Crafting a Brand and Creating a Movement: Advice from Tough Mudder Founder Will Dean

Logos are symbols. They are powerful reminders of a brand. But even the most loyal consumers don’t get tattoos of the logos of their favorite product. In different cultures, however, tribes get tattoos to symbolize their connection to each other and their shared identity. As I stood with some friends at the starting line of a Tough Mudder race in the summer of 2013, I was surprised to see, on the calves or shoulder blades of some of the other participants, a variety of Tough Mudder tattoos. Some wore the Tough Mudder logo, the image of a runner silhouetted on a large background of flames. Others included a list of the dates and locations of the Tough Mudder “challenges” they had completed. Talk about brand loyalty!

Will Dean, the founder of not only Tough Mudder, Inc., but of a unique culture of camaraderie, recently completed, It Takes a Tribe – Building the Tough Mudder Movement. It’s an inspiring story of creating an experience that draws out the best in people. Dean crafts the book the way he crafted the company – not around standard corporate milestones of meeting revenue targets and expansion goals, but around the stories of individuals who overcame obstacles, remained innovative in the way they faced personal challenges, and crossed the finish line exhausted, but somehow stronger than when they started.

Jay Sullivan: Who is your target audience for It Takes a Tribe, and what are you hoping readers take away from reading it?

Will Dean: There are two primary audiences for It Takes a Tribe, which are so large in and of themselves that it’s probably easier to say, “It’s for everyone.” The first audience is Mudder Nation – the 3 million participants, spectators, and volunteers who have experienced the power of the community firsthand. In some ways, it’s a “thank you” to the incredible tribe of people that propelled the Tough Mudder movement.

The second group is anyone interested in the power of community. When I started Tough Mudder, I wanted to create an event where success was achieved by supporting each other, rather than surpassing each other. This philosophy began and ended with our culture at TMHQ. I believe It Takes a Tribe provides insight on how to foster that type of community, especially at a startup.

Sullivan: How much pressure do you feel to maintain the brand when so many people are wearing a tattoo of your logo? Do you think people get the tattoos because they love Tough Mudder, or because they love what their experience at the event says about them?

Dean: A Tough Mudder tattoo is a commemoration. It isn’t just a logo of a company; it’s a symbol of the individual’s achievement. To be sure, it represents Tough Mudder’s mission and brand, but it is also about what Tough Mudder represents to that individual. The experience of running Tough Mudder is transformative for many people and the tattoo is a reminder of how they felt crossing the finish line.

Sullivan: What drove you to start your own company rather than apply your creative talents to an existing entity?

Dean: I’ve always had the desire to build something; I set up three business while at school at the University of Bristol. When I ended up at Harvard Business School, it was about acquiring the skills, confidence, and grit to pursue that full time.

Sullivan: One of my favorite lines in the book is, “I think entrepreneurship is often what is left when you have ruled out all other safer and often more lucrative options for yourself.” Can you comment more on that? What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Dean: The motivation to be an entrepreneur is often boiled down to the cliché that you must, above all, follow your passion. If I hear people say things like ‘I want to set up a ski company because skiing is my passion,’ I can’t help feeling they are likely to be disappointed. If they run a ski company, they are going to spend an awful lot of time in an office, talking about skis. They would probably be better off, if they really wanted to follow their passion, to get a job where they have lots of spare time and can live near a mountain.

When entrepreneurs describe their passion, it is not often about the product or even the environment they have created (though they are proud of those things). It is about the way their business has proved that their original idea about making the world a slightly more enjoyable and efficient place was right all along. The products themselves were just a vehicle for delivering that idea.

I wanted to create something that brought people together, uniting them through the shared experience of overcoming obstacles. Tough Mudder was my vehicle for that. When I talk about Tough Mudder now, I am describing my passion for the Tough Mudder movement, which is rooted in this philosophy.

Sullivan: Only one of the book’s nine chapters has “Innovation” in the title, but I found advice and examples around being innovative throughout the book.

Dean: That’s correct. The real answer to that notion of “fostering innovation” is that it must be fundamental to everything you do, not only at the micro level but also at the macro level; “innovation” is really another word for growth.

Sullivan: What advice do you have for any company, large or small, or any individual, about being more innovative?

Dean:

  1. Be resilient – The obstacles on a Tough Mudder course are nothing compared to the obstacles we faced in building a business.
  2. Never stop evolving / don’t be complacent – We get tons of great ideas for new obstacles and new approaches from participants.  But the subtext to their recommendations is, “OK that was great. Now what’s next?” We have to keep coming up with something new or we lose our edge, and our spirit of creating a challenging environment.
  3. Deprioritize – Be willing to shift your priorities as needs arise.
  4. Challenge convention – Ask “why not?” frequently.
  5. Don’t ignore data, but don’t make it your only reason for doing something

Sullivan: Very helpful. Thanks.

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