British Sports Mogul None Too Keen on Harvard’s “Community Values” of “Integrity” and “Honesty” [Updated]

In early October, Outside published a 5,000+ word exposé of Tough Mudder, the adventure racing company founded in 2010 by Will Dean, an alumnus of Harvard Business School. The story is well worth reading in full for journalist Scott Keneally‘s thorough assessment of the company’s rapid growth over the past two years. (Update: there’s also a trailer!)

What really snagged our attention, however, was Keneally’s survey of allegations that Will Dean stole the idea of Tough Mudder while he was a student at HBS.

The evidence of wrongdoing hinges on a Harvard-endorsed field study Dean performed at Tough Guy Limited, in the United Kingdom, where Dean is from. In a nut: after completing the field study, Dean submitted to Harvard and Billy Wilson (the proprietor of Tough Guy Limited) two different reports of his work:

In December, when Dean completed his report, he submitted one version to Harvard and a slightly modified one to Wilson. Both described the potential for more events, but the version he sent to Wilson omitted key recommendations for how he might immediately expand. Rather, he suggested Wilson adopt a wait-and-see approach. Wilson was unimpressed with the report, and the two men fell out of touch.

It’s sort of like The Social Network (minus the Trent Reznor soundtrack) — except that Harvard eventually took action against Will Dean.

Keneally discusses an internal Harvard investigation that arose from a complaint Billy Wilson sent to the biz school’s faculty less than two weeks after Tough Mudder staged its first event in the spring of 2010. We recently got our hands on the text of the investigation’s final ruling, which Outside quotes from, and it’s actually a bit more unsparing than the magazine lets on.

Harvard’s Conduct Review Board found that Dean lied, repeatedly, about the nature of his field study of Tough Guy Limited — the company on which he based his own. (Another surprising revelation: that Harvard Business School — alma mater of Rajat Gupta and Jeffrey Skilling, among others — has “community values”, and that those “values” include “honesty” and “integrity”.)

A sampling:

Then on October 1, 2008, Will emailed TGL, opening with an apology for not being in touch sooner because “I am afraid I have been pretty busy here with mid-term exams.” The semester was merely in its first month at that point, of course, (and few EC courses have mid-term exams in any event). In the message he also spoke of professors at Harvard Law School who “have agreed to help us on this.” When asked in our interview who specifically had agreed to help, however, Will said he had sent out some e-mails to HLS faculty but had received no response. His statement to TGL about HLS involvement was a falsehood.

Keneally reports that Harvard “placed Dean on alumni probation for five years.”

The full text can be found below (and the original document, with some associated correspondence, can be found on DocumentCloud):

Harvard Business School
Conduct Review Board
Findings of Fact
In the Matter of
William Dean

This case arises out of an allegation made by Tough Guy Limited (TGL), a UK-based company, about the conduct of William (Will) Dean (MBA 2009) while he was a second year student at HBS and subsequently. Specifically, it contends that he inappropriately used confidential information and related material provided by TGL which it provided in connection with an HBS Individual Student Research (ISR) project for his own development of an apparently similar commercial enterprise.

Will Dean has denied the allegations, stating: “I refute all claims made by Bill Wilson (the CEO ofTough
Guy Limited). I have reviewed with my US and UK attorneys the guidelines for HBS ISRs and the HBS Community Values and am quite certain that I have in no way violated any guideline set out by Harvard.”

A Conduct Review Board (CRB) was convened to consider this matter. Its members included:

* [Redacted], MBA 2011 student
* Cathy Hutchinson, HBS staff member
* [Redacted], MBA 2011 student
* Henry Relling, HBS taculty member
* [Redacted], MBA 2011 student
* Luis Viceira, HBS faculty member
* Michael Wheeler, HBS faculty member, CRB Chair

Brit Dewey, Director, Communilty Values Program, assisted the CRB in the course of its review.

Process

The matter came to Harvard Business School’s attention on Friday, February 12, 2010, when Doug Brodie, a financial adviser at Master Adviser IFA Limited, contacted HBS Dean Jay Light by e-mail on behalf of Tough Guy Limited to make the allegation. In the ensuing weeks Gabe Handel, Managing Director, HBS Dean’s Office, gathered further information from Mr. Brodie, public sources, and internal HBS files.

Because the alleged conduct here is closely related to Will Dean’s academic work as an enrolled student, a Conduct Review Board was convened to find the facts in this case.

Brit Dewey, Director, Community Values Program, informed Will Dean on May 13, 2010, that HBS had submitted a complaint to the Conduct Review Board formally alleging that he had inappropriately used conflifential information and related material provided by Tough Guy Limited in connection with an HBS
Individual Student Research (ISR) project for his own development of an apparently similar commercial enterprise during his Elective Curriculum year at HBS. Brit then prepared a Preliminary Statement of Facts, based on her review of the due.diligence done by Gabe Handel, her interview of [redacted], and her initial correspondence with Will Dean. In response, Will submitted a written statement to the CRB formally denying the allegations made by Tough Guy Limited.

The CRB met on Monday, June 28, 2010, and it discussed the written record in order to formulate questions for Will, with whom it then met. At the end of its Interview with Will, the CRB discussed the case more fully.

Findings

After reviewing numerous documents and e-mail correspondence, and having interviewed Will Dean in person, the CRB finds that there is insufficient evidence to support the serious charge that he inappropriately used confidential informatoon and related material provided by Tough Guy Limited in
developing his own enterprise.

More specifically, the CRB concluded that the public and uncomplicated nature of businesses like TGL’s makes them largely understandable to bystanders without any special access to proprietary information. Indeed, Will was a spectator at a TGL event in the summer of 2008 where he gathered information by
taking extensive notes and speaking informally with participants. This activity was in advance of any HBS academic work and also before his signing of any agreement with TGL. It does not appear that the ISR itself gave him much, if any, information of additional value. Moreover, as Will acknowledged in his interview with the CRB, his own newly launched business (Tough Mudder) is potentially vulnerable to imitators, as there are few barriers to entry, other than brand recognition and general managerial skill.

The CRB does find, however, that Will violated our standards in connection with his Independent Student Research project (ISR) and participation in the HBS Business Plan Contest. (BPC). Specifically, the CRB finds sufffcfent evidence to conclude that Will violated thee HBS Community Values of “honesty and integrity” and “accountability” in several important respects.

For example, the plan he submitted for his own Tough Mudder business to the HBS BPC in the spring of 2009 included as an attachment — “Tough Guy Historical Income Statements — including original accountant’s notes.” Will had signed an agreement with TGL titled “Confidentiality Document” in October 2008 related to his ISR project. Among other things, it provided that Will would be given financial information about the company, subject to the condition that it would only be available to those “connected with Will’s research project.”

Will contends that he was advised by counsel (his father) that this provision did not bar him from using this material in the HBS Business Plan Contest even though that meant that the material would be seen by a wider circle of people. This apparent argument is that the limitation was only meant to encompass disseminating information to third parties who intended to put it to direct use. That interpretation is
inconsistent with the plain meaning of the words; hence the CRB finds that Will violated the HBS Community Value of Integrity in not honoring his agreement with TGL.

If may be that this disclosure did not cause material harm to TGL, as the information is of a rather general nature and could likely be inferred without any special access to the company. TGL might well not agree with such a conclusion, however, and in any event could justifiably regard this as a breach of trust.

In his Interview, Will said that he included the material because the judges would expect to see some hard data (even though he also said he was skeptical about its accuracy). The fact that he consulted his father on this issue suggests that he was aware of possible impropriety, yet he apparently did not ask TGL if it shared his interpretation of the confidentiality document or approved of this use of company information. If other HBS students engaged in field work followed his example in regard to confidentiality agreements, the negative impact on the School’s reputation and its ability to secure field-based research opportunities could be significant.

The CRB also finds that Will violated the HBS Community Value of honesty on several occasions, notably in his communication with TGL. Some of the specific statements he made to TGL in e-mail correspondence may seem minor on their own, though together they seem to constitute a larger effort to misrepresent the role of Harvard faculty (and hence the institution) in the ISR project.

On September 7, 2008, he wrote in an e-mail to TGL, “(T)he good news is that the university is very happy for me to conduct a study in the feasibility/logistics of expanding Tough Guy internationally. Based upon the initial report that I put together my professors think it is something with real potential and are really excited about.” Only one faculty member, Sunil Gupta, had signed on as adviser to Will’s ISR at that point. Will has offered no evidence to the CRB that others were involved or that Harvard University in a larger sense had knowledge of and was interested in his student project.

Then on October 1, 2008, Will emailed TGL, opening with an apology for not being in touch sooner because “I am afraid I have been pretty busy here with mid-term exams.” The semester was merely in its first month at that point, of course, (and few EC courses have mid-term exams in any event). In the message he also spoke of professors at Harvard law School who “have agreed to help us on this.” When asked in our interview who specifically had agreed to help, however, Will said he had sent out some e-mails to HLS faculty but had received no response. His statement to TGL about HLS involvement was a falsehood.

In that same e-mail, W,ill also told TGL that “I want to look at whether there is a risk that others will try to copy Tough Guy here in the US or operate something similar and what (if anything we should do to prevent this). There is a professor here who is a specialist in how to respond to people copying your business idea and what to do about it and pleasingly, he has agreed to help us on this.” The CRB did not ask Will who this person might be, but given the assurances in the same email about HBS faculty participation, we are left wondering if this statement is also false or intentionally misleading. In another part of this e-mail message, Will speaks of setting up focus group meetings with target markets (“e.g., running clubs, sports teams, military veterans etc.) and then offers the assurance that “Harvard can help us set these up.” The CRB has no information to indicate that Harvard was going to provide this support. The thrust — and apparent purpose of such statements is to leave an impression of significant Harvard faculty and administrative involvement in what in fact was one of literally hundreds of standard student projects underway at the same time. The CRB finds such statements to constitute a misrepresentation and thus a violation of HBS Community Values. Again, if other MBA students engaged in field-based research were to follow Will’s example, the reputation of the School would be compromised and the availability of field-based research opportunities likely would suffer, as well.

The CRB is concerned about the specific instances of dishonesty and misrepresentation. They are wrong In their own right and they violate HBS Community Values. Pragmatically, moreover, when such misrepresentations become apparent, they can raise doubts about the reliability of other unconfirmed statements. Will should appreciate that the examples noted above could prompt skepticism, rightly or wrongly, about some of his other assertions. For example, the CRB did not get a clear explanation of why Will registered the “toughguyusa.com” domain name well before undertaking his ISR, or why he apparently did not reveal that fact while he was doing the study. (In the interview, he indicated that he did this as a protectiVe measure, in case some other kind of enterprise happened to take the name.)

The CRB did not take it upon itself to confirm the validity of various other statements that Will made while he was a student. For example, we do not have documentation of the medical conditions and rehabilitation routine that he said required him to put his plan to launch Tough Mudder upon graduation from HBS on hold and thus back out of an agreement to hire a fellow HBS student as a summer intern. Nor do we have evidence one way or the other to support the statement he made in our interview that his organization is already the largest donor to the Wounded Warrior charity. We certainly hope that is the case, but given the doubts sown by his other misrepresentations — and the fact that his company is so young — we cannot be sure.

We have not pursued each and every such question, however, as we have before us sufficient evidence of dishonesty and misrepresentation to warrant a conclusion that Will violated HBS Community Values in that regard.

UPDATE: Here is the rather amazing trailer for the Outside article quoted above:

  • rick131

    All Harvard students steal their ideas from other students.

  • Scott Keneally

    Hey! Thanks so much for picking up on my story. Funny enough, I listened to The Social Network soundtrack nonstop while writing parts of the story.

  • John Mack

    HBS is a finishing school for sociopaths.

  • anon

    Didn’t Columbia have a social network like three years before Zuckerberg “thought of it.”?

  • http://johnsontranscript.com/ dcj2112

    There are sure are a lot of quotation signs in that there headline!