Is Tough Mudder founder and CEO Will Dean a marketing genius or did he steal the idea while a student at Harvard?
That question has been at the center of lawsuits and a Harvard Business School investigation that cleared Dean of stealing confidential information but questioned his motives and tactics and placed him on alumni probation for five years. And Dean’s litigation with an English businessman ended with Dean paying $725,000 in a settlement without acknowledging any wrongdoing.
An Outside magazine article in November by Scott Keneally uncovered some less-than-flattering information about Dean.
In 2008, when he was a student at Harvard Business School, Dean appealed to Tough Guy founder Billy Wilson, the self-proclaimed inventor of the modern obstacle course, to let him study his business in England for a school project. In return, Dean would provide a feasibility study on possible international expansion.
Wilson, a former British Army officer who has been staging obstacle races since the mid 1980s, agreed. He also asked Dean to sign a confidentiality agreement to acknowledge that the information he obtained would not be used for commercial purposes. He then gave him access to the financial books and himself.
According to Outside, Dean eventually presented two slightly different versions of his report: one to Harvard and one to Wilson, and the Wilson version omitted key recommendations of a possible immediate expansion to Tough Guy.
Dean’s Harvard paper made it to the semifinals of the Harvard Business School business-plan contest in 2009, although his professors thought it was “a bad idea,” according to Outside.
In early 2010, Dean launched Tough Mudder, using photos and video taken at Tough Guy events without attribution, according to the Harvard investigation.
His relationship with Wilson became permanently mucked up, to the point where Wilson e-mailed Dean with a Godfather-like threat.
According to Outside, the e-mail said, “I love horses too much to cut their heads off to impress conmen in their bedclothes. I much prefer to chainsaw down the centre of the bed and spill human blood.”
Today, Wilson is still angry. In a recent e-mail to the Globe, he said his business has been cut by 25 percent.
Dean denied all wrongdoing, and in a response to a Harvard preliminary statement of facts, he called Wilson “an irrational and unpredictable man” who has “financial and professional irregularities.”
Wilson, in an e-mail to Dean, said he has been subjected to “three years of vile, vicious lies, character assassinations, libelous defamation” that was shared with Harvard.
In 2010, the Harvard Conduct Review Board ruled that there was “insufficient evidence to support the serious charge that [Dean] inappropriately used confidential information and related material provided by Tough Guy Limited in developing his own enterprise.”
But it also found “sufficient evidence of dishonesty and misrepresentation” in Dean’s actions.
“Will violated the HBS Community Values of ‘honesty and integrity’ and ‘accountability’ in several important respects,” said the report.
The report questioned Dean’s motives when he obtained the domain name “toughguyusa.com” in June 2008. It concluded that he repeatedly misled Wilson on Harvard’s involvement, and also breached the confidentially agreement he signed.
The report also said that if all MBA students were to follow Dean’s interpretation of a confidentiality agreement, “the negative impact on the School’s reputation . . . could be significant.”
Dean was placed on five-year alumni probation.
In June 2010, Wilson sued Dean for stealing his trade secrets, and in January 2011, Dean sued Wilson for defamation of character. In an out-of-court settlement, Dean paid Wilson $725,000. He told “60 Minutes Sports” that it was easier to just pay than to fight in court.
“I think it’s something that happens every day in American business,” he said.
Tough Mudder employees rave about their boss and the fast-growing Brooklyn-based company.
Upon completion of their two-month induction period, new employees get to choose between the following gifts: an iPad, a skydiving session, or a $500 donation to the charity of their choice. Tough Mudder participants also have donated $5.5 million and counting to the Wounded Warriors Project.
But in a e-mail to the Globe, Wilson says Dean is a liar who has exhibited “the worst in mankind’s greed” to himself and others “whom he has used on his journey to riches.”
Representatives for Harvard said the school would have no comment because of privacy rules.
A spokesperson for Tough Mudder said Dean was on his honeymoon and unavailable for comment.
Many Tough Mudders apparently couldn’t care less. Several said it reminded them of the charges against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
“Don’t all corporations kind of say, ‘If you can do it and you can do it better, go do it’? Isn’t that what a lot of business is?” said Kendall Russell, an Internet ad service worker and Tough Mudder fan. “All I know is that it was the best thing I’ve done in 15 years.”Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.