Will Dean has been called the Mark Zuckerberg of extreme sports.
Like Zuckerberg, Dean started Tough Mudder, a popular obstacle course competition series, while he was a student at Harvard University. In just two years, Tough Mudder has become a $70 million business and the largest player in the $250 million-a-year obstacle racing industry, which saw a combined 1.5 million participants in 2012. Yet also like Zuckerberg, competitors claim that Dean is running a business based on someone else's ideas, and a new feature by Scott Keneally in Outside magazine shows the legal battle over Tough Mudder began with an internal Harvard investigation.
Dean started studying the obstacle course industry in 2007 while enrolled in Harvard's MBA program. According to Outside, he particularly paid attention to Tough Guy, "a 15-kilometer midwinter mud run founded by an eccentric former British Soldier and event promoter named Billy Wilson," in 1987. Dean reached out to Wilson to see if he could study Tough Guy for a business class.
Outside reports that in July 2008, Dean proposed doing a report for his Harvard class focusing on “the feasibility and logistics of expanding Tough Guy internationally." Wilson cooperated and shared everything "from company financials to the costs of setting up a course," according to the magazine. Dean was to then provide a report to Wilson on how to expand Tough Guy, in exchange for the hands-on experience.
Dean finished as a semifinalist in the annual Harvard business plan competition in 2009 with his proposal for Tough Mudder, but his professors advised him against starting his own venture. "My question was whether there were customers for this thing," Harvard adviser David Godes told Crains New York Business.
Undeterred, after graduation Dean enlisted a friend to organize a "grueling, team-based mud run with an obstacle course," according to the Telegraph, and to launch Tough Mudder.
Outside reports "Wilson was furious when he found out" about Tough Mudder and sued the company.
Harvard then investigated complaints made by Wilson with an internal Conduct Review Board. According to Outside, the university eventually decided "there was insufficient evidence that [Dean] inappropriately used confidential information ... provided by Tough Guy Limited in developing his own enterprise."
In an earlier interview with Active.com, Dean said he came up with the idea for Tough Mudder after running marathons over the years and out of a desire to describe the races in terms beyond his finishing time.
"I really wanted to make something that wasn't just about personal achievement or your time, but about setting a bunch of different challenges," he told Active.com. "It's about testing people in a bunch of different ways all in one day. Some of the challenges should be physical, some should be mental, but there should be a variety."
Dean and Wilson settled the Tough Mudder lawsuit last year with an agreement not to discuss the details publicly. Wilson's Tough Guy has been sharing a trailer for the Outside feature on Dean and Tough Mudder on its social media channels as the story "Harvard (probably) doesn't want you to know."