Tough Mudder’s Will Dean reveals how he built his business

Dashing through wires juiced with 10,000 volts of electricity may sound like torture, yet thousands of people gleefully do so every year as part of a mud-soaked obstacle course aptly called Tough Mudder.

To put this into context, the current that runs through the obstacle – dubbed Electroshock Therapy – is more than 40 times higher than household mains in the UK and triple the sting of your average electric fence.

‘We always joke that Electroshock Therapy is a bit like getting married – it is nice to do once but you do not plan on doing it twice,’ says, Will Dean, Tough Mudder’s co-founder and chief executive. He’s quick to add that each obstacle is subjected to rigorous safety procedures and protocols.

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The wires in Electroshock Therapy are juiced with 10,000 volts – which is more than 40 times higher than the current that passes through household mains in the UK

‘The fun of Electroshock Therapy is not doing it, but getting through it and having that sense of accomplishment when you do.’

It has become the signature obstacle of the Tough Mudder course, billed as an ‘adrenaline junkie’s playground’. Participants also have to crawl through thick mud, squeeze through cramped tunnels and plunge into ice cold water over the course of five to 12 miles.

And they pay at least £85 for the privilege.

Sounds like an army assault course right? That’s because Dean enlisted the help of two ex-British Special Forces employees to design the obstacles – which are refreshed every year for repeat custom purposes.

However, the event it is not exclusive to die-hard fitness fanatics and it attracts people of all shapes and sizes.

Unlike similar events such as Spartan Race, Tough Mudder is not timed and there are no winners. The ethos is teamwork and camaraderie will see you through to the finish line.

Stuck in the mud: Tough Mudder Full event entrants are required to negotiate their way through a plethora of obstacles between a 10 and 12-mile course

To this end, the course has been designed in a way that makes it nigh on impossible to negotiate without a helping hand – be that an actual push to help you on your way or words of encouragement.

Where the penalty for skipping an obstacle is a set of 30 burpees in the Spartan Race, dodging a challenge goes unpunished at Tough Mudder.

The brand’s light-hearted nature is conveyed in the witty obstacle names, such as ‘Block Ness Monster’ – requiring participants to push, pull, and roll their way through 60 foot of slick, rotating barriers in water.

The ‘Block Ness Monster’ requires participants to work together and push, pull, and roll their way through slick, rotating barriers

Dean says: ‘Our main event is about getting people from all walks of life, shape and size to work together. It is not just for elite athletes or white collar professionals or men.

‘It doesn’t matter if you drive to the event in a shiny BMW or an old Ford Fiesta, everyone is equal in the mud.’

Harvard reject 

The creation of Tough Mudder was somewhat serendipitous, says Dean.

After graduating from Bristol University with a degree in economics and politics, he worked in counter terrorism for the UK government’s Foreign Office for five years.

Will Dean says the Tough Mudder obstacles are designed to promote teamwork

He got itchy feet and decided to set up his own business, enrolling at Harvard Business School to this end in 2007.

It was during the course he came up with the concept behind Tough Mudder, but it was panned by his lecturers because of the lack of a competitive element, Dean recalls.

‘They described the business as too optimistic and simplistic and didn’t think anyone would pay to take part – or as they put it: “do you really think people will pay to run through mud?”‘

Dean soon proved them wrong. He co-founded the company with friend Guy Livingstone, and the pair injected £20,000 of their own money to kick-start the venture.

Dean hoped for 500 customers for the inaugural event – which was held in 2010 at a ski resort in Allentown, Pennsylvania – but got 10 times that number.

Fast forward seven years, there are now 130 Tough Mudder events that run each year across 11 countries, attracting more than three million entrants so far – 20,000 of whom have tattoos of the company logo.

The endurance event firm now boasts total revenue of £100million, with just under 200 employees worldwide.

The Tough Mudder Full, an obstacle course between 10 and 12 miles long, remains the firm’s core offering but a number of spin-offs have since been launched – including World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour elite race.

There is even a ‘Mini Mudder’ for children between the ages of seven and 12.


Dean has had to surmount a number of obstacle of his own in the process of scaling the business.

He was accused of copying the concept behind Tough Mudder from Tough Guy, another mud-centric obstacle course founded by former British Army soldier Billy Wilson.

Wilson filed a lawsuit when Tough Mudder launched, claiming Dean had taken proprietary information from his Tough Guy contest.

The matter was subsequently settled out of court in 2011, with a reported $750,000 (£565,000) being paid to Wilson. Legal restriction prevents extensive information on the settlement from being disclosed.

Dean had also developed a feud with Joe De Sena, a former Wall Street trader who launched the vehemently more competitive Spartan Race in 2007.

The pair used to fly advertising banners over each other’s events. The row seemingly peaked in 2012 when De Sena publicly stated: ‘There’s not a person on this planet I despise more than Will Dean.’

Dean insists the bad blood has since dissipated, adding: ‘I always joke: What do Will Dean and Joe De Sena have in common? They both wake up in the morning and the first thing they think about is Tough Mudder.

‘I think Joe is a good guy. I think he is a passionate and driven entrepreneur who really believes in getting people to adopt more active and healthier lifestyles.

‘There is space for more than one player in the market. I think good companies worry about competition but the best companies worry about beating themselves. I try to focus on how we better ourselves.’

That being said, Tough Mudder shields against plagiarism by holding intellectual property rights on all obstacles devised by the company, and even the colour orange in the context of endurance an event.

Muddy good business: There are now 130 Tough Mudder events each year across 11 countries

Beyond the mud

Beyond the mud, Dean has signed television deals with Sky Sports and CBS in the US, and he is now launching a gym chain called Tough Mudder Bootcamp.

He has also gone back to his roots at Bristol University to help run the school’s innovation programme – aimed at educating students on the ins and outs of business and help them on their way to starting their own ventures.

More recently, Dean has penned his journey and growth of the business in a new book called ‘It Takes A Tribe’.

On what he wants people to take from reading the book, Dean says: ‘Of course I hope people think about doing a Tough Mudder after reading the book but I also hope they read and think businesses probably have a duty to be more than profit centered.

‘We are not curing cancer but I do think we are making a difference.’

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