Part 1: The Fall
Just when you thought the world of OCR's and Mud Runs couldn't get any crazier, a mere week after reeling from the abrupt end of 5k Foam Fest and Hard Charge the Dirty Girl Mud Run saga exploded all over the Facebooks with an unfortunate announcement:
In all but 4.12 seconds shock turned to absolute outrage, and thousands of women derided DGMR as criminals, running off with both “hundreds of thousands” of West Virginian's hard-earned money due to their lack of a refund policy. Dirty Girl's charity contributions were next to be put on trial, quickly followed by attacks on anyone stupid enough (cough, me) to try and quell the mob mentality that was spreading across Facebook… Why would I decide to be a complete moron and jump in front of that speeding bus – scratch that – in front of an entire fleet of flaming Greyhound busses loaded with bombs and nary a Sandra Bullock to spare? Because I personally know many of the people involved, have a whole bunch of backstory going into this situation and knew there would be some (relative) upside. In my heart of hearts, I knew Dirty Girl was “too big to fail” in the Mud Run world just as many US banks were that teetered on the edge in 2009. I also knew some very good people that were working behind the scenes to make something – anything – happen to keep the race series alive and safeguard as much of the investments of women who had put their faith (and cash) into Dirty Girl registrations.
Fighting the Good Fight
Those very good people I spoke of above? They were from many different companies within the sport, and you will never hear another peep that they were even involved. They pitched in for the good of the “sport” and for the benefit of the consumers. While people were absolutely losing their shit on Facebook, the very same people who were getting hit with truckloads of vitrol were busy fighting the good fight versus participating in a mindless feeding frenzy on social media. (Am I making it clear how much disdain I have for those that participate in computerized mob mentality?)
- Some of those very same people had already lost their jobs.
- Some of those same people had already lost tens of thousands of dollars the minute the WV date was cancelled.
- All of those people have families, lives, and hopes and dreams.
- None of those people were individually responsible for the downfall of Dirty Girl Mud Run, but they still fought to keep it alive.
- None of them (including 100LLC) cut and run in the same fashion of 5k Foam Fest (with several as-of-yet unsubstantiated rumors of cooked books and millions of dollars in hidden debt)
In the 11th hour, with the online sharks and other real-life (vendors, 3rd party contractors) predators circling, a tentative deal was struck to save Dirty Girl Mud Run as a brand, refund some registration money, and even save all/most of the 2014 DGMR events all over the USA. How'd it get pulled out of the fire? Let's look at who was involved and what was at stake.
Who's to “Blame”?
Fairy tales and Parables are written so even a 5 year-old can tell who's on the side of good and evil, any business dealing where money changes hand quickly goes from black & white to gray. While there are surely different levels of fault (or relative lack thereof*), the players in this saga are:
- 100LLC, AKA Dirty Girl's owners pre 7/27, they were responsible for over 50 successful DGMR events all over the USA, and had developed a very passionate group of followers (yes, many of the same ones who demanded their heads on a stake on Facebook when the news broke)
- Human Movement Management, The production company that was contracted to put on DGMR events, owners of The Zombie Run, Ugly Sweater Run, 5k Dance Party, and others. Voted one of Outside Magazine's Best Places to Work in 2013.
- Eventbrite*, a Silicon Valley-based registration company who handled a portion of Dirty Girl Mud Run's Registrations – DGMR also used an in-house system for many 2014 events.
About 6 months ago, 100LLC and Human Movement started negotiating on a buyout, incidentally the same time as Eventbrite was coming online as their ticketing company. While Eventbrite was slowly on-boarding all the registration, 100LLC was in a tough position; it could not keep growing at the rate it currently was and afford the type of event fees that Human Movement charged to put on some of the best events in the world. Quality ain't cheap, and 100LLC was finding that it also wasn't scalable to multiple cities as their schedule grew. Selling to human Movement initially made a tremendous amount of sense; they knew the operation like no other… because they essentially WERE the operation. The rubber that met the road had Human Movement written on the side, so much so that most people actually thought HMM owned DGMR. This also muddied the water, when the news broke bout the Charleston, WV date being cancelled as HMM was getting a fair amount of hatred slung their way online and from vendors who were worried HMM intended to cut & run. The initial deal between 100LLC and Human Movement started to turn sour and eventually feel apart, with both sides pointing fingers and trading some barbs… but there were still a mountain of events to put on, and HMM was the only resource to put on those DGMR events. 100LLC's contract with HMM as to put on the events had just months earlier looked like the best deal possible – DGMR did the marketing and collected most of the money (Remember, EB wasn't fully on-board yet) and Human Movement Management put on the events – had turned into an albatross around their necks; they couldn't put on the events without HMM, and they were mutually on less than amicable terms. And DGMR's problems of cost vs. scalability weren't getting any better, they were steadily, albeit quietly, growing worse.
Timing is Everything
Eventbrite's timing couldn't have been more unfortunate; here they are, an extremely tech-savvy company that has been exponentially growing their market share in the racing world, who fought (and won) the world's largest women-only brands who also appeared to be steadily on the rise. With upwards of 30 events scheduled in 2014, this was one of many feathers in EB's cap, and a sign of more prosperity to come. As their portfolio became more and more attractive, EB was able to secure industry giants Tough Mudder as clients and 2014 was on-track to be a record year (and still is). Dirty Girl faithful lined up to register for events, most still using the “old” in-house system while thousands were on-boarded to EB's new technology. This partnership was in the pink.
In DGMR, Eventbrite bought the goose that laid the golden egg only to find out all the eggs were in limbo; held in hock by the farmer who actually owned the henhouse.
On the morning of Thursday, July 24, Eventbrite started receiving a few emails and calls from customers looking for Dirty Girl refunds. While the slow trickle wasn't too peculiar, demands for refunds come with the territory – even for events that have a No Refund policy that you must click to accept before registering – as the flow of inquiries grew into a torrent of angry customers, the staff needed to get to the bottom if it. Dirty Girl had to date been a great customer, and there was no advance notice that the Charleston, West Virginia date was in danger of being held. The confusion gave way to a sickening feeling when the Eventbrite staff pulled up Dirty Girl's Facebook page, and saw the comment above. With the WV event cancelled without notice, the worst was yet to come. Fortunately for Eventbrite (but unfortunately for some customers) the majority of registrations for West Virginia were on Dirty Girl's (100LLC) in-house system and had nothing to do with Eventbrite. Even though there was a posted no refund policy, in order to do the right thing by their customers, Eventbrite reached out to 100LLC and Human Movement to see what they could do to process refunds and keep Dirty Girl Mud Runs afloat. Eventbrite could have stood behind their policy, or even waged a legal battle with the odds squarely in their favor; they chose to do the best they possibly could for their customers and stand up for what they believed in.
“As a global marketplace of live events of all shapes and sizes, Eventbrite understands the importance of providing a clean, well-lit platform where people feel safe and protected when purchasing tickets and registering for events. In the rare case where expectations are not met, we work with organizers using our platform to ensure buyers are treated fairly.” – Terra Carmichael, EventBrite's Head of Global Communications
So, some of the registrants for the Charleston, West Virginia Dirty Girl Mud Run were safe, if they used Eventbrite, refunds were starting to be processed. Most were initiated on Friday, and within the next 7 days the purchase will be refunded to the user's credit card. Other racers who didn't register through Eventbrite were left with only the option of contacting their credit card companies and filing a claim. While this method has proved successful for most (we've never heard of a credit card company denying claims of this type – if you have an experience, let us know), filing a claim is still a bit of a hassle. Then again, if you looked at the posts on Facebook, Dirty Girl had just ripped the purses off every woman on the east coast and were fleeing to the Bahamas. The reality was far from that.
Human Movement to the Rescue?
On Friday 7/25, the HMM office was abuzz late into the night, working with Eventbrite, 100LLC, and some other unnamed 3rd parties very keen on Dirty Girl's survival, intent on making a deal to save the brand and prevent reverberation throughout the industry. They also agreed, Dirty Girl Mud Run was too big to fail, without seriously damaging the sport/pastime of mud runs. Could they all come together pull it off, or is it too little, too late? Well, Part 2 of this story is literally being written right now as Human Movement Management fights to save all the upcoming Dirty Girl Mud Runs. All the same issues of scalability are present as were for 100LLC, but now HMM has to pull off the impossible – with little to no budget.
Part 2: The Rise
After a weekend of hell for everyone involved – including all the fans and businesses involved (Note: Mud Run Guide makes that list, DGMR is/was/is a client) – Monday, July 28 started with a new life for many/all the remaining events on the Dirty Girl Schedule:
“We'd like to announce that as of yesterday, Human Movement, a Colorado based event company, has acquired the assets of the Dirty Girl Mud Runs. While Human Movement was previously a subcontractor for Dirty Girl events, they were not responsible for the operations or finances of their events.
It became clear that change was needed when an event in West Virginia was originally cancelled with no refunds (this has since changed). While Human Movement was not responsible for canceling this event, it was clearly an undesirable outcome for anyone involved. At that time, Human Movement made an attempt to save the WV event with their own limited resources and then ultimately offered to acquire 100 LLC's assets, and will be responsible for operating future Dirty Girl events.
Human Movement is committed to providing the highest quality experience for all Dirty Girl participants, and will be transparent with communication regarding future Dirty Girl events as decisions are made this week.
Many of you already know Human Movement very well and for those who do not, they look forward to meeting you in person at a future event. Human Movement is a family-run operation full of runners, mountain bikers, yogis, carpenters, skiers, dogs (lots of dogs), kids and event professionals who have been in the event and running industry for a very long time. They appreciate your support and encouragement as they attempt to create something very positive from last week's not so positive events. Human Movement's staff look forward to seeing the Dirty Girl Nation in Minnesota this coming weekend. More announcements to follow.”
A Winning Record: 8 Victories and 7 Losses
Having a previous relationship with Jeff and Human Movement Management, I had the opportunity to chat with him on-and-off throughout the turmoil of the last 10 or so days trying to get some clarity on their direction. While the Dirty Girl Mud Run plan for 2014 & beyond is still a work in progress, it is evident (to me, at least) that there’s a lot of work being put into evolving the DGMR series of events into a sustainable business while delivering high-quality, fun events. On August 1, the dust had somewhat settled enough for Jeff and I to have a chat about where he sees Dirty Girl, and the whole fun/mud run industry heading:
“Adam Smith’s economic theory (from The Wealth of Nations,1776) still holds true today, the invisible hand that controls supply and demand will lead to market correction – in this case, with the rapid growth of Dirty Girl Mud Run, supply outpaced demand. From 2010 through 2012 there was a massive land grab in the theme and mud run market where the first one to market in specific areas would prosper. By 2013, the market was saturated with events of various shapes and sizes led by companies with widely disparate production budgets and levels of experience in this business, and explosive growth and expansion to new markets was no longer viable. In order to survive and thrive, the investment needed to be into putting on quality events in strong markets – the exact opposite of stretching resources thin by attempting to put on more events.” – Jeff Suffolk
Human Movement Management’s plan for Dirty Girl Mud Run starts from Jeff’s quote – Commitment to Quality versus Quantity – but first, they need to step in and provide some aid and reassurances to the women who were hurt by 100LLC’s cancellation of DGMR events as well as make good on promises to Bright Pink, Dirty Girl’s charity partner. This requires HMM to put on some of the remaining events on their own dime and give women the experience they hope (and paid) for.
There’s no magic wand to wave and make everything better, the only thing that will get our fans to understand that we’re working hard to regain their trust is for us to prove it by putting on quality events. – Jeff Suffolk
While there were initially (15) remaining Dirty Girl Mud Run locations for 2014, the hard decision was made to save eight venues that required cancelling seven others. Those that will go on as planned are:
- Twin Cities 8/2/14
- Cleveland 8/9/14
- Milwaukee 8/16/14 & 8/17/14
- Baltimore/DC 8/23/14
- Buffalo 9/6/14
- Denver 9/20/14
- Atlanta 4/25/15
- Scranton 5/2/15 & 5/3/15
“Human Movement is committed to providing the highest quality experience for all Dirty Girl participants,” said HMM CEO Jeff Suffolk. “While we are pleased to have saved these eight events, we understand the disappointment this may bring to participants of canceled events, and are working hard to present alternative options to honor the original registration.” (from Human Movement 8/1/14 press release)
Of the 7 events that were cancelled – Lincoln (9/13/14), San Antonio (9/27/14), Dallas (10/4/14), Houston (10/11/14), Oakland (10/25), Greater Los Angeles (11/1) and Phoenix (11/15) – refunds are available for all registrants who purchased their tickets through Eventbrite, while those who purchased their entry fees through Dirty Girl’s in-house system (managed by the previous owner, 100LLC) should contact their bank or credit card company to pursue refunds. HMM is currently exploring alternatives including credit for entry into a future Dirty Girl Mud Run as well.
Going forward, Human Movement Management will continue to add to the 2015 schedule and update as new races are scheduled. “We appreciate that you have stuck with us as we have run our own obstacle challenge over the last week,” said Suffolk. “We care abotut our participants and believe have reached the most positive outcome for everyone — one that preserves Dirty Girl as well as ensures that the races with the most participants go on as planned.” (from Human Movement 8/1/14 press release)
On the charity side, HMM quickly wrote a check for $50,000 to support Bright Pink and show the commitment that Jeff Suffolk and his team have to righting as many of the wrongs as they possibly can, as quickly as they can, and focus the necessary energy and funds to fighting ovarian cancer.
“Bright Pink is so grateful to the Dirty Girl community, including Human Movement Management, the sponsors who make these races possible, and for the generous financial contribution in honor of the series. We are proud to partner with all of you in saving thousands of lives by educating, equipping and empowering young women to be proactive with their breast and ovarian health.
Was DGMR a Cautionary Tale for Other Events?
Suffolk makes a lot of good points when he speaks of the need to grow carefully and place the importance on quality over quantity, and why not? He’s extremely charismatic and whip-smart, but has also been at the helm of a business that has carved a path through the wild west of fun, themed, & mud run events. Human Movement Management is no stranger to the soaring heights of events that cap out at tens of thousands of participants, or the lows that come from having to pull the plug on venues for a myriad of reasons from mother nature failing to cooperate to woeful local support. It’s a volatile business that requires much planning and sometimes equal parts rolling with the punches.
The days of rapid expansion are over, and that should be seen as a very, very good thing for the maturation of the fun & mud run space. Those who stray too far from solid business principles will ultimately fail, as we’ve seen many times over the past few years, and especially over the last couple of months.
There’s no such thing as a sustainable Field of Dreams business model, “If you build it, they will come” only exists in fairy tales. Yes, event organizers need to put a very high-quality event together, but before a venue is chosen, course map is laid out, or sketches of cool obstacles even make it onto a the back of a bar napkin, there needs to be a solid business plan developed by an experienced team – a lean, hungry, talented team that can roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Speaking of which, I had to cut my call with Jeff short, as he was boarding a plane to this weekend's Twin Cities event. Most CEO’s of multimillion businesses would be sitting in first class, nattily dressed with polished shoes, Suffolk’s not one of them.
“I’m not an executive flying out on a private jet to give an event a once-over, I’m the guy boarding a Southwest flight in Carhartt gear and work boots heading to a race to get my hands dirty. If you’re going to survive in this business, that’s what it takes to get the job done.”
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