It had taken us quite a long time to decide that the mountain outside Allentown was the best site for the first event. Guy and I had driven out to lots of potential venues a day or two's journey from New York City before committing to it, mainly because we didn't know what we were looking for until we found it. In January, I had gone out to a speedway track in the heart of rural Connecticut. I had a beat-up fifteen-year-old Volkswagen Jetta and the "Check Engine" light had been flashing on and off all the way there. I got lost searching for a place that did not appear to be detectable by satellite. By the time I arrived, three or four hours from New York, it was getting dark.
Even in the gloom it was clear that I had not found what I was looking for. The track was a small dirt oval. The woman who owned and ran it was living nearby in a beat-up trailer with her grown-up son. She greeted me with gruff curiosity. I was too English and polite to turn mother and son down flat, so we went through the motions of trudging around the track with a torch in the freezing dark while I explained my plans.
After an hour of this, I began to make my excuses to leave, but the woman, who seemed to know firsthand and from long experience all the ways a business might go wrong, pulled me close to her and, leaning in, illuminated me in torchlight and said: "Let me get this straight. You went to Harvard Business School and now you want to put on a mud fair at our speedway track in Connecticut?" She pulled me closer and said in a low whisper: "Your parents must be extremely worried about you."
In the three and a half hours driving back to Brooklyn in the Jetta with the "Check Engine" light still flashing, the woman's words haunted me. They continued to come to mind at the more desperate moments-and there were plenty of those-in the weeks that followed. I had been putting about five hundred miles on the VW's odometer each day, looking at various fields, some even less promising than the speedway oval. As I was driving through the rural Connecticut dark that night I found myself recalling something I had read while at the Foreign Office. It was a report about the few elite Tornado pilots in the first Gulf War who had been shot down and ejected behind enemy lines. The pilots abruptly went from being in their miraculous all-seeing, high-tech machines, ten thousand feet above the planet, to a very different reality: on the ground, tangled in a parachute, with a handgun and no idea where they were or what to do.
It had been a little bit like that graduating from Harvard with no job. For two years, I had existed in an absurdly comfortable academic country club, with paintings on loan from the Louvre, being prepared to become a master of the universe on Wall Street. Suddenly here I was, having fallen from that great height, tangled up, and on the ground. Getting up at six in the morning to make myself sandwiches, wrapped in tinfoil, because I was sick of stopping at gas stations where the only thing to eat was a candy bar. Sleeping in a fifteen-year-old Jetta because it was too far to the next grim motel. It was not a happy drive home.
My ambition of learning how to be an entrepreneur had proved frustrating at Harvard. It was an ambition that I had been driven by, and tried to resist, since I had set up my first business selling kids duffel bags at my high school. I'd hoped it might be fulfilled by the challenge and adventure of the Foreign Office, but it hadn't gone away. I thought that Harvard would give me the skills to take some of the risk out of starting on my own. That hope was no doubt a little naive. There were many useful and thought-provoking things that the business school did teach you-how to be a convincing management consultant for one-but the courses on creating your own business were, for me, frustrating and abstract. They attempted to make the principles of start-up into a science. It was an approach that involved very little about tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches and a lot about the right conditions to raise venture capital and to project valuations for structured equity deals. This science sometimes seemed to be the work of people who had never, and would never, start businesses of their own.
I had learned how to use game theory to shape strategy. I had absorbed ideas of lateral and vertical integration. I had considered the employment of fast-cycle capability for competitive advantage. But if I'm honest, the principle I was testing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was one most famously expressed by Kevin Costner in that sentimental movie about baseball, Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come."
No doubt there is a place for the science of start-ups. But there is also room for the fact that it is only by trying to sell something, with plenty at stake, that you discover whether you are right in thinking another person will buy it.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 In the Beginning: The First Mudder 1
Mudder Solidarity: Team 8819 23
Chapter 2 What Makes a Tough Mudder: Building Character 27
Mudder Grit Deanna Blegg 53
Chapter 3 "I Do Not Whine-Kids Whine": Owning Your Fears 59
Mudder Courage Randy Pierce 79
Chapter 4 Authentic at Scale: Growing a Tribal Culture 85
Mudder Love Jeremy Richman 105
Chapter 5 Better Never Stops: Making Innovation Happen 111
Mudder Innovator Rob Camm 137
Chapter 6 Founder to CEO: The Challenge of Entrepreneurial Leadership 141
Mudder Leaders Seven-Day Warriors 165
Chapter 7 The Business of Belonging: Connecting the Tribe 171
Mudder Bodies Gaby Martinez 191
Chapter 8 Tough Lessons: Learning from Failure 197
Mudder Miracles Ilene Boyar 221
Chapter 9 The Gathering of the Tribes: Where Next for the Mudder Nation? 225
Mudder Legend Jim Campbell 245