In April 2013, a 28-year-old man died at the Walk the Plank obstacle in our Tough Mudder event at Gerrardstown, West Virginia.
We had known deep down that statistically it had been bound to happen. We knew, for example, that one in 60,000 competitors dies during a triathlon, and by 2013 we’d had well over a million participants complete our 12 miles – but it did not change the fact for any of us that a young man had lost his life.
As founder of the company, it took me a long time to process the fact, and it inevitably cast a cloud over the whole company that summer.
One result of that and many other insistent concerns was that I wasn’t sleeping well and routinely forced myself to work beyond my normal endurance levels. It was a habit I had practised to a degree throughout my 20s, particularly at the Foreign Office, where workaholism was pretty much assumed: the terrorists never stopped so how could we? It began to creep into everything I did.
Tough Mudder HQ had long been a family, but increasingly that was at the expense of any life outside the company. I had a sense that I couldn’t slow down, or step away, because too much depended on me. We had gone from nothing to a $50m business in a very short time, and the last thing I wanted was for it all to come crashing down. That summer I started wearing a beard because I would always need to hide at least one boil on my face.
In October 2013, when we opened our bookings for the year ahead, it quickly became clear that they were markedly down on budgeted projections. It was the first time this had happened since we launched.
As all entrepreneurs learn sooner or later, growth may be the goal of your business, but it is also its potentially fatal flaw. The skills and character that you need to make the first leap into the unknown are not the same resources you need to create something stable enough to withstand inevitable reverses of market and fortune. These strains showed for me as I tried to make that transition from founder to leader.
In 2013, we moved from our rough-and-ready start-up space to 70,000 sq ft of prime office space in the commercial heart of Brooklyn’s Metro-Tech. We were probably ready for the upshift, but I couldn’t help feeling it had added a bit more of a corporate edge to
how some people started to carry themselves. We took over the new office in November 2013, in high Mudder excitement, charging in through the lobby en masse, somewhat to the alarm of security. But I feared that attitude had started to wane not long after we arrived.
I was reminded of a scene in the film Wayne’s World, in which Wayne and Garth hit the big time with the TV show they have been making in Wayne’s basement. To make themselves feel comfortable in the new professional studio they are given, they try to re-create an exact replica of that basement, just as it was – but a little bit of the old pioneer spirit is inevitably lost. I think all start- ups that are successful experience some of that loss-of-innocence feeling when the need to scale means that things begin to become more routine.
The prospect of failure teaches us humility, but it also gives us the opportunity to not let it win.
The truth is there is no finishing line when creating a company.
This is an extract from Will Dean's new book, It Takes A Tribe, published by Portfolio Penguin last month. Price: £14.99