The final part of the exclusive Dirt Factory interview is here! Dan Makin, the director and founder of the up and coming indoor BMX and mountain biking facility, tells us all about his bigger vision, and how he and his team are planning to get their plans off the ground. Bursting with inspiration and practical business tips, this is a great read!
Dan Makin has a huge vision for how he wants Dirt Factory to grow and develop in the future. Though he was clearly proud of what himself and the team had created already, he was very clear that this dirt track and indoor facility is only a small reflection of what they want it to become.
After the contract for the warehouse was signed with U and I, the innovative and community-focused property developer of the derelict Mayfield depot and its surrounding area, the guys started to get their hands dirty - literally.
At this point, Dan told me that he had previously worked in construction management before taking on Dirt Factory, so he was familiar with the planning and building process from his time working on construction sites. His friend and fellow director, Mark, is a professional bike trail builder - this is what he does for a living. They got together and put pen to paper. Dan did the original draft of the design plan, and ran it by Mark and Gary, another member of the team. Dan’s role was to manage the execution and delivery of the project as a whole, but everyone worked beautifully together as a team, each person bringing his unique talents and personality into it. Once the plan was underway, the dirt started to get delivered. Dan pointed to where the first truckload of dirt was dumped - clearly that was a really special moment for him. They hired a load of excavators and diggers for the job. With this building equipment, and a team of five men, they cracked on!
“We are bikers”, Dan explained, “but a big part of biking is the trail building. This is what we love to do - shaping dirt, building ramps and trails. I always say it’s an art form, like sculpting. There’s a bit of science behind it as well, making sure it’s safe, and not gonna start eroding - that it rides well, and is aesthetically pleasing to the eye as well”.
Really, this is a mixture of architecture, construction work, and landscape gardening! It definitely looks like it would be a super fun ride, and I’ve not been on a bike for years! I could see a guy riding around the trails on a mountain bike - almost as if he had been deliberately placed there to demonstrate how smooth and fun a ride it was! He looked like he was having an awesome time, as he seemed to have the whole place to himself.
As mentioned in Part 2, Dirt Factory is helping the local community in loads of great ways, especially young people.
“It’s a simple formula”, Dan said, “We are providing a fun activity, so people are exercising without realising it. They are having fun, but they are getting fitter, and it stimulates the brain by producing endorphines, which can be a real help for people who have issues with anxiety and things like that. People want to come back again. It’s good for socialising - people make friends here. If you keep coming back again and again, you eventually start talking to people, whether that’s fellow riders, staff members...of course, it doesn’t work for everyone, but we’re seeing some good results.
“We have a regular group from a company called Raise the Youth, an alternative education provider for 13 to 16 year olds who are from a challenging background. They use Dirt Factory to get young people active, help them with their achievement in the classroom, and help to grow some better life skills. We get some really good testimonials from them, as well as schools. It’s very rewarding to hear that it’s putting smiles on people’s faces, and hearing that people have learnt a new thing, made a new friend...whatever it is, it seems to be working, in terms of building people’s confidence up. We set out to build a community - It feels like we’re making inroads, anyway”.
With this current premises being just a rental contract, they want to find a permanent home for Dirt Factory - one that’s bigger, and has enough room to build the full range of design features that the team have in mind. A big challenge that came with not having enough room for all the design features they wanted, and what customers wanted, was deciding what it was they were going to include in the space they had. They decided that they wanted to find a balance of making it suitable for people at all levels taking special care not to make beginners feel too alienated by making the tracks and ramps too extreme.
Ultimately, the team are looking for a space three times bigger than this warehouse they are in now. It is 25,000 square feet, and they need one that is 75,000 square feet.
Dan said that this would allow them to have longer flow-style trails with longer and “mellower” descents, as well as a greater variety of jumps and ramps. At the moment, they have four jumps, but they would really love to have about eight or nine! They want more technical and challenging features such as rocks, and specially built wooden features. They also want to build a bigger drop for people to jump off onto the airbag. What they have now is great for people to practice on, and have that safe and soft landing, but they want a drop that is 2-3 metres high. Most people are not professional stuntmen, so this would give them that exhilirating experience, but with the soft landing. A bigger and more specialised skill-building area with lower level features aimed at children and beginners would be great. They have a kid’s area already, but of course, they want it to be bigger and better.
Dan is not someone who wants to rest on his laurels - he has a clear vision of what he wants, and he will not stop pushing forward until he gets there. This is a great quality to have, and is very inspiring to see.
I asked him what were the best things for him personally about managing this project to this point. First on his list was the build process itself. “Long hours, but I loved it!” Secondly, it’s the feedback from kids and their parents.
“Cheers me up every time”, he said. “The other week, a mum said her son showed her this place after he had come down. He said he thinks it’s the sickest place ever, and will be back next weekend! Another parent - now, this is interesting in terms of the social angle - said she noticed a change in her son’s behaviour. That one really stuck with me. It makes a lot of sense. He was on the computer all the time, not eating, or drinking regularly, constantly focused on the screen. He would get a bit cranky, moody, snarky...since he’s been coming here, she’s noticed a distinct change in his behaviour. That probably comes from the science behind releasing endorphines and that. Now, I’m not a blinkin’ scientist, but that was really interesting. Any feedback like that puts a smile on my face!”
Though it was his favourite part, Dan said that the biggest challenge of the whole thing was the designing and the build. They needed to get the design absolutely right for what they wanted, while sticking to a very strict budget. They raised around £431,000 on crowd-funding platform Crowdcube, but this was reduced to £401,000, as Crowdcube charges a fee for their services. The tight budget, coupled with their bigger vision meant that upcycling was the way forward for Dirt Factory. The bit that stunned me was that this whole awesome setup was put together mainly by Dan and the guys, plus anyone they could call on to get stuck in.
It was extremely tiring, Dan admitted. He would often leave the site at 2am in the morning, and have an hour to travel to get home. As well as this, he and his partner have two very small children, aged just 2 and 4 months.
“We were having our second baby during the build, so my hands were full. I have to say, my other half deserves a lot of the credit, as she was there at home, looking after a small kid, and pregnant. Lots of big changes in family and work. Don’t know how I did it, I just cracked on…”
Dan and his fellow founders, as well as the project itself, built their team from scratch as well. They put together their own recruitment process (my ears pricked up here, as I used to work in recruitment as a day job). They did it all in house, with no real HR experience. They did a lot of research, and got plenty of good advice from people in their professional network. It took quite a bit of time to build that process, which included sending out applications, interviewing, and inviting back for second rounds. It took a long time, but it was all worth it, because they have found the right people they need to build the solid, top quality team they have today. Right now, the team is made up of an Operations Manager, a bike shop Supervisor, and three Operations Assistants (including Dan’s made Ben, who I met in the first part of the article series) as well as three casual part timers. There are 4 full time members of staff, including Dan himself. As teams go, this is a relatively small one. For the interviews, they had a panel of three. There was a formal interview to start with, followed by more practical tests and scoring criteria that showed them who was the pick of the bunch.
“Contracts and staff handbooks can be a bit of a minefield”, Dan said, referring to the more legal and technical sides of HR. “I spoke with Lindsey Bell from Peach Law, who shed a lot of light on that. We also did our own research, and worked with our 550 shareholders from Crowdcube. All of it, we did inhouse”.
Crowd funding is a really good way for new entrepreneurs to raise funds. The idea is that you pitch your business plan, and it goes out to a really wide network of people, as well as the wider public. Dan recommends getting your pitch out to as many people as possible. The most important thing to keep in mind, is making sure your pitch is well developed and watertight, before you press the big red button to go live. People can contribute as much or as little money as they like, even as little as £10! The great thing is that everyone who donates will get an equity share in the business.
Getting ready to go again for the next big goal for Dirt Factory, Dan and the gang are going to continue to use crown funding. It’s worked for them before, and with the great track record they have built up in recent years, they plan to build up a bigger and better plan to pitch to bigger stakeholders, such as borough councils, and Sports England, for example, to justify why they need a bigger facility.
Right now, the biggest task the team have is to capture all the feedback from the positive work they are doing - to collect all the fantastic stories and reviews from individual customers like the mum who saw an improvement in her son’s behaviour, and turn it into solid data. That, and things like visitor numbers, demographics, and trends. They want to find out things such as what motivates people to keep coming back, how they felt before and after they came, whether or not they have been biking before…
“If we don’t capture all this data, we will miss opportunities”, Dan explained. “We have a brand new website, and are working on getting CRM software, so when people tell us this stuff, we can get it on record. The CRM system will be up and running by September. This will allow us to get feedback forms out to capture the nitty gritty so we can use it. Nobody is really gonna take my word for it that the kid’s mum said that stuff - we need evidence.
“This is my main job over the next two years”, Dan laughed. “Shovels down, laptop out!”
Dirt Factory have graduated successfully from Curricula and Co’s Entrepreneur Academy, and Dan said that he credits Director Anita Frost with getting his business and project off the starting blocks. Her work, and the work of Entrepreneur Academy have been the catalyst to their growth and success, and he expressed great appreciation for the mentoring that Anita provided, which helped him in so many ways.
“Next time you see Anita”, he told me, “pass on my thanks and my regards to her”.
Doing this interview, from the tour, to the writing of it, has been an absolute joy. There’s so much to take away, from an inspiration point of view, to the practical wisdom of things like tapping into the network that’s all around you, leveraging the positive feedback of your customers, and how to crowd fund effectively. The pride Dan and his team have in their project as it is now is quite something - but so is their drive to expand. They are down to earth people, who understand that starting and sustaining a business is all about cracking on, and not being afraid to get your hands dirty. If you are prepared to work super hard, be resourceful, and roll with the punches, you can go far. And these guys are a great example of what that can look like in practice.
Find out more about Dirt Factory on their awesome new website!