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Job in the Bike Industry

Scot Banks, Head Mechanic for Absolute Bikes

Scott Adams, the creative genius behind the Dilbert comic series, wrote:

“If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.”

Like it or not, working in the mountain bike industry counts as “extraordinary” not because it actually is an extraordinary job exactly, but because it is viewed as the “dream job” by millions of mountain bikers working in cubicles around the world. Perception in many cases creates reality, and in the case of bike industry jobs, it creates competition. So, if you want to get a job in the bike industry, you need to stand out.

We see all kinds of mountain bikers who try Scott Adams’ first path to success, right? The most obvious examples are professional racers. By becoming the best mountain bike racer in a particular discipline, people can and do make a living.

But as Adams went on to say, “the first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. I don’t recommend anyone even try.”

The good news? “The second strategy is fairly easy.” Adams explains that if you can reach the top 25% in not just two skills, but three, you’re really set.

As I think about getting a “dream job” in the mountain bike industry, Adams’ advice rings so true. And advice from people in the industry living the dream backs it up. We won’t leave it to Scott Adams—let’s dive into concrete advice from industry experts.

Start with the Basics: Work at a Bike Shop

Scot Banks, Head Mechanic for Absolute Bikes

Zack Vestal is the US Bike Marketing Manager for Scott Sports, and his #1 piece of advice to prospective industry employees? “Build relationships. Work in a bicycle shop and get to know your sales reps, both inside and outside.” He goes on to recommend attending trade events, like Sea Otter and Interbike, volunteering at races, and more. Notably, Vestal recommends taking “certification classes at USA Cycling, United Bicycle Institute, and the like, plus try to attend SRAM, Shimano, or Fox tech clinics. Doors start to open as you grow your circle of contacts and your range of experience.”

Jon Acuff, Co-Founder of Proudfoot Cycles, agrees: “I think working in a shop to gain experience in the field of bike sales and repair is a great place to start.”

This advice is repeated by many other industry pros. Working in a bike shop is probably the most wildly agreed upon rule for getting into the bike industry. Though of course, all rules are made to broken.

So, how do you go about getting a job at a bike shop or in some other area of the bike industry? Your best bet is to start building the right combination of skills, aiming for not just 2 skills–but maybe 3 or 4.

Skill #1: People Skills

Photo: Interbike

I asked Shawn Gillis, owner and founder of the award-winning bike shop, Absolute Bikes, what skills are required to work at a shop. His first response? “People skills. How to get along with co-workers, how to be a team player, how to be excited about what you do and to encourage others to join in.”

Situational awareness, aka being smart, is one of the key traits that a bike brand looks for in employees, according to Zack Vestal, “And by ‘smart,’ I mean adaptable, socially gracious, friendly, able to build relationship,” said Vestal. “Just like with any job, your ability to integrate with a team, work with the people around you, and build rapport is always important.”

Again, it comes back to relationships and people skills. People skills are probably the most fundamental skill required for just about any career, so we must include it here.

Related to people skills are communication skills. Most of the people I interviewed mentioned communication skills as being absolutely critical, and so did Scott Adams: “at least one of the skills in your mixture should involve communication, either written or verbal.”

But one skill, as we have learned, isn’t enough.

Skill #2: Enthusiasm for Mountain Biking

Photo: Erik Proano

To succeed in the mountain bike industry, you need to be enthusiastic about mountain biking, simply for the sake of mountain biking. “If the passion isn’t there then pick a different career because you will never be successful,” said Gillis.

Ouch! But it’s true.

“The bike career path is paid more with making others happy than it is paid with dollars,” said Gillis. “Finding a hybrid formula where you can make a living and have fun is actually a good life goal for all of us.”

When considering a prospective employee, Gillis wants to know: “have you worked on your own bike, do you like riding bikes, do you like bicycle advocacy, have you volunteered at a bicycle event before, have you raced or watched races, do you read bicycle related articles. It’s not just one answer but how a person answers many of these questions that determine if they will be a good fit in the bike shop and a good co-worker.”

Volunteer trail maintenance. Photo: Jackson W Moody

A person’s level of enthusiasm often can be extrapolated from their involvement in the mountain biking community. Jacob McGahey, Vice President of Industry Nine Componentry, says that if you want to stand out from the crowd, you should be involved in your local cycling community. “We look for staff members that are going to give back to cycling and help grow our sport — whether on the local, national, or international level,” said McGahey.

Not only is this critical for standing out from the crowd, but it can help create the connections necessary to get a job. “If you go ride with your same group of 3 or 4 friends every weekend, it is going to be hard to make industry connections or stand out from the crowd,” said McGahey. “Whereas, if you become involved in your local bike advocacy organizations, contribute regularly to local trail building efforts, volunteer or participate at a lot of local events etc. your odds of making key connections in the industry that might lead to a job are going to be a lot higher.”

The first catch? If you’re reading this article and want to get a job in the mountain bike industry and think, “oh, I better go get involved in my local community to increase my chances of getting a job,” you’ve missed the point. The desirable employees are already doing these things simply because they’re passionate about them and believe in the sport.

The second catch? “Enthusiasm isn’t enough,” according to Matt Giaraffa, Professional Engineer for Guerrilla Gravity. “We get quite a few emails from people asking for a job, and the main reason provided to hire them is because they love riding bikes more than anything. Unfortunately, that’s not what pays the bills.”

Wake up call!

“Loving bikes alone is not going to get you hired at Guerrilla Gravity, but skill and dedication that is above average does,” continued Giaraffa. “So, focus on learning your specialty and strive to become the best at it.”

Skill #3: Develop a Hard Skill

This leads us to the third skill that’s essential for working in the mountain bike industry: developing a marketable hard skill.

What skill should you develop? “This depends on the position. Since we engineer, manufacture, assemble, sell, and support bikes all in-house, there are a large range of skills at Guerrilla Gravity,” answered Matt Giaraffa. Identify what specific role you want, and learn the hard skills necessary to be successful in that position.

“To be successful in anything, the best way is to focus on learning the background knowledge. Whether it is based in schooling or on-the-job learning, understand what you’re doing, strive for quality, and constantly improve,” Giaraffa continued. “Pretty much everybody here has some sort of higher level education and/or certification. What we look for in candidates is high attention to detail, a mindset for quality, and constant improvement in whatever you do. Any time you can show examples of going above and beyond the call of duty certainly helps.”

Scot Banks, Head Mechanic for Absolute Bikes

Giaraffa mentioned on-the-job training, and Shawn Gillis mentioned this too: “As far as mechanic skills go, those can be taught far easier than how to be polite, honest, and respectful,” Gillis said, further emphasizing the importance of skill #1.

When the question was put to Zack Vestal, he responded by saying:

“It’s always changing, but I’m willing to bet that right now, the most in-demand skills fall into one of the following buckets:

  • content creation and management (such as video shooting and editing, photography, copywriting, and project management)
  • digital marketing, such as SEO, CRM/email marketing, web development, ecommerce strategy, optimization, and management
  • design and graphic tools, such as the Adobe creative suite

On the other hand, the bike business always needs smart, savvy, business-minded sales individuals. I think for a long time, when the market was less competitive, bike brand sales reps could get away with less professionalism. Now, there’s a very high degree of communication, financial management, and organization that’s required. So the fundamentals of communication, time management, and professionalism are key ingredients as well.”

Vestal’s response shows his immersion in the marketing side of the bike industry. This only helps to highlight that what skills you choose to develop will dictate the path that you take. And if you want to get into the top 25%, you’ll need to choose carefully.

The concept of hard skills applies to just about everyone in the industry… even if you don’t necessarily think of a skill as a “hard skill.” Take Seth Alvo, the creator of the insanely-popular YouTube channel “Seth’s Bike Hacks.” When asked what skills are required to start a Youtube channel, he mentioned the hard skills too: “If you are such an incredible rider that you can make your living on Instagram using a cell phone camera, you don’t need my advice. If you’re like the rest of us, then you can expect to work with real cameras, desktop computers, editing software, and microphones.”

Also implicit in his analysis is Scott Adams’ two formulas. You could be the best in the world at mountain biking, in which case you might not need hard skills. But if you’re just in the top 25%? You better get ready to learn some real skills.

Skill #4: Think Outside the Box

Photo: Seth’s Bike Hacks

If there’s one skill that could potentially render all others irrelevant, it’s the ability to think outside of the box and create a truly original idea. Many of the people I interviewed underscored this point.

“One thing I would like to emphasize is that just because the industry has [commonly] accepted beliefs and practices, this does not mean that they should not be questioned or challenged,” said Jon Acuff. “To really be successful you need to do something different but you can not expect to revolutionize the industry as just one person.”

Seth’s path to fame was extremely unconventional, challenging the “rules” of getting into the mountain bike industry that many people adhered to. In many ways, Seth has helped pave the way for a whole new wave of riders who might not be pro-level but who also want to find find jobs in the bike industry. “It wasn’t long ago that you needed to be a racer to get featured in media,” said Seth. “Now, it works the other way around. The next biggest names in mountain biking will circumvent the industry and the race circuit altogether. You may already be following some of tomorrow’s most well known and influential riders.”

Even in my own career path, I broke the first rule of the bike industry: I didn’t start off by working at a bike shop. Even now when I tell industry acquaintances this, they look at me incredulously. Instead, I worked to develop other skills, creating a unique skill set that might not put me at #1 in any specific bucket, but definitely in the top 25% in all of my chosen skills.

So how do you go about thinking outside of the box, innovating, and trying something new? I put versions of this question to a few people, but the answers above were the best I got.

Why? Because nobody can truly tell you how to stand out. Nobody can tell you how to be unique. That’s something you need to discover and create on your own.

Conclusion

Shane Bresnyan, co-owner of Trail House in Santa Rosa, CA. Photo: Maureen Gaffney

I may have sold the mountain bike industry short in my introduction. A job in the mountain bike industry can indeed be your dream job. “From the outside, YouTubers, reps, racers, mechanics, engineers, and entrepreneurs all appear to have their dream jobs—they do,” said Seth Alvo. “Don’t underestimate how hard it’ll be to compete with these individuals for your own spot in the industry.”

Sometimes getting your dream job in the bike industry will require competition. Perhaps even more often, it will require collaboration and working well with other people.

While you can follow the “rules” of getting into the bike industry like getting a job at a bike shop, or you can work to develop a specific mixture of skills that will make you successful, nothing is ever guaranteed, and no two paths are the same. But if you can add thinking outside of the box to your skillset, your dream job is most definitely within reach.

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