Will Dean, a mud-splattered entrepreneur, built a business plan based on the theory that shared experiences are the new luxury goods.
And unlike the rest of the economy, the market for group suffering is booming.
The Tough Mudder obstacle challenges Dean created have grown from zero to 180,000 customers in one year; and 10,000 of them are registered to run through fire and live electric wires this weekend at the Devil’s Head Resort in Merrimac, Wis.
Over the 10-mile course, participants will encounter the Ball Shrinker, the Kiss of Mud, the Gauntlet, the Boa Constrictor and a total of 21 obstacles devised to make them rely on their intestinal fortitude, the kindness of strangers, and quite possibly, emergency medical teams.
“We’re like a real-life fight club,” Dean said, firing off one of his many quotable lines in a 30-minute phone interview to discuss his $20 million enterprise.
That may be his real genius: the ability to pitch the next great thing amid the already numerous options in mini-adventure racing.
The Tough Mudder contests are similar to the Muddy Buddy, Warrior Dash, Grim Challenge and the Strongman Run, but seem to have surged ahead in popularity and market share. He has tapped into a consumer group drawn to military-style exercises, mullets, tattoos, costumes and pain.
Even Dean, a 30-year-old Brit from the Sherwood Forest area, has been surprised by the response and the level of enthusiasm.
He devised the Tough Mudder business plan as an entry in a Harvard Business School contest. It didn’t win.
After he received his MBA from the Boston school, he turned his theory into pay dirt, and launched the first Tough Mudder at Bear Creek Ski Resort on Pennsylvania in 2010. His professors had called his projections of 500 entries optimistic, but 4,500 turned out for the first run and Tough Mudder New England drew 14,500 earlier this year.
Most organizers of marathons and triathlons would turn cartwheels over those numbers.
It’s the shortcomings of those events that inspired Dean, a self-described bored marathoner.
“I enjoyed the sense of achievement, but I didn’t enjoy the monotony of the event, and in the triathlon, the individual performance, and being all about time,” he said. “If you climb Mt. Everest, no one asks you what time you did it in.
“The challenge is in doing it.”
Keeping with that mind set, Dean reminded that the Tough Mudder is not a race and participants are not timed. They finish, or not.
“We are a touch challenge that can be worked into the regular guy’s lifestyle,” he said. “You have to train for it, but you don’t have to quit your job to train for it.”
“I really think we’re redefining what endurance means,” he said.
In the Tough Mudder, it means enduring a plunge into 40-degree water, climbs up 12-foot walls, belly slogs through mud and the dash through a tangle of live electric wires. It’s a downsized version of the full-on adventure races that Dean believes are beyond the practical reach of most of us.
And for a late entry, it’s a mere $180 for the luxury.
The details: The Tough Mudder event will be staged over two days, with 5,000 participants on both Saturday and Sunday.
Start times: Mudders start in waves, with the first group at 9 a.m. and the last at 1:40 p.m. on Saturday and 11:20 a.m. on Sunday, each day. Elites finish in roughly two hours.
Spectators: Tickets cost $15.
Charity: Tough Mudder and its participants raised more than $700,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project in 2010, and are on pace to generate roughly $1.5 million in 2011.