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Tough Mudder founder Will Dean on expanding his new business and avoiding the ‘second album problem’

·6-min read
 (Electric Gamebox)
(Electric Gamebox)

Tough Mudder founder Will Dean has spent the past year at his Wimbledon home on endless Zoom calls. The entrepreneur, known for popularising extreme obstacle courses, spent “Kafka-esque” days pitching investors for business number two - London-based immersive group gaming experience, Electric Gamebox.

The startup offers groups of 4-6 players small hi-tech gaming rooms with touch-sensitive walls, surround sound and motion-trackers, where they can play collaboratively on in-house designed games ranging from Pac Man-style challenges to puzzles.

Next week Zoom’s London team is coming into the startup’s flagship Southwark site for in-person team bonding time. “I thought that was the supreme irony,” Dean says, with a wry laugh.

When you walk through the venue’s door under Southwark’s railway arches, there is nothing suggesting it is the brainchild of the person who got corporate teams to slither through mud and jump into ice vats together.

But Dean explains the startup’s mission is to create a communal experience where the screens act as facilitator, rather than a more solo one where you plug into a VR headset and play side-by-side.

An hour-long session costs £25 per person an hour at peak times, with off-peak sessions from £5, and the games are deliberately easy to allow hen parties to enjoy them after having had a couple of drinks. Dean is keen to point out over 70% of tickets are sold to women, and says UK venues have been buzzing since reopening with full bookings over the May half term.

Will Dean with co-founder, David Spindler (Electric Gamebox)
Will Dean with co-founder, David Spindler (Electric Gamebox)

The 40-year-old entrepreneur, whose first job was working in counter-terrorism for the Foreign Office, founded Tough Mudder with his boarding school friend Guy Livingstone in America in 2010. He exited following disputes before Tough Mudder plunged into administration early last year, and sold his shares before the company was sold to major US competitor, Spartan Race, under a deal approved in a US federal court in late February 2020.

After quitting, Dean came back to Britain and wanted to create something new. He teamed up with co-founder, CFO and fellow Tough Mudder veteran, David Spindler, to launch Electronic Theatre, which they swiftly renamed Electric Gamebox because it “better described the experience”.

“Why did I do this? I think you have have to start with ‘why a second company?’ because the first time around you can be accused of foolhardiness, you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. The second time around you do,” Dean says over coffee in London.

“I was in my late 30s and I wanted to do something else. I’d seen a lot of entrepreneurs that had some success and then thought to themselves ‘I’m Steve Jobs’ or ‘I’m Elon Musk’ and then they go and try and do something completely different and it doesn’t work. You have to try and avoid the second album problem.

“I wanted to do something that leverages what I’ve done, something that is still interesting enough to be fun and that makes a bit of a difference, and something that I could genuinely base out of London that would be a global opportunity.”

The startup launched in October 2019 and raised a further £8.5 million just before the competitive socialising sector, which was growing fast pre-Covid, was put on pause for over a year. But Dean says that while this was “frustrating”, it gave the team time to hone their tech and develop better games.

 (Electric Gamebox)
(Electric Gamebox)

Today Electric Gamebox has a few sites dotted around the UK and one in Dallas, Texas, which launched in February without anyone from the team flying stateside as Britain was in the depths of lockdown three.

It has just secured nearly £8 million in funding to fuel a major US and UK expansion from backers including Index Ventures, Imbiba and investment giant Brookfield Asset Management. The plan now is to open 100 sites by 2023, expanding to over 1,000 locations by 2026.

The team just created a gamebox specifically designed for concessions in retail parks, malls and cinemas, with a clear-fronted wall so passers-by can see fun being had inside- and they have partnered with Brookfield to bring them to some of the real estate giant’s US retail sites.

July will see the concession-directed box debut inside the former Debenhams in Wandsworth - a site currently being developed into a high street destination by Gravity Active Entertainment.

A Harvard Business School graduate by the time he launched this second venture, the entrepreneur was keen to create something that can’t be “ticked off a bucket-list” - something that would generate repeat revenues. Dean is also in advanced negotiations with two US cinema giants about installing inside their complexes, and plans to partner with game developers to create branded games. The firm is on track to be profitable by next year.

“The economics are very good on the units. It helps getting a lot of landlord contributions up front,” he says. “The reason that Tough Mudder worked was because you think ‘a random stranger just helped me over an obstacle’, you create that bond. I thought you can take the same dynamic of ‘team vs environment’, that creates the fun, and duplicate that here - but here you can change the experience at the push of a button.”

Finding designers who wanted to create a simple game offering a group experience rather than focus on creating the most impressive on-screen display was hard. For Dean it is about storytelling through the games, and he made an unusual hire for a gaming content director - a Cambridge Classics graduate who played in the famed Footlights - the university theatre group that birthed Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant.

Dean and the team are now creating a series of educational games it plans to offer to local schools for free. The first will allow primary school pupils jump around Europe via the screens, learning geography and language skills.

The entrepreneur says one family with a child on the autism spectrum told him playing the game was the first group activity they had enjoyed doing altogether for years. It made him sure he had chosen the right second venture. “I really believe that we’re really using technology for good,” he says.

A few of Will Dean’s top tips for aspiring entrepreneurs

“Now everyone thinks they want to be an entrepreneur. It used to be a byword for ‘can’t get a job’."

“I think ultimately you need quite a high degree of independence, and to derive a high degree of satisfaction from saying I took this idea and having run with it the whole way,” he says.

1 Be very clear about why you’re starting your business - be honest about why you’re getting into it

2 Buy yourself a countdown clock - if you’re not where you need to be with a goal by a certain date, reassess and maybe move on

3 Know where you’re going - “If you don’t have your own definition of success, someone will impose one on you, and then you’re going to be chasing after that,” Dean says. “Be really clear about where you are going, or you might lose sight of yourself.”

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