The concept behind Tough Mudder seems like a tough sell: It's an obstacle-course event in which participants must scale walls, crawl under barbed wire, and, of course, get immersed in mud. Still, led by co-founder and CEO Will Dean, the company has grown rapidly, hosting more than half a million racers in events in 10 countries last year. In this interview and the video above, Dean explains how he handles the many challenges along the way.
When you launched Tough Mudder, how did you deal with the naysayers?
Anytime you step away from the norm, others are tempted to dismiss you. At the same time, when you're starting a company, you have all these negative voices in your own head. You're never 100 percent confident that it will all work out as you hoped. So instead, focus on what will happen if you're wrong. How bad will it be? Facing down your fears is integral.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced so far?
You have to keep pushing companies to adapt and change before it becomes immediately obvious that it's necessary. That can be hard. I tell the story a lot about how Steve Jobs, when he was pushing to create the iPhone, knew that it would hurt the business of the iPod. He said, "If you don't cannibalize yourself, someone else will."
Do you frequently find yourself at odds with others over the direction of the business?
You bring emotional baggage as a founder, and it's hard for others to relate to that. It's a bit like appreciating what it means to be a parent when you aren't one. It's one thing to understand something on an intellectual level, but it's another to have walked the path. I'll tell people, "Don't expect me to be completely rational. I founded this company, and I have a whole set of emotions I've put into it."
Why have you resisted taking venture funding?
There's a weird hypercompetitiveness in entrepreneurship, especially around how much money you've raised. It attracts a lot of alpha types, which creates a very macho culture. Tough Mudder was created in part as a reaction to this mindset. I find it strange when other founders ask, "How much money has Tough Mudder raised?" When I say we haven't raised any, they pat me on the shoulder and say, "It's going to be OK, Will." I feel like responding, "Shut up, you idiot. You've lost sight of why you're building a business."