Rob Dickens is the co-founder of Rugged Races, the company behind Rugged Maniac Obstacle Race. A native of North Carolina, he studied economics at The University of North Carolina and received his law degree from Washington and Lee University. He has been featured in The New York Times, The LA Times, and Sports Illustrated, and has appeared on ABC’s hit TV show, Shark Tank, and on ESPN’s Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports. He now resides in Boston, where he spends the long, miserable winters in his garage restoring vintage motorcycles.
How did you get into the Experiential Entertainment industry?
I met my business partner while we were both studying abroad in Dublin during our final year of law school. I went on to work at a large law firm on Wall Street but he eschewed the corporate world and began seeking a path less traveled. When obstacle course racing burst onto the scene in early 2010 he quickly joined the fray by hosting one event in his hometown in rural Massachusetts. That first event went so well that he decided to expand to additional cities. That’s when he contacted me about coming on as partner to spearhead the formation of the Rugged Maniac Obstacle Race brand. It was a huge risk for me to leave my position at the firm, but I saw an excellent opportunity to break free from the monotony of corporate life and really challenge myself. Here we are four and a half years later with offices in downtown Boston, thirty employees, and twenty-nine event days in 2015.
Tell us about Rugged Maniac. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
Rugged Maniac Obstacle Race was designed to get people off their couches and outdoors being physically active with friends. In fact, the vast majority of participants at obstacle course races aren’t hardcore athletes. They’re simply normal people with fitness levels ranging from good to poor, but they’re still out there on the course pushing themselves and being physical instead of sitting at home in front of their TV or laptop. They’re running (or walking) with their friends and having a blast doing things they never get a chance to do in the real world. They’re jumping over fire, climbing towers of shipping containers, bouncing on trampolines, and rocketing down a massive waterslide. Combine that with our rocking festival that features mechanical bulls, adult bounce houses, a huge dance party, and plenty of craft beer, and you get the perfect blend of fun and physicality that appeals to people of all shapes and sizes.
We plan to continue expanding the Rugged Maniac brand to cities throughout North America. We’ll hit three cities in Canada this summer and we expect to open events in Mexico in 2016.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Rugged Maniac's success?
Quite frankly, we haven’t had any strategic partnerships or marketing ploys that have contributed to our success. We did everything on our own via hard work, determination, an an extreme focus on quality and customer service. We weren’t fortunate enough to have millions in venture capital financing like other obstacle race companies. We started with no investors and no employees in a tiny town in rural Massachusetts, so we had to be extremely frugal and efficient in order to survive in this highly competitive industry. Those characteristics, quality and efficiency, are now a core part of our company ethos. They are the reason Rugged Maniac continues to grow each year while other companies scale back their operations or declare bankruptcy.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
We’ve been so successful despite our humble beginnings that we’ve begun to see the bigger obstacle race companies copy some of the things we do. For instance, we expanded the number of obstacles we use at each event to twenty-five while the other companies where using twelve to fifteen because we know that people participate in an obstacle course race for the obstacles, not for the running. After one year leading the charge, every other obstacle race company has now followed suit.
Similarly, we’ve always emphasized the fun aspect of obstacle racing with a good blend of obstacles that are both physically challenging and wildly entertaining, like our “Particle Accelerator” waterslide and “Antigravity” trampoline obstacle. Other companies took themselves a bit too seriously with their branding and messaging and lost out on all of the participants who aren’t hardcore athletes, which is approximately 75% of the market. They’re now trying to capture those customers by adding waterslides and other “fun” obstacles like ours to their repertoire.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and we’re certainly flattered. It simply affirms that our innovations and strategies are not only sound, but worthy of replication. We plan to continue innovating and leading as we take more market share from our bigger competitors.
“Fortune favors the bold.” Your lucky break isn’t going to fall in your lap. You have to make it happen. Pursue your dreams with every ounce of energy you have and don’t let fear of failure stop you. Failure is simply a part of the process.
Rugged Maniac’s Motto?
“’Good enough’ is never good enough.” It’s easy to get complacent when things are going well, but complacency leads to deterioration in the quality of your product and customer service. Again, we strive to put on the absolute best events possible. Quality and customer satisfaction are our number one concerns. If our participants don’t think the event was awesome, we didn’t do our jobs.
Your greatest success as Founder/COO of Rugged Maniac? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
My greatest success is simply the fact that the tiny company I founded with a friend continues to grow and succeed year after year. I consider my greatest failure to be the fact that I’ve had to let four employees go during the past four years. Any time you let an employee go it not only disrupts your business, but, more importantly, it also disrupts the employee’s personal life. I’ve learned to be extremely thorough during the hiring process to make sure that whomever we decide to hire will be a perfect fit long-term.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
You can’t do everything yourself, at least not forever. When I first started this company, I had a hard time delegating tasks because I wanted them to be done perfectly, and when you’re first starting out you certainly need things to be as perfect as possible from your customer’s perspective. It may also be the case, as it was for me, that you simply can’t afford to hire high-level employees at first. However, I nearly worked myself to death performing every high-level job at the company and working 70-80 hours a week for three years straight. It not only took a toll on my health and relationships, but it also impaired the growth of the company because it was simply impossible for me to do everything that needed to be done in a timely manner.
I realize now that I should’ve hired one or two hard-working and intelligent entry-level employees whom I could train to take over some of my lower-level tasks, which would’ve freed me up to focus on the truly essential items while at the same time getting them valuable experience that would enable them to assume more responsibility in the future. The more responsibility they assume, the more you can remove yourself from the daily grind and become more of a people manager and business strategist than a worker. Hire, train, delegate, and supervise. This is where true business growth happens.
Describe the ideal experience at a Rugged Maniac event.
I want the customer experience to be as close to perfect as possible. This means (1) minimal lines throughout the event, including during parking, check-in, grabbing food and drinks, and especially on the course; (2) fun, challenging and unique obstacles; (3) an entertaining festival with plenty of fun (and free) games and attractions; (4) great-tasting food and drinks at normal prices, not bloated “festival” prices; and (5) quick and courteous resolutions to any problems that may arise.
How do you motivate your employees?
I motivate my employees by giving them input on certain company decisions so they feel a sense of responsibility for our success. I also constantly recognize my employees for doing things well, even though I expect nothing less of them. It’s important to vocalize your appreciation for your employees on a regular basis; you may think they’re all awesome employees, but if you don’t tell them they’ll never know.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
A really hearty lasagna with a glass of chocolate milk.
What literature is on your bed stand?
I’m currently reading “This Is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz, which was a gift. I generally prefer non-fiction books like “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond or “Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.
Role model - business and personal?
I honestly don’t have any true role models. I do what I think is best based on my personal values and life experience.
I restore and customize vintage motorcycles. I currently have five in various stages of completion in my garage.
Favorite travel destination?
I try to visit a different country each year, though I do have a special fondness for Japan. It has so much to offer, from the neon lights of Tokyo to the tranquility of Buddhist temples, and you never have to worry about crime.
What's next for Rugged Races?
We’re evolving into a full-service event production company, not just an obstacle course race brand. We’re launching a 5k road race series in Boston this fall and we have a music festival in the works as well.