I envisioned a World-Class mud run event, worthy of Universal recognition. But after 3 events, 1104 participants, 1500 hours of personal labor, and $ 71,416 in revenue, I ended up with nothing.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and foresight is always blind. But it’s easy to explain what went wrong with a jester’s smile, knowing that I squeaked out of this mess alive. But not without scars. During this 20 month adventure, each passing day was a persistent struggle to improve the previous day’s efficiency. But instead of improving, I spiraled my mud run series further into the depths of failure. And instead being blessed with foresight, and cutting my losses after the 1st event, I was blind enough to put on 2 more, hoping it would culminate into a nationally renowned series.
I was misguided by alternative motives, intoxicated with greed, as I sacrificed customer experience in favor of an instant financial return. And these are my trials and tribulations, searching for that sustainable system, unsuccessfully.
THE LOSS: $ 71,416 and 1500 labor hours – The combined revenue between 3 events was $ 71,416. And after the 3 events were paid for, there was nothing left to compensate 1500 hours of my personal labor.
THE HARD LESSON: Even if you build it, they’re not guaranteed to come. Even if you market hard, they’re not guaranteed to come. If you don’t have a truly unique idea and original idea, they’re not guaranteed to come.
In January 2012, I met my friend at Barnes and Noble in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was common for us to discuss business ideas and ventures. Most of the time, talk was cheap. But at this specific moment, I was suffering from a very boring, unchallenging, and poorly compensating job. And my friend was unemployed. So between our unfulfilling careers, we were very motivated to actually pursue an idea that required minimal barrier to entry. And that idea was CerebRun, the World’s First Mental Obstacle Course
To bring you up to speed, mud runs and obstacle courses are sort of a new fitness trend in America. They are trail running courses, but with obstacles, like walls, or mud pits, or bogs, or slides, etc. Here is a video of the 3rd event I put on in May 2014. But let it be known. Whatever quality you think this event has, know that the 1st event was drastically worse in every way imaginable.
But Back To The Genesis…
Our idea was conceived from the mud run boom. The big organizers were Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash. And they were accumulating thousands of sign ups, gaining massive amounts of followers, which lead to multi-million dollar sales figures. And we thought we could effortlessly replicate that success with a similar model. But with a mental twist. We wanted to infuse mental puzzles and challenges into our obstacle course series. And those mental challenges would build on the fun-factor, the challenge, and overall fulfillment.
And just like that, we thought we had a multi-million dollar concept.
We brainstormed and deliberated, and ultimately concluded that the CerebRun Mud Run event would boast the following factors:
- 5-7 mile course
- 8+ mental challenges that would determine the length and difficulty of the race
- 15+ physical obstacles
- After-Event Celebration
- Medal, t-shirt, and beer for all finishers.
And we thought we could easily advertise the mental challenges mixed with the physical obstacles, drawing exponential interest and registrations.
We thought we were brilliant. We thought we were going to launch a website, launch some ads, and watch thousands of sign-ups cough up hundreds of dollars per entry. Our new careers and lives were blooming right before our eyes, on that wintry weekend afternoon, in Barnes and Nobles in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And this was our business plan.
But where would we get our Start Up Capital?
Our product was a running event, which would take place in the distant future (unknowingly 15 months away). So funding the actual event was not something we needed to do right away. And the funding from this event would come from pre-registrations. So CerebRun required very little startup capital from my partner or I. The only capital needed was for a website, initial marketing campaigns, and enough cash for a down payment to lease a location.
We slapped together a WordPress site, and we set up an account with RedPodium to collect and process our registrations. But before we could advertise, we needed a location. It was our thought process that we wouldn’t get any registrations without a confirmed location. So we called all the local event venues, farms, and even some ski resorts. None were interested, until we called a local horse farm.
But where would we host the event?
It was a 700 acre horse farm, with rolling hills, and great terrain for a mud run. But the owner wanted $ 10,000 to lease the property for the weekend. And he wanted a $ 10 million insurance policy. It was an insane amount of money and coverage, but it was our only hope. And we thought it was a drop in the bucket compared to the millions we anticipated. So we signed the paperwork, with $ 1000 up front, and the remaining to be paid in payments. And just like that, our first event was scheduled for April 13th, and April 14th, 2013.
And over the span of 6 months, and between a variety of internet marketing campaigns, print ads, flyers, and disguised begging, we managed to attract 569 registrations for our inaugural event. Collectively, this worked out to be $ 41,340 in revenue. A little short of the millions we were expecting. But it was enough to work with.
So you got 569 registrations, and $ 41K to work with. But what about the actual event?
It was a 2 day event. And after the first day, we received this Facebook review that pretty accurately sums up the experience:
“Anyone doing this on Sunday? Let me save you some time and disappointment. Run around your neighborhood and roll around in dog shit for an hour then head home and crack open a beer and make yourself a sandwich and you’ll have done more than this crew did.”
The event was a disaster. We put so much focus on sales and marketing, that the actual event wasn’t considered until 2 weeks before the event. And in that amount of time, we had to:
- design the course
- design mental obstacles
- design physical obstacles
- get course markings to direct the participants
- build the obstacles
- get a food vendor
- get race bibs and waivers
- get tents and booths
And with the amount of time we left ourselves, a majority of these tasks did not get completed:
- design the course – There were multiple issues with the course. And the biggest one was the horse shit. There was horse shit EVERYWHERE. It was something we noticed as we were walking and surveying the course, but we kind of laughed it off as another obstacle, knowing that this was our only option for a location. But no one thought it was funny, nor challenging. The horse shit was above and beyond, one of the biggest complaints that we received.
- design mental obstacles – To market the event, we designed a variety of theoretical mental obstacles to include in our marketing. Some of the mental obstacles were well received. But to actually build them, and implement them into the course, was a huge undertaking that we did very little to prepare for. Here’s a side by side comparison between a digital mental obstacle used for our marketing, and the actual obstacle used:
- design physical obstacles – We tried finding a contractor to build these obstacles. But none were available at the price we needed them to be available at. So we had to build them ourselves. There was nothing structurally wrong with the obstacles. But the problem was there wasn’t nearly as many as we advertised. We managed to get some mud pits, some monkey bars, some tire swings. But that was about it. We fell way short on what we advertised.
- get course markings to direct the participants – And then there was this. We had one week to set up the course. We thought it was plenty of time. But, we ended up using that entire week to build an insufficient amount of mental and physical obstacles. And because of this, there wasn’t enough course markings to direct the runners. Which is a big problem over a 700 acre farm. Runners were getting lost in the woods. People were confused, and traveling through dangerous terrain. We had to send out generous, unpaid, friends and family to get them back on course. This, along with the horse shit, and everything else, was a big contributor to the disaster.
- get a food vendor – Finding a food vendor at the last minute was challenging. And the best we could do was find a veggie burger food truck. Which, as you can imagine, was not well received. And then getting the beer was a pain in the ass too, because Pennsylvania has strict liquor laws. We managed to find a loophole that allowed it. So the beer was probably the lone highlight.
- get t-shirts and medals – the t-shirts were the cheapest I could find. They were itchy, and too big. The other mud runs offered, nice polyester shirts. And ours were 100% itchy cotton. And the medals were fine. They were just stickers on a medal. Nothing fancy. But they didn’t garner any complaints.
- get tents and booths – We needed tents for registration and changing rooms. The tents were fine. But on the day of the event, just as the paying participants were showing up, we were organizing the registration table. We had to ask a volunteer for a pen out of her car, as runners were signing in. It was so unprepared and disorganized. It definitely left a bad first impression.
So after the event, and after 569 participants ran through a half-assed obstacle course with inadequate obstacles, course markings, and no mental challenges, we ended up profiting $ 0. The entire event cost $ 40,000, and hundreds of hours of man hours between my partner, myself, and our generous friends and family that supported our pathetic attempt.
And then I did the next illogical thing: I started planning the 2nd event.
The first event left little hope for a future, and my partner wisely left the operation, while I did the opposite. I left my job to pursue CerebRun full time. But CerebRun had no money. And I had a household to take care of. So I needed to get a 2nd event started, so I could start promoting and get more cash flow.
So between the months of May and June 2013, I made a few phone calls, and secured a new location. It was a 400 acre soybean farm. The scenery wasn’t nearly as nice as the first location. But it also didn’t have the steaming piles of horse shit. But the terrain was excellent for a train run, and easy to access for obstacle construction. But the best feature of all, was that I secured the location for $ 5000 (half the cost of the 1st event). Here’s a course map I handed out on event day:
So in July 2013, I began promoting the 2nd event, CerebRun: The Turkey Hunt. It was to take place Thanksgiving weekend. But instead of just a mental obstacle course, participants could sign up as either a Turkey or a Hunter. The Turkeys would have flag football belts, and they would get a 2 minute head start into the course. Then, the Hunters would be released into the course, with the purpose of chasing the Turkeys. And whoever finished the race with flags, could win some cool prizes.
It was a unique idea, and got some initial interest. But ultimately, it didn’t attract as many participants or as much revenue as the 1st event. Only 195 participants registered, which generated only $ 11,476 in revenue. This would prove to be a financial problem.
But Just When I Thought All Hope Was Lost…
With so little in revenue, I was on track to repeat the same quality event. But just when I started advertising in July, a local building contractor reached out to me. They invited me to their office for a meeting, and offered to build the obstacles and provide the material for free. All they wanted was to be the lead sponsor for the event. I said yes without any hesitation.
Even though I only attracted 195 participants, and $ 11k in revenue, I still needed to prove that CerebRun could be a respected mud run. So I began working on the obstacles, course design, and mental challenges a month in advance. And the course was a success. Here are some of the improvements:
- Mental Challenges: These were a big improvement. And my favorite was the Lego Challenge. Participants would approach a pre-constructed Lego. They would need to study it. Then, they would run about 100 yards towards a big pile of legos. And they would have to recreate the lego design. And they couldn’t continue until they re-designed it.
- Physical Obstacles: These were also a big improvement. And that’s because I had actual designs, and an actual construction crew to build them. Here’s a pic of a few obstacles:
- Sponsors: Another big fumble with the first event was not securing any sponsors. This time, I was able to secure numerous sponsors for the event, which I was able to use as credibility in the marketing.
- Booty Bag: The Booty Bag is a bag given to the runners at the end of the event. It was filled with coupons from local businesses. It was another nice memorabilia to offer the runners at the end of the race.
The 2nd event wasn’t flawless. The Turkey Hunt theme wasn’t as big of an impact as I thought. And the weather was so cold, that I suspect it contributed to low turnout. However, it left me with a few good reviews, and secured some repeat customers.
And I Pursued the 3rd and Final Event
Although the 2nd event was a successful operation, it did not pull in the revenue I needed. So as I was promoting and planning the 2nd event, I made some calls, and secured a location for a 3rd event. And thus, I started promoting the 3rd event for a May 10th, 2014 date, while promoting the 2nd event.
This proved to be a good move. It helped me bring in additional revenue. And it gave me additional time to promote the 3rd event. But it also proved to be a good move because I was able to capitalize on the positive reviews that came from the 2nd event, which helped encourage people to sign up for the 3rd event.
The 3rd event was to take place on a 700 acre corn farm on May 10th, 2014. This location was secured for $ 5000. And it proved to be the best location due to location and terrain.
Between November 2013 and May 2014, my marketing was able to attract 340 participants, and $ 18,600 for a 1 day event. This was a nice boost compared to the previous event. And ultimately, this event proved to be the best event.
And, I was able to convince the building contractor to sponsor this event too, for the same deal.
Here are some of the improvements:
- Medals: The medals were awesome. I had them custom made from a medal manufacturer in California. They were pricey, and I ordered more than I needed, but very well received.
- After-Race Massages: In an effort to improve my event sponsors, I reached out to local chiropractors to see if they’d want to offer massages for the runners at the end of the event. And they all wanted to! So I had to take the highest bidder, and offer them some coupons in the Booty Bag.
- Event Activities: I participated in a few of the other popular mud runs, just to see what type of event they put on. And one thing I noticed was the area outside of the actual course had a lot of activities. So I managed to secure a few activities that included a cross fit boot camp, an arcade game challenge, some gnarly taco vendor, a smoothie mixologist, the massages, and an event disc jockey. This was a nice activity improvement to help entertain the runners and spectators who weren’t permitted on the course.
So why’d I throw in the towel?
I mean, it sounds like I was making some great connections, and making vast improvements in the logistics and event organization. I was getting positive reviews, and great feedback from the participants. The course was challenging enough to entertain athletes, while easy enough to encourage the less-active humans.
But ultimately, it never made enough money. This was my employment for about 15 months, and it never made enough to pay for my time. I was burning through savings to keep my household floating. But I just couldn’t put any more time into the event. So after the final event, I informed my sponsors I was not longer putting on events. And I pursued full time employment.
But despite the headaches and hassles, these events were some of the most energizing and challenging and fun moments of my life. And even though it didn’t work out, I’ll always think of the experiences fondly.
And that’s my flop.
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