How Tough Mudder and its ‘adult obstacle courses’ became a £100m business

One Sunday morning, Will Dean informed his girlfriend Katie: “I am going to electrocute thousands of people.” Unfazed, she continued reading her newspaper. But the Sheffield-born founder of Tough Mudder – the now-globally successful obstacle course series which comes to Gloucestershire’s Badminton Estate this weekend – was devilishly serious.

“I started calling engineering companies, saying: ‘Hello, we’re Tough Mudder, we want to shock people with electricity,’” explains Dean, 36, who launched his first “weekend obstacle course for adults” in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in May 2010, after studying a MBA at Harvard Business School. “You’d get a pause and then the line would go dead. People thought they were being pranked.”

In the Tough Mudder innovations lab, human guinea pigs spend their mornings running through hay bales and dipping their extremities in buckets of ice

The obstacle called Electroshock Therapy, which involves running through wires fizzing with 10,000 volts (triple the sting of your average electric fence), is now the event’s signature challenge. “As CEO, I have a unique role in all this because I am also the majority shareholder. People said: “Will, we can’t do this.” I was saying: “Yes, we can. We can have a board meeting and get it approved in two seconds. Look, it just happened…’”

Dean spent five years working as a UK counter-terrorism officer in the Middle East and Afghanistan until, stifled by bureaucracy, he sought entrepreneurial fulfilment. His Harvard tutors called his business plan “optimistic”. At the inaugural edition, he prayed for 500 customers and got 4,500.

There are now 130 annual Tough Mudder events in 11 countries with 3 million entrants worldwide so far. This weekend’s clientele have paid up to £139 to take on a 10- to 12-mile course littered with tunnels, nets, walls, fire, ice and mud. The company’s annual revenues now exceed $100m.

Obstacles are conjured up at an “Innovation Lab” in Pennsylvania where human guinea pigs spend their mornings running through hay bales and dipping their extremities in buckets of ice. Cry Baby, an obstacle which requires people to crawl through eye-watering smoke, was tested by spraying staff with homemade tear gas. Spider Box (a pit full of tarantulas) and Acid Rain (a container of floating acid bubbles) didn’t make the cut.

“The Innovation Lab is as crazy as it sounds,” says Dean. “I joke that you will never get a…

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