Forty Under 40: Will Dean
As co-founder and CEO of Tough Mudder, he first experienced the frantic early days, trying to keep up with explosive growth as the obstacle race phenomenon took hold at the beginning of this decade.
Then he held on as the bubble burst, sending scores of putative competitors underwater. Of course, Tough Mudder survived as one of two worldwide brands in the space along with Spartan Race.
Now in a more stable era, Dean runs a company exponentially more complicated than it was at launch, as he guides it from being a mere event operator to a worldwide media and marketing brand.
“People say, ‘Will, you’re not getting a bit bored?’” Dean says. “And the genuine answer is, I think I’m in my third career. Not third job, but third career, within Tough Mudder.”
Each of those eras has demanded a different skill set from Dean, who started out as a counterintelligence employee with the British government before attending Harvard Business School. But the original wisdom of Tough Mudder, then way ahead of its time, still holds true: A new generation sees sports as an active, social experience first and a display of elite talent second.
Stadiums replacing lightly used seating with bars and flagging TV ratings for the NFL might be storylines of today, but in 2010 Tough Mudder bet that millennials would pay for the right to complete a grueling obstacle course as a team and not even be timed, much less ranked. Dean says the company “spotted which way the wind was blowing” with young people.
“I think it’s in no small part because people are spending more time on their phones, on Facebook, and less time with their friends,” Dean said. “So when they are together, they don’t just want to be sitting in a stadium watching professional athletes run around and not really interacting with each other.”
The changes and growth of Tough Mudder have challenged his weak spots as a leader, Dean said. But he adapts and tries to make good hires and stay self-aware. “As a young CEO, I think the most important thing is acknowledging what you do and don’t know, and being cool with that.”
— Ben Fischer
will deantough mudder | ceo and co-founder
Where born: Sheffield, U.K.
Education: University of Bristol (BSc), Harvard Business School (MBA)
Family: Wife, Katie Palms; child, Isobel (17 months)
What do you know now that you wish you’d known at age 20: First seek to understand, then to be understood.
Profession other than your own you’d most like to attempt: TV producer.
Charity supported: Team Rubicon, Tough Mudder official charity in U.S.
I’m one of the best I know at … : Challenging conventional wisdom.
2017 will be a good year if … : The England Rugby Team beat New Zealand’s all-time record of 18 test matches unbeaten (we are currently at 17).
The sports industry needs to do a better job of … : Maintaining trust. Doping in sports is undermining people’s faith in many sports, not just cycling and athletics.
Most thrilling/adventurous thing I’ve ever done is … : Backpacked solo round Pakistan.