This former nurse now designs some of world's best mountain-biking trails

Former nurse Simon French, hard at work. Picture: Flow Mountain Bike

You might have seen that bank ad about bringing business dreams to life.

A couple at a table in a magnificent restaurant ask the owner for his secret. A waitress translates: “A ship in a harbour is safe… but that’s not what ships are built for.”

At some point, almost everyone faces a decision – stick with the stable job, or maybe take a punt to turn your passion into a cash cow, and have an awesome life.

DirtArt founder Simon French made a huge gamble in 2007. He had a steady job as a nurse in Hobart, Tasmania, and a healthy spare time hobby as a pretty decent competitive mountain bike rider.

Eight years later, DirtArt is a national leader and growing international player with anywhere between 12 and 30 staff working on tracks and trails. From Tasmania’s wilderness to Sydney’s King’s School, California and world event clients, French now spends his days with people and organisations who want him in charge of building their ultimate mountain bike experience.

French sat down with Business Insider and gave us some insight for anyone looking for the push they need to turn their passion into their career – and the risks involved.

‘It’s not as easy as it sounds.’

“It comes with its challenges but the work-life balance – it does blur lines and it does make life interesting, but you can’t argue with working in something you enjoy doing,” French says.

“For me really it was just about creating something sustainable that I could support myself and my family with, ultimately.

“The industry’s certainly grown and it’s supporting ourselves and other companies to work with reasonable sized staff around them but there’s certainly a point where you do question whether it’s a good idea.”

There is no right ‘time to start’

No matter how much prep work you do, there’s going to be a moment where you have to take the leap of faith.

“I’d wound back my hours at the hospital and I just kept steadily winding them back and it just reached a point where I couldn’t keep doing what I wanted to do with the business and keep working,” French says.

“I had quite a reasonable position where I was working, but it was still that point I guess, where you’re standing on the edge and you have to jump.

French was “dabbling a little bit in some contract work with some councils and things locally” but with his annual contract as a nurse coming to a close, he simply decided to not push for a renewal and instead devote all his time to winning bigger trail contracts.

Picture: Hajo’s Photos

That first job was for “construction of a dirt jump facility and a pump track”, simple enough for a rider who knows what he loves.

“I’d done some volunteer work and the council asked us if we’d like to take on some work, so we jumped in, set up insurance and basic things you do when you kick off a business.”

A year later, it helped him win the job of adding a slalom track, downhill trail, 7km of cross country trail, landscaping and training and management.

“It has just steadily grown over the past three years and again, rapidly over the past year or so.”

It’s tempting to try to build a portfolio quickly

Suddenly, DirtArt had a project history. A couple more councils wanted dirt jumps, and in 2010, they’d won contracts in Manly, NSW and Canberra.

Fifteen projects nationwide followed in 2011 and the big ticket items started coming in. The client who originally kicked things off with a dirt jump, Clarence City Council, has now expanded its facilities to a 150km trail network, and DirtArt’s back helping out.

But French says you need to manage growth with quality.

“We work in a contract industry so you’re never sure when the next project’s going to come, so you basically rely on the belief that you’ve built the reputation you need in the industry to secure the projects you want to deliver,” he says.

“One of the things that’s been most important to us is that our clients really are the most valuable thing we’ve got in our business. We make one wrong move, we’re in an industry that’s fairly small, and if you get a bad reputation, it takes an incredibly long time to fix that and it can damage the next three or four projects you might otherwise secure.

“You might feel like you’re doing really well, but in the next breath, you might miss a couple of beats, miss a couple of projects and suddenly you’re not quite where you thought you were.”

DirtArt is currently working with a range of clients around the world, on large-scale recreational developments, as well as facilities geared towards world-level and Olympic events. A 20km trail at Hollybank, just out of Launceston, and its signature hardcore downhill, run “The Juggernaut”, is widely considered Australia’s best.

It helps, but you don’t need to go to business school

French had no business management experience, just a passion for riding. After nursing, he has days out with clients that go something like this:

“It does surprise a lot of people; they presume I came from environmental management, but we’ve sort of built the industry along with us to a point.”

“As crazy as it sounds it was fairly fortuitous in that [nursing] allowed me to adjust my work hours to start the business up and grow it, without necessarily having to cut a fulltime job.”

If you’re building a business around what you love, you’re already the expert

“Rather than just engaging clients as you might do in a traditional construction sense, it’s been very much about us teaching them and guiding them through the process,” French says.

“We really didn’t know what we were doing. I was suddenly in a consultancy role… I’d been involved in the sport, competitively, I raced a world series for a year.

“Starting anything up is not easy, but I did have that (expertise).”

If it’s working for you, even scarier steps ahead

Mount Gunjin Trails, WA. Picture: Flow Mountain Bike

DirtArt has recently appointed a general manager, with French and his team “fairly stretched” and unable to handle much more of a workload.

“It was a good move but another one of those turning points where you’re faced with either trying to be safe and just wind back things, turn away some work, or try to step up and take it all on board.

“That was a big step for us, committing a bunch of cash to a role that doesn’t necessarily generate any direct income,” French says. “Certainly we’ve had some massive indirect benefits and it’s worked well for us, but you still take that chance.”

And while it won’t kill your passion, you still need to find another hobby

“I definitely have my moment where I’m stuck busy period at work where I’d normally go for a ride and to wind down I go and do something else,” French says.

“But it doesn’t mean I’m tired of riding, it just means I’m in a different head space for a short period of time.”

You can see more of DirtArt’s work here

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