Here it is!
The first instalment of our new series of stories from clients who successfully graduated from our Entrepreneur Academy, and are moving to new heights in their business journey.
The first of these, we caught up with is Dan Makin, the founder of BMX and Mountain Biking track Dirt Factory, to see how he is doing with his new building, and where him and his friends and business partners plan to take it in the future.
The long-anticipated new home of Dirt Factory is finally here!
Curricula & Co’s editor and blogger Rebekah had the chance to catch up with Dan and his mate Ben at their new headquarters in a part of Manchester that’s being regenerated.
What better place to interview Dan Makin, construction manager-turned-entrepreneur, than at his brand new mountain Biking and BMX riding facility?
The warehouse where Dirt Factory is, is in a part of Manchester that is currently under development - in a forgotten corner of the city behind Piccadilly Station on the outskirts of the Northern Quarter. But judging from what Dan told me later on, it seems that this part of town is on the up…It’s been a crazy couple of years for the guys, first of all, getting the building, and then building their track up from nothing.
Tired from a long day at my admin job, I Google Maps-ed my way past the back end of the station, onto Bond Street. At the end of the road, I saw a load of colourful bikes suspended on a grey metal fence next to a Dirt Factory sign pointing towards the main entrance. Along the wall leading up to the main entrance is a long row of wooden pots with flowers spilling out. Above each pot, there is artwork made of various bike bits - tyres, handlebars, chains, stuff like that. It looks really tasteful and unique.
Inside the warehouse, energetic rock music was playing. It was a quiet evening, as most people were inside sheltering from the intense summer heat. I was greeted by Dan’s mate, former chef Ben, who runs the operational side of things, and the cafe. I got chatting to Ben for a bit, sipping on a bottle of water. He told me some cool stuff about how he got into this whole thing, and the great career opportunity it’s turning out to be for him personally.
“Once Dan brought me here”, Ben said, “I saw what an inspirational project it is, and I wanted to stay on board - hopefully it’ll turn me into a mountain bike rider!”
A typical day for Ben at Dirt Factory is to keep all the public areas nice and clean - the cafe, and the chill-out zones - and processing the general practical running of the cafe and surrounding areas.
He is first aid trained, which comes in handy if anyone falls over on the track and gets a bit of a scratch. He also supervises the riders, making sure there are not too many people on the track at any one time, as well as calling off people when their sessions come to a close - I could imagine people would be having so much fun they’d want to try and sneak an extra 10 minutes! Dirt Factory also run a bike rental service, so Ben measures people up for the right size bike for them.
The plan was initially for Ben to join, and be an extra pair of hands to help with the cafe, but it turned out to be an amazing opportunity that allowed him to develop with the business, and take on more duties, meaning he got a lot more than he bargained for!
Before joining Dan and the lads at Dirt Factory, Ben worked as a chef for 10 years - something he sort of ‘fell into by accident’, as he put it. He reached a point where he didn’t enjoy working in hot and fast-paced kitchens during the summer, and just generally wanted to get out of the chef-ing career, having had a pretty good run for 10 years.
“To be honest, I feel sorry for anyone who was working in a kitchen yesterday, for example”, he said.
The day before, people were buying biking sessions and were not able to finish them because of the intensity of the heat, meaning Ben was extra busy serving people cold drinks in the Chill-Out Zones! The hottest day of the year, it was 35 degrees!
He’s always has a real interest in extreme sports such as mountain biking, snowboarding, that kind of thing, and his experience of being a chef meant that he was coming in with loads of knowledge about food, catering, health and safety management, and food hygiene. At the cafe, Ben uses an awesome coffee machine to serve up lattes and cappuccinos, and sells sandwiches at the weekends.
He would love to develop the cafe, and start introducing some different types of food as time goes on, and make his previous experience go further. I absolutely love hearing stories like this, of people who leave behind one career path, but are able to bring so much expertise and skill into their new situation that they would not have gotten if they hadn’t done that thing they were not too keen on. Nothing is ever wasted. Ever. And Ben’s story is a fantastic example of that. His pride and joy in what he does, even down to the most practical stuff was clear to see, and really inspiring.
When Dan got there, and I’d taken a couple of pictures on my phone of Ben in the cafe, and of the two guys together, Dan took me on a whistle-stop tour of the whole place, and showed me all the cycle tracks, and all the facilities and cool stuff they offer for biking enthusiasts at all levels of ability. As well as the riding tracks, the ramps and the massive airbag, they run a repair shop and a bike rental service. This shop was our first stop on the tour. “We’re still growing this side of the business,” Dan explained. “We want to get a lot more products. The idea is that we service and repair people’s bikes, and if customers fancy buying some new garments, or new pedals or anything, this is the place for that, basically”.
On the back wall, there were loads of bikes on a rack, and in other areas of the shop, branded merchandise was hung up, such as hoodies, sweatshirts and cycling jerseys, as well as general bike parts and tools for people to buy. Dan explained that they also employ a qualified mechanic who comes in to do the repairs. A photographer comes in to take professional photographs of the customers when they are going round the track on their bikes, and they can buy the photos if they like. This serves as a fantastic extra income stream for the business, as well as adding to the general look and feel of the Dirt Factory brand. This is a service that the guys are looking to grow and expand in the near future, and they are looking to stock a lot more products than what they currently have.
Dirt Factory regularly host groups of school kids, and they have 30 children’s bikes for this purpose, as well as a wide range of adult bikes for hire. They have a special pump track towards the front of the building, designed especially for kids, and beginners (though Dan doesn’t like to call people beginners, not wanting anyone to feel inferior)
Someone suddenly zoomed past me on a scooter! Yes, they have scooters as well!
This made me smile, as I went through a major scooter phase as a kid myself.
As I clambered over piles of rocks, and expertly smoothed, undulating mounds of dirt, various bits and pieces sculpted out of bike parts caught my eye, as well as real trees and shrubs, which really made it look and feel like a rugged outdoor landscape. It looked like a perfect mixture of smooth sweeping stretches for bikes to glide along effortlessly, and more challenging hills and mounds and piles of rocks. Most of the area of the whole warehouse was taken up by tonnes of brown dirt that had been landscaped and shaped using machinery and construction equipment. They had managed to get this dirt entirely for free, diverted from landfill! A construction site in Stockport had generated all of this excess soil that they were about to send away to the dump, but they were more than happy to give it to Dirt Factory to put it to better use.
“Big tick in the environmental box”, Dan said.
In the middle of the area, behind the kids’ bit, is are the more intermediate and advanced level paths and tracks designed for more experienced riders. The general flow of traffic is designed to be anticlockwise, helped along by strategically placed stop signs that contribute to the natural layout and flow of the tracks. Just in front of the dirt track section, I saw what looked like a massive deflated bouncy castle next to some ramps. This, Dan said, was the massive air bag. When it is fully inflated, it’s about 4 feet tall. The idea is that when people ride around on the ramps, and jump into the air, the massive airbag provides a soft landing, so they can jump with confidence, knowing they are not going to get hurt. The airbag is a huge hit with the customers. Well, even if they did fall over, Ben would be there in a flash with his first aid kit! The ramps had been handmade by the dirt factory crew! Dan showed me a brand new one that had been build recently by some of the lads, to replace their older ramp that is 3 years old. This new one gets taken on the road when they put on events. There’s a big event happening this month that they’ll be taking it to.
In the outdoor area, there’s a pump track that can be taken apart and moved around. It’s a large setup that goes round in a huge circle, with loads of mini bumps and hills of various sizes and heights, for people to go round on their BMXs. It was like a huge toy train track, but the BMX version. This pump track is on the premises for 80% of the year, and when it is away on tour, customers are charged a reduced entry fee.
Back inside, Dan showed me the changing area, which had a single cubicle made of plywood, with benches and lockers, as well as a party room, close to the chill-out zone. They plan to put in some settees and softer seating soon to make it more inviting. In my opinion, it looked inviting enough, with plenty of little tables to sit around, and loads of chairs. Dirt factory also host birthday parties for groups of any age.
The tour is not even the half of it!
In Part 2, Dan tells me all about the positive impact Dirt Factory is having on the local community, as well as the ways the group are collaborating with the local authorities to share resources, as well as some cool workshops and community projects that are an offshoot of the main project.
Stay tuned next week, to find out more about what Dirt Factory have been getting up to in the local area…