Will Dean isn't ashamed of the fact that he didn't win Harvard Business School's Business Plan Contest in 2009.
The reason he was stopped short of the title by Harvard professors?
They didn't think his Tough Mudderseries had mass appeal.
"They said, 'no one is going to come do this event,'" Dean recalled.
"'This is not a race, there are no times, no one's going to win it.' And I said, 'Look, there's a lot of people out there that want to take part in mass participation events, but just find running boring'...I said, 'there has to be a way to make this more interesting.'"
But who could blame those professors?
A 12-15 mile trail run with 20-plus military-style obstacles that Dean says are meant to test you physically as well as mentally. This includes climbing in mud under barbed wire and facing Electroshock Therapy (running through a field of 10,000-volt live wires), the Chernobyl Jacuzzi (a dumpster full of green-dyed ice water), and Everest (a 16-foot ramp to run up)
Would thousands of people really pay to do that?
Two years later, the answer is a resounding yes. About 150,000 people have participated in the 14 events, three times bigger than the number of entrants in 2010. And by the time the last competition is done next weekend, his 2011 revenue tally figures to hit $25 million, up from $2.2 million just a year before. That's mostly from entry fees that cost up to $200.
It's no wonder that sponsors want to latch on to Tough Mudder's success.
Today, Dean announced on CNBCthat Under Armour would become the "official outfitter" for Tough Mudder events.
The sponsorship, which includes branding on all T-shirts, will be featured more at two global events in the United Kingdom and Australia next year, where Under Armour is trying to break through.
Under Armour will also make branded gear for purchase and even says its training specialists will help people train for the events.
Matt Mirchin, Under Armour's head of Global Sports Marketing, said he learned of Tough Mudder when Under Armour employees started talking about it in the office.
"This is not only a community, it's a movement," Mirchin said. "We're a growing brand, they're a growing brand, it's just the right thing to do for us."
"In many ways, it looks like were already sponsored by them," Dean said. "An under armour shirt is something that you'll see on 70-80 percent of participants. It dries quickly, it's good when it's wet."
Other sponsors that give away free product & have obstacles with branding on it are Dos Equis, Clif Bar, FRS, Degree & Bic.
The folks at Tough Mudder are geared for a big 2012, as they'll go from 14 events in the US to 35 events, including 3 in the UK, two in Australia and two in Canada. They're projecting that 400,000 people will participate in events despite its risks.
All participants have to sign a Death Waiver, which absolves Tough Mudder form any responsibility.
"One of the best moments was when we saw a little girl say to her mom, 'Mommy, did daddy just sign a death waiver?" said Alex Patterson, Tough Mudder's chief marketing officer, who started with the company as its legal counsel. "The name sort of stuck. We always joked that we didn't really need it because in court, we'd just say, 'Your honor, the guy knew what he was getting into."
It's the insane description of some of the obstacles that automatically appeals to a group of people.
"This is the toughest event on the planet," Dean said, who was formerly a British counterterrorism agent. "We see a lot of people who do the Ironman that can't finish our event."
When they do finish, they're proud. Dean says about 1,000 people have gotten the Tough Mudder logo somewhere on their body. Tattoo artists are on site near the finish line and I'm guessing few people say that getting the tattoo hurts much.
Dean says 78 percent of people finish the event, with an average time of 2 hours and 30 minutes. He also points out that 500 people have done all 16 races, with the final event of 2011 coming up next weekend in Englishtown, NJ. The "World's Toughest Mudder" is a 24-hour competition.
His Harvard professors would laugh at the fact that Dean had to cap the entries to 1,000 people and the spots have almost filled up.
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