Event Innovators 2014: Will Dean

The C.E.O. & co-founder of Tough Mudder aims to provide shared experiences through his obstacle courses, which have drawn 1.3 million participants to date.

By Michele Laufik June 17, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT

Will Dean, C.E.O. & co-founder, Tough Mudder

Photo: Courtesy of Tough Mudder

Tough Mudder founder Will Dean credits an unlikely inspiration for his multimillion-dollar company: a jammed zipper. Faced with the wet suit malfunction during a triathlon six years ago, Dean, 33, asked the guy next to him for help but was rebuffed. “He was in a rush—even though this was not a competitive event, with no prize money,” Dean says. “I realized that this was an incredibly solitary pursuit and that I wanted to create an event focused instead on teamwork and camaraderie.”

With that company mission in mind, Tough Mudder designs obstacle courses that require participants to rely on each other for a physical—and mental—boost, like forming a pyramid with teammates to conquer a wall. The 10- and 12-mile courses test the participants’ strength, stamina, and grit, says Dean, who is a former counterterrorism officer for the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

For the multi-Mudders—that is, those who complete two or more events—Dean recently launched Mudder Legion, which offers “perks” like an exclusive obstacle called Fire in Your Hole, a slide with a nearly vertical drop that shoots participants through fire.

“I believe that experiences are the new luxury goods, and I expect to see more and more events that are focused on providing shared experiences.”

Tough Mudder boasts 1.3 million participants to date, with events taking place across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia. But course safety has come into question recently as the company faces a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the mother of a participant who died from brain injuries sustained during a race last year. Dean told HuffPost Live in May that there are more than 70 emergency personnel on site at every event, adding that their races are actually about 20 times safer than triathlons. The risky challenges haven’t deterred sign-ups though.

“I believe that experiences are the new luxury goods, and I expect to see more and more events that are focused on providing shared experiences,” Dean says. “With so many responsibilities and distractions, getting the chance to spend quality time with the people who matter to you can become frustratingly rare. Events like Tough Mudder offer a way for people to connect again.”

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