Scale and Logic of Framebuilders: A Typology

I finished and submitted my paper on the commercial transformation of world soccer/football. So with that off my desk, I'm getting back to thinking through the Braudelian distinction between market life and capitalism. I'd intended - based on my every-other-week posting goal for the year - to have something up last Sunday. For the sake of meeting an already-passed goal, I'm going to put this one up only half-cooked and hope to circle back to it. Rather than slowly build up to the punchline (the 2x2 table below), I'll cut fairly quickly to the table, hoping to come back for elaboration in future weeks.

As I'd alluded to before, it probably wasn't too hard to see where the market life vs. capitalism distinction was headed when applied to the bike biz. In drawing a simple distinction between market life, with its overarching pursuit of livelihood, and capitalism, with its overarching pursuit of capital accumulation through growth, we immediately highlight a difference between the archetypical U.S. framebuilder and the big brands (e.g. Trek, Specialized, Giant). On its own, that distinction is interesting at first glance...but still in need of clarification and further specification. For instance: how do you distinguish between a framebuilder or mid-size shop's pursuit of modest growth and a larger brand's presumed goal of continual expansion? Can you really see that distinction in practice?

Because much of this ambiguity hinges on the question of growth, I think we need another axis of comparison: the scale of the enterprise itself. So, we can classify builders/enterprises along two axes: the logic and the scale of their enterprise. For simplicity's sake, I've drawn this below as a classic 2x2 table. In practice, however, each axis should be understood as a continuum - that is, there are not hard and fixed boundaries between "high" and "low" output, but more like many positions along the continuum between those two extremes. Likewise, perhaps there is less of a discrete break between capitalism and market (though I think that is more open for debate):

The two extremes are the most obvious. High output/pursuit of expansion and growth gives us the "corporate" brand model. Low output/pursuit of livelihood gives us the basic model of the independent framebuilder (with Richard Sachs as a kind of archetype). The real interesting action is along the other diagonal. Theoretically there is an option for a low output/capitalist enterprise pursuing expanded accumulation of capital but through a small scale enterprise. I've sketched in some recent framebuilders from the NAHBS/handbuilt world who have grown quickly in ways that, from the outside at least, might be indicative of this position. But fundamentally this seems both logically unlikely and unstable (as noted in red); ultimately a truly capitalist enterprise would pass through this quadrant and move into the high output zone...or it would fold/fail. The other end of this diagonal is quite interesting as well. Here we find the more livelihood oriented enterprises, but pursuing higher output. Taken to their extreme, this might even be a much higher output facility but not pursuing capital expansion/accumulation as a primary goal - perhaps even the Orbea worker co-op model in Spain, or Burley co-op when they were producing bikes. 

Anyhow, I'm going on too long here, for these points are exactly what I'd like to explore in further detail in coming weeks. And, this conceptual framework is what will be loosely guiding further interviews and survey work. I'll leave it for now and figure I can elaborate on these categories next time on the blog. As always, though, feel free to chime in with critique or questions!

Spitballing and Speculating

I still owe all you readers a quick 2x2 analytical table using the different dimensions of capitalism and markets (and thinking about the scale of the business enterprise) to categorize different kinds of builders and brands. My spring break is drawing to a close tonight and, fortunately, I made good progress on my commercialization of football and North-South divide paper. Hoping to get that out for review this next week, so I can dive back into the framebuilder stuff again and maybe get a few more things up here on the blog!

With the NAHBS happening this weekend, I've been checking Instagram and Facebook all weekend. Wish I had the money and time to just go every year, but Salt Lake is pretty far and costly...and the kinds of interviews you get at a show are not the best for detailed data collection, even if they are good for showing your face and checking out the scene.

Two things have been on my mind when thinking about the show as a "success" for its intended purpose.

Certainly the exhibitor numbers were up again this year, but I need to download the final list and see what proportion of these were builders. A larger trend in the show has been for more exhibitors....but the proportion of builders has remained comparatively small. The show certainly reflects a certain kind of dynamism in the field (as noted by the Handbuilt Bicycle News' first "take" on this year's show), but many of the builder exhibitors were from outside of North America. The trend toward more international builders - which is really cool and productive in many respects - nonetheless might be taken as an indicator for a certain kind of "decline" of the NAHBS, given its original focus on the North American scene alone.

Secondly: the show just finished tonight, so not much in the way of summaries yet, but I'm very curious to hear about public attendance. Maybe most of the videos and Instagram posts were taken before and/or after the show each day...but the crowds sure looked thin on the ground in what I've seen thus far. However, this brings up a question I've pondered quite a bit and that, in fact, was central to my first paper on the NAHBS. Is NAHBS really there for a buying public that might attend the show? Or, is the NAHBS a vehicle for which case, it is a success so long as the right people attend, even if that isn't a lot of people? Certainly the tastemakers were there, and maybe the "market" of potential buyers is mainly online anyway. In that case, the "field configuring" (and market configuring) nature of the tradeshow doesn't even require that much of the buying public be there in person. In any event, will be curious to see the show wrap-ups that appear this week....


Two week deadline again...and running up short. Making progress on my political-economy of world soccer article manuscript, but this leaves me short on the framebuilding stuff. Been thinking about it, though, and had hoped to build on the Braudelian markets vs. capitalism material from past two posts.

You can probably tell where I'm headed with that distinction: framebuilders tend to be "market" and the big brands/builders tend to be "capitalism". The most important dimensions there seem to be the distinction between profits and growth as means to end vs. ends themselves. This introduces (for framebuilders) some interesting tensions around scale - concretely, how big is "big enough", given the underlying market/livelihood motivations of many/most framebuilders? And, as discussed before and also centrally in my under-review article manuscript, scale (scaling up, mainly) is a big thing in the framebuilding world right now. Lots of builders trying it out, but this also looks a lot like deja vu all over again with scaling up of 80s and early 90s (following the commercialization of the mountain bike) ending in lots of consolidation and business closures. 

The interesting thing is to think about profit and expansion motivation combined with scale of output. Certainly the ends of that spectrum are easy to conjure: the small builder with low growth goals will also tend to be low output (maybe only raising prices rather than building more) and the large brand (or brand conglomerate like Accell) will pursue both growing accumulation of profit and expanding output. The middle parts are the tricky ones, maybe still pursuing livelihood but expanding output (e.g. Breadwinner or Speevagen??) in that pursuit? 

Anyhow, it all sounds ripe for more of a 2x2 analytical table. Maybe next time....

"Operationalizing" Braudel

First off, big picture update here.

Though I missed it by a day, I'm trying to stick to this every-2-weeks posting thing, no matter how painful. Two weeks go by so fast (between teaching, administrative stuff, going on school field trips and so forth) and I'm finding that trying to write to this schedule is a useful practice for being aware of time and how quickly one can lose track of it!

That said, I'm finding this a bit challenging right now as I've gone back to some earlier work with the goal of carving out an academic journal manuscript for submission this semester (which is to say: hopefully before May). That earlier work is actually my never-published dissertation research, which was an analysis of the commercial transformation of world soccer (the creation of a world soccer economy) and its impact on the First/Third World (or, Global North/South) divide therein. While the framebuilding/NAHBS paper remains under review I'm hoping to patch together something from my long-abandoned and ignored dissertation work so that I can make progress toward my next promotional step and to just get the never-published dissertation (a story deserving of its own post) off my back. Given this partial diversion, I'll likely need to push back my plans for a framebuilder survey, but hope to get to that this summer.

Ok, down to the framebuilding stuff, however brief....

So, last time I was talking about Braudel's distinction between different layers of socio-economic life, those being "market life" and "capitalism". The basic point is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Braudel sees real-world market life and capitalism as distinct from each other and motivated by different logics and strategies. This is fairly abstract, of course. In the social sciences we call the process of moving from abstract conceptual schemes down to empirical measures "operationalization" - in that we make "operational" measures when we actually head out into the world and make observations and generate data. 

How, then, could we operationalize Braudel's markets/capitalism distinction?

How might we translate this conceptual schema down to something more applicable to making sense of real-world "cases" (like, for instance, framebuilders and their position within the larger bike trade)?

I'll spare you all the academic citations for this, but I think a path toward operationalizing Braudel's framework would start with the following factors:

  • Market life is transparent. Market transactions are visible to participants; they know what they are getting into and it is clear what goes into the production and distribution of the good or service being sold. Market life also tends to eliminate "middlemen" who might extract profits from the transaction by standing between producers and consumers and monopolizing information. Market life, and pricing, are fundamentally customary - they do not change radically.
  • Market life tends toward specialization. That is, market producers tend to specialize in a particular line of work or activity and persist in that vein. Market producers therefore lack the flexibility that Braudel sees as the hallmark of capitalists, who might rapidly shift across lines of activity in pursuit of higher profits. 
  • Market life is fundamentally local. Certainly this might have meant very literally local in earlier centuries, which was Braudel's original concern. But, what would "local" look like today? In an online commerce and social media age - when I can order on a builder's standardized Squarespace site, pay using Paypal and see the daily activities of dozens of framebuilders through Instagram - perhaps distance or spatial scale is less significant than social scale? Maybe the notion of a direct connection with the producer/seller is more relevant than whether that producer seller is in close geographical proximity? 
  • Market life is competitive. Following from the transparency, Braudel sees market life as being intensely competitive - with fewer middlemen and no easy places to "hide" the big profits that capitalists seek, market producers/participants are subject to competition. This competition also tends to drive down profits, such that market life is also a layer of low profits. Which brings us to.... 
  • Market life is motivated by the pursuit of livelihood and stability. In Braudel's view, market producers are not primarily motivated by profits and the continued expansion of business enterprise in the pursuit of more growth. Rather, market producers are fundamentally pursuing a livelihood that remains stable over time. Commerce, in other words, is the means to an end of livelihood rather than the end itself.

That's a start for now, but I'd like to return to, and elaborate on, these points, in part by talking about the opposite of market life: capitalism. I'll leave that for another day/week!

Markets vs. Capitalism & Fernand Braudel

In previous posts (yeah, from a year or two ago...but that's still previous!), I've used - without explanation - the term "capitalism" when trying to think through the position of handmade bike builders and the bike industry more broadly and I'd like to circle back to that a bit in this post and ones to follow. Here I'll try to quickly set the stage by getting to what I believe is a key distinction to be drawn here: that is, between "capitalism" and "markets". 

There's a lot of talk these days about capitalism - at least, a lot more than there used to be not all that long ago. Use of the term "capitalism" has come and gone over the years, usually used by radical/critical folks as part of a critique, but other times triumphantly by various kinds of right/pro-systemic analysts. What's interesting to me in the current - let's say, post-2008/Great Recession - moment is the extent to which "capitalism" is used in mainstream popular discourse and debate, and the extent to which variants of "can capitalism survive?" are discussed in the more popular press and by students. Interesting times for sure, and this has become - I think - an important question for people interested in the shifting scales of production and those trying to make a living in the craft/artisan/maker economy.

As a theoretical and conceptual starting point, I'd like to pick up on what may seem at first glance like an obvious (non)distinction: that between "capitalism" or a "capitalist economy" and that of "markets" or "the market". What I hear a lot in everyday life is people using the terms almost interchangeably. In the conventional wisdom, capitalism is an economic system organized around markets. From this perspective, the logic of the market is the logic of capitalism, and if you got rid of markets, "regulated" them too much or otherwise pulled them away from being "free"....well, then you wouldn't have capitalism. And because - again, in the conventional wisdom - markets are seen as a natural, trans-historical "fact" of human existence and an outgrowth of human nature, capitalism itself (again, defined almost tautologically/axiomatically as a system of markets or with markets at the center) is taken to be a basic social fact, or inevitable and "natural" outcome of social relations...for better or for worse.

But, there are other ways to think about this. One such approach follows the influential work of historian Fernand Braudel and his attempt to write essentially a (three volume) world history of capitalism as an historical social system over the run of multiple centuries. In Braudel's view, socio-economic life is comprised of distinctive "layers" that rest upon each other, even if in practice, and in the relatively short-run of years and decades, the boundaries between which cannot be decisively and cleanly distinguished (to paraphrase Braudel, these are not layers like oil on water). The basis of socio-economic life for Braudel is the lowest layer, what he calls "material life", and by which he denotes the basic set of technologies, knowledges, customs and organizations through which humans (households, societies) make a living and build a civilization.

Braudel's next two layers are where things get interesting in terms of "markets" and "capitalism", because Braudel here turns the conventional wisdom (of markets=capitalism) on its head. For Braudel,  the market layer of socio-economic life (his "market life") actually operates by the inverse logic of "capitalism". Braudel sees market life as the sphere of production and direct exchange, with transparent transactions and direct competition amongst (small-scale) producers who are fundamentally pursuing "livelihood". Market life in the Braudelian framework is thus "free" in the conventional sense of "competitive" but, at the same time, it is a socio-economic layer of low profit, high competition and participants pursuing a livelihood rather than profit maximization. Capitalism - Braudel's shady and non-transparent third socio-economic layer - takes advantage of markets and market life, but through a different logic: that of profit maximization and the accumulation of wealth or money capital. In his famous turn of phrase, Braudel's "capitalism" is best understood as the "anti-market", dominated by opaque (and often long-distance) transactions organized by actors and agencies seeking to remove themselves from the transparent competition of market life so as to maximize their profits and maintain the flexibility to move their money wealth to whatever line of activity may offer the highest returns. Braudel's capitalism is thus synonymous not, as conventional wisdom would have it, with competition but monopoly and the domination of market life through power.

Although the Braudelian market/capitalism distinction may unfortunately add a bit of immediate terminological confusion - given the conventional conflation of markets with capitalism to which we have grown accustomed - I think it ultimately offers bigger picture clarification. For those trying to really think about capitalism as an actually-exsiting historical social "system' - not to mention those trying to construct alternative such arrangements - Braudel helps us see beyond the seemingly insurmountable analytical puzzle that people producing, buying and selling goods using prices, and with some of them making profits, might not be engaged in "capitalism" per se, but some other kind of social process and logic. There are risks, though, in drawing this distinction, not least of which is perhaps a certain kind of romanticized notion of market life, "small business" and the local - all critiques that have accompanied the latest wave of interest in localist, small-scale, "right sized"  and "independent" business. Braudel's need not be a twee nor precious perspective, though, for it gives us a more descriptive and objective set of classifications. So, there we have it in its simplest form. What I'd like to do in subsequent posts is spend some time thinking through how we might apply this framework/assertion to the more concrete empirical world of the here and now, thinking about the craft/artisan/maker economy and framebuilders.

2 Weeks?! Article Update

Just passed the 2-week mark since my last writing...which means I owe myself a blog post here. I do have a good reason for not posting: finally finished the revision work on this academic article manuscript and resubmitted it to the journal this morning (technically still on the weekend, with today as a holiday)! Revising and resubmitting papers can be a crazy process, not only because you are trying to politely address critiques and suggestions from 3 different readers...some of which are inevitably directly contradictory. It's also crazy because you write a kind of cover letter back to the editors - for the reviewers to read as well - to accompany the resubmission. Maybe it's just my own temperament/tendencies, but I find it hard not to write a fair amount for this cover letter. Looking at the finished product, though, I realize I wrote about 3,500 words in the response - this for a 9,800 word article manuscript! So, it's not that I don't write these days, it's that I'm writing a lot that won't ever see the light of day.

Will see how the revised version goes over with the reviewers, but there would be some interesting follow-up from the paper to mention here (for instance: was there actually a handmade bicycle boom/renaissance that accompanied the rise of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show?..). However, I've hit my own goal of posting something to this blog at least every two weeks. And, thats's enough for now!

Starting 2017 Off Right

Well, at least I'm starting it with a plan - and one that might provide some public accountability!

Yes, I went the entirety of 2016 without posting to this blog. Hard to believe, but there you have it. I drafted quite a few things and stayed busy with actual work (interviews, listening to interviews, attending trade events, and such). Gave my first talk from the project at George Mason University's Cultural Studies program in the spring and got some useful feedback. [Update: Because this kind of self-promotion is what people seem to do, here is an interview I did in the run-up to my visit to GMU] And, most significantly, I also wrote my first academic journal-length (10k words) article manuscript about the NAHBS and some of the limits to the "NAHBS model" for framebuilders. That was well reviewed and I'm staring down the mid-January deadline on submitting the revised version for reconsideration at the journal. I've been circulating the draft amongst builders and other interested folks - by all means drop me a line (if anyone reads this thing) if you would like to see a copy. 

So, on to 2017. What's the plan? A simple one: post to this blog at least every other week. I'm not going to worry about quality so much, and I'm also not going to worry as much as I did this past year about posting only material about the bike biz (which seemed to discourage me from posting at all). It will still mainly focus on the framebuilder project and the bike biz, for sure, but I'll likely need to meet my every-other-week quota by talking a bit about academic-y things having to do with the research process and back to some broader framing about my motivations as they relate to alternative economies, industry organizations and other such things. 

In addition to the current article manuscript, I've got a number of paths for the research that I was working on in 2016 - a framebuilder survey, perhaps some analysis about who counts as a "professional" in this field and how that connects to attempts to create some industry organizations for framebuilders over the years. I want more of that to come to fruition in 2017, and pushing myself to post something (anything!) here every other week should also give me at least 20 little public drafts of things to work with (beyond the research notes to myself I'm already writing). 

To that end - and if anyone is still listening out there - please check back in at times or add me to an RSS reader. Would love to build some conversation along with more output in 2017!

Estimating Handbuilt Bike Segment Size: Next Steps

The first steps in my "estimating the size of the handbuilt segment" effort were pretty successful in soliciting some useful feedback directly and on the forums...while also kicking off some interesting discussions (on list and off) about how to delineate and categorize different parts of the segment as a whole. Knowing the scale of the "handbuilt in the U.S." segment is interesting in its own right and is absolutely necessary in trying to get some sense of where this all "fits" in the bigger picture. In many respects, though, the boundary work of who is considered worth counting, and why, is even more interesting; I'll get there eventually. Two basic things emerged from discussion and further thought, and I'm tossing them up here as a note to myself as well as preview of what I'll be working on next (with respect to the industry size estimates):

1. Probably most obviously, this process underscores that I really need to deal with the mid-size/larger-than-1-person/sometimes custom/sometimes production builders (e.g. the Mosaic, Moots, IF, Seven, CoMotion, Waterford-type builders many of whom have little in common apart from not being 1-person shops). I'd intentionally ignored them in the first pass in an effort to make sense of the (really) large number of individual builders that numerically dominate any comprehensive list, even if their output isn't very significant. The inverse - the numerically small producers with massively higher output - matters as well, especially if we are trying to get a handle on the total output of the "handbuilt" segment. Good news: there aren't that many of these larger builders, so getting some basic sense of their output shouldn't take all that much effort. Which leads me to...

2.  The first step was a basic logical deduction from a couple of informed guesses about the total number of builders, how much they might produce and how much the average or typical (which are really two different things) product sells for. This is a useful strategy for a first approximation and a sort of diagnostic check, but the variation in output, selling cost, frame material and production methods means that I will also attempt another estimate based on more direct observation. Starting from a reasonably comprehensive list of builders (again starting from the list), I will compile a more comprehensive database with multiple variables (output, materials and techniques used, prices, employees) so that any number of different classification schemes might be used for comparisons (like "Ti builders doing custom" compared with "steel builders doing batch built frames"). If collecting the data for the full population of builders turns out to be too difficult, I could also draw samples from the full population list, which would at least give an additional estimate for the size of the handbuilt segment.

All of this work would also pave the way to my larger goal of administering a more extensive survey covering broader issues like business practices and life strategies/philosophies amongst a large sample of builders (if not the entire list). This work may require some additional research assistance, so the full estimate may not be completed until I have a student or two who can give me a hand, but I'll start working on it myself in the meantime. I can at least get going on the larger-than-1-person shops, given there aren't all that many of them.

Most immediately on the "to do" is some more trade show field work in Philly! 

How Big is the Handbuilt Bike Segment? Part III

Last time we looked at the total number of handmade bike builders in the U.S....which turns out to be a pretty big number. Turning to output and value, estimation is even more challenging; without direct observation, we must rely largely on informed-insider opinion and observation. The following, then, is intended only as a "thinking out loud" first stab at putting some shape to this amorphous notion of the handbuilt segment. Any critique and suggestions for improvement/refinement will be more than welcome!

One highly-respected, long-time builder - who routinely speaks about the industry and informally advises other builders about the challenges of making a living, based in part on varied experience with multiple business models - estimates about 30-50 "professional" builders at any moment and a market segment of $10-20 million in sales annually. The term "professional" is intended to capture those building essentially full-time and trying to make a living by building bikes (relying on this as their sole or primary source of income).

Taking the top end of each of these informed estimates as a starting point, we can work up some broader estimates for the segment output.  

If there are about 50 builders trying fairly successfully to work full-time, each with an average output of 50 frames a year (about one a week), we get 2500 frames each year. This is probably on the high end for many builders - or, I'm not sure that there are 50 builders working at this level of output, but some of this might be accounted for by averaging (some of those 50 builders might be putting out closer to 100 frames a year, while others might be closer to the 30s).

Let's say that 60% of those frames are sold as complete builds (with wheels and parts installed) and 40% as just a frame set (the frame and fork), which seems like a reasonable rough guess based on my conversations with builders. I have also compiled (again thanks in part to the research assistance of Molly!) the average listed sales price for a frame or a frame/fork combination from the 258 builders on the list discussed in my previous post.. While this is not an ideal sample drawn from the total number of builders (it is a convenience sample pulled from those making the pricing information available online, and there could be a systematic reason why those with high/low prices do/don't post this information), it gives a very rough sense of pricing. The average frame cost alone is $1947 and $2528 with a fork. Splitting the difference gives us about $2200 for a frame/frameset sale. I will assume about $7500 for an average complete bike, given that wheels could easily fall in the $800-1500 range and a build kit combined with additional components might add another $4000. 

Using these figures, we can work up the following, at the cost sold (which is not, of course, builder income):

For completed builds: 2500 *.6 = 1500 units * $7500 = $11.25 million
For frames/framesets: 2500 *.4 = 1000 units * $2200 = $2.2 million

For a total of $13.45 million in sales (and 2500 "units" of either frame or bicycle)

Let's then say that there are another 100 builders in the 20 bikes a year range (e.g. 50 builders making 10 bikes a year, 50 builders making 30 bikes a year), for a total of another 2000 frame units output. Assuming the same 60 full build/40 frameset breakdown as before as well as the same cost breakdown (frameset is $2.2k, bike is $7.5k), we get:

For completed builds: 2000 *.6 = 1200 units * $7500 = $9 million
For frames/framesets: 2000 *.4 = 800 units * $2200 = $1.76 million

For a total of $10.76 million in sales (and 2000 "units" of either frame or bicycle)

Adding the "professional" builders to the smaller-output (but numerically larger) builders gives us a rough annual estimate for the handbuilt segment of about $24.21 million in sales and 4500 frame-based units.

What is missing here? 

Mainly the small number of mid-size handbuilt production or semi-custom shops with a significantly higher annual output (e.g. Seven, Independent Fabrication, Moots, CoMotion, Calfee, Waterford/Gunnar). While all of these are included in the builder count, I have not accounted for their output in the calculations above. There are comparatively so few of these mid-size shops that I will be asking for output estimates from each individually and can work up similar gross sales estimates from their published pricing.

How does this fit with other measures?

As I said originally, it would be great to gather multiple snapshots of the handbuilt industry to build a composite picture of its overall size. Another useful set of snapshots might come from those supplying materials to the trade, measuring, for instance, tubing sales, components and so forth. Indeed, building supplies (in addition to students enrolled in framebuilding courses) may be one of the few reliable longitudinal (over time) measures of industry size available. Thus far, I have made little progress in getting any of this information; I'm hoping that polite persistence may eventually pay off!

Another "check" on these back-of-the-envelope calculations comes from Jay Townley, of the Gluskin Townley Group (which provides most of the existing data on the U.S. bike trade). Townley has been quoted in a few articles as estimating that the handbuilt segment represents about 3% of the U.S. specialty bike market (and this is really to be taken as "no more than" 3%). With around 2.5 million bikes sold by bike shops in 2014 (NBDA 2014: 60), Townley's estimate would equate to about 75,000 bikes a year....which is well beyond anything that my estimates of the handbuilt segment could approach. However, Townley is likely factoring in all different product categories (recumbents, travel and cargo bikes, handbuilt production bikes, etc.) in this estimate.

So there's a first cut guesstimate at the size in output and value of the handbuilt bike segment in the U.S. Sound reasonable? Seem flawed? Suggestions for improvement/refinement? Ideas for alternative data sources? Feel free to comment here, or drop me a line privately - I'd love to chat!

How Big is the Handbuilt Bike Segment? Part II

Last time we worked through the bike picture outline of the bike trade in the U.S. The really short story is that a lot of bikes are sold overall ("a lot" - that is - if you only took "bike shops" as your frame of reference), most of them for kids, most of them comparatively cheap, and most of them sold through the mass market/big box channel. But, most of the money/value made by selling bikes passes through bike-specific shops. Most all of these bikes are sourced in China and Taiwan.

So that's the outline of the bike trade as a whole. What about the handbuilders?

Although industry statistics are relatively limited in their specificity and precision, they are at least made possible by some industry-level organizations and durable data collection efforts. No such "industry" organization exists for framebuilders in the U.S. As such, I think the best strategy is to generate as many estimate snapshots as possible, looking at the segment from multiple angles in the hope that each of these fuzzy and imperfect images at least helps build a broad composite sense of both the size and shape of the handbuilt segment. 

There is a great deal of debate amongst builders and fans about how to even define a "professional" builder. Is this someone who makes their income from full-time bike building work? Is it someone who carries insurance for their product? Can someone building only a few bikes a month - or even a few a year - while working another, non-building job...but building to the quality standards of the considered a professional? For now, I will sidestep these boundary-definitional considerations and cast a rather broad net for a first approximation. Ideally we would know the total number of people in the U.S. actively soliciting customers for their bikes, regardless of how many bikes these builders are actually producing, or even want to produce. From there we could figure out their output, revealing the full distribution of builders and allowing us to focus our attention on those doing more, rather than less, building. I will therefore start with the total of number of builders.

A number of fans and builders themselves (as well as those trying to sell products to builders) have made efforts to compile lists of all known builders over the years. These are "crowd-sourced" efforts, though given the intensity of interest by self-selected fans, connoisseurs and the builders themselves, they probably have - if anything - a bias toward over reporting. That is, when lists of builders are compiled there is a tendency to identify and list all potential candidates rather than exclude them. Fan/consumer interest - and builder self-promotion - combined with the list builder wanting to pitch the biggest possible tent and avoid charges of being exclusionary mean that these lists will tend toward the completist and comprehensive.

For my purposes, the problem with lists is that they are only really effective cross-sectionally, not longitudinally (over time). These lists are usually not archived (though if anyone knows where the might be, please let me know!), so that when builders go inactive (a stage in the business life of the segment that is just as important as having new builders come online) they tend to be dropped, with no record that they ever existed. Unfortunately, crowd-sourced builder lists don't give us much direct insight into arrivals and departures, just the presence of builders at a given time.

Starting from the list maintained by one of the moderators on one of the more popular online discussion forums, and with the help of a research assistant (thanks Molly!) checking for dead links and builders who have gone inactive as well as adding active builders not originally included, I have updated this list (in October 2015). This list shows that there are 258 individual frame builders who appear to have a functioning online presence or have been identified by those compiling the list. To be clear, this includes anyone with a web presence offering to build and sell bikes all they way up to larger-scale primarily production shops (e.g. Waterford, Comotion, Bike Friday, Lynskey). This does not include builders focused primarily on recumbents or trikes. Anecdotally, this is much higher than it seems most people "in the biz" might guess - where the usual guess I've heard in interviews is somewhere around 150 builders. Again, though, that 250'ish includes anyone with a website and a picture, so this is a very liberal estimate of the segment size.

Next we can consider the volume of output as sales, but this post seems long enough so far!

How Big is the Handbuilt Bike Segment? Part I

How do the handbuilders fit into the larger bicycle industry?

While it is clear to even a casual observer that the U.S.-made, hand built and/or custom bike segment is small, just how small is difficult to establish with any certainty. This is to some extent just a fact of the size - it is difficult to accurately measure something tiny when it is dwarfed by the surrounding context. But the measurement difficulties are also endemic to the bike industry as a whole, though here we at least have some routinized and systematic data collection that helps to frame the big picture. I will look first at this big picture to give a sense of the overall shape of the bike trade in the U.S., before working up some estimates of the size of the handbuilt segment in my next post. 

Virtually all of the available information on the bike industry is published in reports drawn from data collected by the Gluskin Townley research and consulting group, either through their own reports or through the annual "U.S. Bicycle Market" report they produce under commission by the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA). Unless otherwise noted, the figures below are drawn from the 2014 edition of that report.

How big is the U.S. bike market?

When measuring "size" of an industry, we must think of both value and physical output. The overall value of new bicycles, parts, accessories, shoes and clothing sold in the U.S. in 2014 is estimated at $6.15 billion. The large majority of this ($5.42 billion) derives from new bicycle sales, though the *used* bicycle trade is estimated at an additional $1.36 billion (this is in addition to that $6.15 billion total).(NBDA 2014: 37) In terms of the number of bicycles actually consumed (the physical output), the report estimates this at 18 million units in 2014. While a significant increase from the number of bikes sold in 2013, this is in line with more than a decade's average volume of 18 million units per year.(39) By the way, these figures are for new bicycles of any wheel size (meaning youth to adult size bikes) - which is an important distinction given that the youth segment is by far the biggest by unit volume of sales.(51)

Where are these bikes coming from? 

The vast majority are produced outside of the U.S, for "U.S. bicycle imports started to increase in 1996 and domestic production started to dramatically decrease that same year, with imports capturing 87 percent of the U.S. market in 1998, increasing to 98 percent in 2000 and 2001."(40) Virtually all bikes purchased in the U.S. in recent years have been imported - across the 2004-2013 period, the largest percent of bikes produced domestically only once reached .7% and usually hovered around .2-.4% (42; Table 18). Interestingly, this trend showed small signs of reversal (or, it was a tiny, but potentially important, reversal) in 2014 with the arrival of Kent International's new production facility in South Carolina. Though the Kent facility was not yet fully online with frame production, the NBDA report that 1.1% of U.S. bikes were produced in the U.S. in 2014.(42) Taken together, Taiwan and China are the source for 98.6% of bike imports to the U.S.(56)   

Where are these bikes being sold?

Again the distinction between the number of bikes being sold and the value of bikes being sold is important. Mass merchants (e.g. Walmart, Target, Kmart) capture 75% of unit sales, but only 31% of the dollar value of the new bike market, while "sporting chains" capture 7% of unit sales and 9% of dollar value.(60; Table 36) Although bike shops represent a relatively small portion of overall bike sales by volume with 14% of unit sales, they capture most of the monetary value produced in the industry with 50.5% of the total. "Outdoor Speciality" shops sell 2.5% of bikes but capture 7% of value. 

Simply put: 

Most every bike sold in the United States is an import and virtually all of those imports are sourced from China and Taiwan. Most all of these bikes are being sold by mass merchants - not "bike shops" - even though these mass merchants make far less money from the bikes sold. 

But....I would emphasize that the aggregate summary statements - which make it seem like U.S.-made bikes as well as standard bike shops are totally irrelevant - can disguise lots of potentially important variation that a finer-grained analysis might highlight. In terms of total bikes sold per year, we are talking about a lot of bikes - about 18 million! So, to say bike shops "only" sell 14% of bikes in the U.S. still means 2.5 million of them each year. Likewise, the "other" category, which includes online retailers (and which I would guess is the fuzziest of all these estimates), at only 1.5% of total units sold still works out to 270,000 bikes in 2014. Likewise, looking at the value flowing through these different segments, bikes sold at bike shops represent $1.8 billion in 2014 (which does not mean big profits from selling bikes, of course; bike shops basically haven't made a profit from new bikes sales for well over a decade...but that's a different story), of which even a small portion is still a sizable dollar amount. 

With the big picture in mind, I will turn next to the more inscrutable and nebulous issue of the handbuilt in the U.S. segment.

Change of Pace

Quick update to preview a bit of a change of pace. Thus far I've been bogged down in project framing here on the blog...but that is all, fundamentally, throat clearing until I can get to the "meat" of what I envisioned with a project blog: a place to toss up bits of work in progress for public review  and feedback. Framing is important for sure, and I'm going to keep working through that (I still want to talk about Fernand Braudel's important distinction between "markets" and "capitalism" and how that relates to what I'm doing here, as well as some talk about the modern craft economy). The blog (in)activity speaks for itself, though, and it shows that I'm letting myself get bogged down in the theoretical framing work with too-long drafts and perfectionism taking over. All the while, I've been plowing through lots of empirical material - transcribing interviews, reading online discussions, talking with industry insiders and analysts - and building up a big pile of random notes, drafts and bits of material that I'm hoping will serve as suitable fuel for some extensive drafting once the big "sparks" (ideas and motivation) are introduced.

To that end, I'm going to begin interspersing some far more concrete and pragmatic stuff stuff here on the blog, starting with some first-cut efforts I have made on estimating the size of the handbuilt bike segment in the U.S. 

Framing the Project: Shifting Scales & the Reorganization of Capitalism

Last time (and, yes, it was ages ago, but I can get this out before the 1-year anniversary of the blog!), I began by trying to frame my motivation for this project in the broadest possible terms. I was doing so through reference to the large scale socio-ecological crisis humanity faces with climate change. Thinking it over, I think the simplest, clearest take-away point from that framing is something like "change is coming, like it or not!" Change is always inevitable, of course - that's all the world does. But, the idea here is that even more fundamental shifts in the ways humans have organized their work, consumption, leisure and [whatever else] will be required in the coming decades - perhaps more so than in the last few centuries. This reorganization is coming our way whether for "good" (trying to forestall or fully mitigate the carbon and greenhouse gas pollution that creates climate change before things get too bad), for "bad" (just trying to lessen the impact of, or adapt to, the changes wrought by unchecked and accelerating climate change, even if the underlying cause of which isn't being addressed). Or - as is probably most likely - a combination of the two, in which case we must reorganize to partially forestall the worst of climate chaos while also being forced to restructure for adaptation to the change that is already "baked in" to the climate cake. 

To cut to the chase, I think that the changes on the horizon are going to be being marked by the shifting of scales in multiple different dimensions of social organization. That is, change and restructuring are both needed and demanded, and this reorganization will necessitate shifting scales - sometimes to bigger and broader scales of analysis and social action, but sometimes to smaller. Although some of this scale shifting corresponds to geography - with larger-scale analysis and "fixes" corresponding to the cross-national and global and smaller scales to the local/regional - it isn't just spatial, for these shifting scales can also be organizational (to both larger and smaller kinds of organizational forms). As is often the tendency when looking at the biggest picture, that might seem fairly abstract and obtuse. Thus, in the next few blog posts, I would like to make this more concrete by covering a number of different forms of "scale shifting" and how they frame my investigation into the realm of handmade bike builders. 

We can start with one "big picture" and provocative perspective on this kind of social, economic and political scale shifting, this being Jerry Davis's recent work on the decline of the corporation as a central *social* pillar in American life. [If you are into that sort of thing, you can find some of Davis's big argument in the 2009 book "Managed by the Markets" but also in summary form in a "Politics & Society article from 2013 (v.41 n. 2) called "After the Corporation"...and in blog debates online like this one at orgtheory]

Davis's foundational claim - contra much of our conventional wisdom in which corporations feature as dominant and dominating entities - is that the multinational corporation is no longer the central agency and organization in American life, at least in the way that it was in the period from about 1945 to the early 1970s. While corporations still exist (though, by numbers alone, far fewer of them than at the height of the American corporate century, according to Davis), and while understanding corporations remains absolutely central to understanding contemporary socio-economic life, Davis argues that most of the core socio-economic functions that corporations served for much of the 20th century have been fundamentally eroded if not abandoned. Those functions, in summary form, have been: organizing production, providing employment, social welfare services (health care and retirement) and providing a vehicle for savings.(2013: 285-286)

Why has this been happening? Davis identifies a set of inter-related forces leading to the decline that should be familiar to most scholars or political-economy but that are also well known to much of the general public: the rise of "hostile" take-over deals leading to the disaggregation of corporations (e.g. private equity and take-over firms using highly leveraged cheap debt to take control of firms and pull them apart to "unlock" market value and yield large immediate profits) and the development of deep subcontracting networks that allowed for global off-shoring and outsourcing and the ultimate "Nikefication" (as he calls it) of the world-economy. After three decades of such changes, Davis boldly claims, "the public corporation in the United States is now unneccessary for production, unsuited for stable employment and the provision of social welfare services, and incapable of providing a reliable long-term return on investment."(2013: 290)

So, there you have it - the death of the corporation. Where does Davis see things headed? Who knows, exactly - the goal isn't prognostication per se, but identifying lines of inquiry to understand ongoing changes - but he gives us a few principles for thinking about the relevant scale for social action and organization in this post-corporate world:

  • The size and location of the institution should match the size of the project.
  • Risk sharing works better on a larger scale; democratic participation works better at smaller scales. Notably, he believes "employment and the production of physical goods and services are best organized locally"(299).
  • "Form follows function", meaning (in part) that formal organizations aren't always the best.
  • Carbon constraints should prioritize the local, all else equal.
  • Local control is good, but "lateral connections to the rest of the globe are useful".(300)

Davis draws particular attention to a variety of "alternative" (my word, not his) organizational forms and models suggesting that "a good start would be to examine some of the many new experiments in postindustrial co-ops and other formats that are sprouting around the world."(302) The rise and expansion of the "maker" movement - with maker spaces, shared workshops, 3D printers and milling operations, etc. - is a particularly fertile space in which these experiments with relevant scale and post-corporate organization of production are being undertaken, along with the rise of the "sharing economy" more broadly.  Indeed, for Davis, "this is a context in which social researchers can make a genuine contribution by documenting and facilitating forms of social organization as they are created and spread."(304)

Where does this leave me with my project? Most obviously, what I'm doing here is Davis's "documenting and facilitating forms of social organization", albeit with a rather small segment of a larger industry and area of activity (the bike biz). But that documetary aspect - identifying and describing this group and these activites - would have some value at any point, in a kind of crude anthropological sense. That is, cataloging niches has value no matter how inconsequential those niches might be to the larger population in which they are nested. However, as Davis's (and others yet to be discussed) work indicates, this shifting of scales in the post-corporate, and in what should be the radically-reduced-carbon, era means, I think, that looking at socio-economic activity at different scales has value beyond the cataloging impulse alone. If the relevant scale of action might be smaller and more localized with respect to production - even if other social needs and functions need to be scaled up at the same time - bike builders of this sort and the particular challenges they face in making a living might have some broader relevance for other forms of economic and productive activity. Again, this is framing the project, not a set of hypotheses nor specific questions that the project is intended to definitively answer. The large-scale shifting of scales, though, means the project should hopefully speak to some audiences and questions beyond simply the world of bike geekery or the "niche market" alone.

Framing the Project: The Socio-Ecological Crisis of Capitalism

Last time I talked about the notion of "framing" and the ways I might situate and justify this project. The best metaphor might be matryoshka dolls (you know, these things), for we can see this as a series of nested concerns that ultimately lead to narrower questions. Concerns are things that motivate the project: what it speaks to, but certainly doesn't resolve or answer in their entirety. If I say "this project speaks to the current reconsideration of artisanal production, American manufacturing and 'reshoring' as well as the interest in alternative forms of work, employment and life balance" I certainly do not mean to say that my project will tidily resolve all of these issues!

I'll begin with perhaps the most personal framing. This new project finds me at the "mid-career" moment, which is to say, secure with tenure and the freedom to work on new projects that fit my own interests and passions, but also as a middle-aged person with kids and the various joys and obligations that implies. Simply put, as a citizen of the world looking through a critical sociological lens, the work I do next must, for me, be connected to both my personal passions and preoccupations, but also with a vision of how this work contributes - even if obliquely and in possibly small measure - to my sense of where the world should be headed.

For me, all of these concerns are enveloped by climate change and the forms of social organization that have led to, and are accelerating, this change. This I view as the signal issue, or crisis, of our times. I will leave it to others to provide the various frightening scenarios and implications, but suffice it to say for now that this is a big deal. The broadest "frame" therefore has to do with the basic presumption that something major is afoot with the structure and operation of capitalism as an historical and global social system (even if, for the time being, I will focus my attention most concretely on the U.S. context). The looming medium and long-run socio-ecological catastrophe of climate change (across the 21st century) will (or should) change "everything" (in Naomi Klein's phrasing). There is no sitting still, for simply continuing what we are doing - so-called "business as usual" - already implies large-run changes in the social and political organization of economic life that are radical in their implications. "Business as usual" - contrary to the seemingly static nature of the phrase - is actually a rather radical path, for it locks us in to potentially catastrophic socio-ecological disruption.

Thus, I'm starting from the basic idea that many of the existing ways of organizing socio-economic life - business as usual - are already, and will increasingly be, facing significant restructuring and reorganization. "Capitalism" itself - and I will talk more about what that concept may or may not denote in future posts - may well be in a terminal crisis, and our task as engaged scholars and citizens of the world is, most fundamentally, to think about and analyze how that process will play out.

Knowing this is a project on bike builders, one might think my interest here is ecological - having to do with alternative transportation, decreased fossil fuel consumption, new ways of moving through space and place, and so on. To be sure, all of these are tremendously important issues, and there is lots of exciting work going on in these areas....but these are not my (primary) focus! From a "what is to be done?" ecological standpoint, how bikes are used and what can be accomplished with/through them may well be a more important question right now than thinking about how bikes are made (who is making them, where, and so forth). Nevertheless, my core focus - what is foregrounded in the project - is not so much on that "what is to be done?" ecological framing. 

Instead, I see the broader socio-ecological crisis facing humanity as demanding not just alternatives for lower-carbon transit options (though it most certainly does), but also implying that alternative ways of organizing production, distribution and consumption are needed. In short, alternative economic arrangements, working at different scales, are part of what we need to understand as we think about the great restructuring going on around us and necessitated by the future. What is also needed is a broader "imaginary" in a sense - that is, a way of rethinking some taken-for-granted terms (markets, growth, work, capitalism and so on) so that we might better imagine how many fixes to the problems on the immediate horizon are already with us now.

That's all pretty abstract, I know. But, this was the broadest frame, right? In subsequent posts I will take it down a few notches and get more concrete about many of the subsidiary arguments and interests mentioned above. Unlike last time, though, I'm not making any promises about when I'll do so; that kind of self-imposed pressure doesn't seem to make me any more productive anyway!

Framing the Project: The Big Picture

Why study handmade bike builders? To be sure, they occupy a niche. There aren't all that many of them. Many that are working now weren't working a few years ago...and many of them now won't be working much a few years from now. They don't produce a lot of output. They don't seem to make a lot of money. They aren't making things that are radically different from other kinds of producers (mass) and their products are fairly expensive. Not to mention....bikes? Who cares, right? Why not study cars or something else with more significance in the "real" world and everyday life?

Lots of reasons, in other words, to not pay attention! 

Nonetheless, I still think it's worth the time, but it all comes down to framing.

As a sociologist, how I might justify looking at handmade bike builders largely depends on what sort of phenomena I see them as a "case of". This is what social scientists do - or what we are supposed to do - when thinking of a project: we move back and forth from the theoretical to the empirical, from ideas to evidence, and back again. [If you are into this sort of thing, check out Charles Ragin's nifty summary of this process in graphical form] A sociological project, then, is one that investigates and analyzes a particular realm of the empirical/observable world (e.g. bike builders, who they are, what they do, why they do it, and so on) in its full complexity in order to use this analysis to inform a more abstract "theory" about how the social world operates more generally (for instance: how small-scale manufacturers compete with large-scale operations, how niche markets survive through brand and lifestyle affinities with specific communities, how trade shows facilitate networks of producers and consumers, and so on).

A sociologist is therefore expected to use her empirical observations to develop and evaluate theories about larger mechanisms and processes, and not simply to justify a project by the novelty or intrinsic value/interest of the empirical material in its own right. Empirics are a means to the end of broader theoretical understanding, not the "end"/goal in and of themselves. Or, again, that's the game we are supposed to be playing as scholars!

So, in the next set of posts I'll be working on this sort of framing - talking about the larger set of issues, questions and concerns that motivate my research into the handbuilt bicycle world and how I think investigating this world can speak to those concerns. I must warn you, though: it won't be all academic, for my motivations are both personal and political as well...which is another key aspect of the framing process. More on that to come...ideally on a weekly or every-other-week schedule.

(Hand)Building Value: What's In a Name?

As the blog's subtitle - "handbuilt bikes and global value chains" - tries to indicate, in its widest sense this new project will center on handmade bike builders and how they are situated within the global bicycle trade. That alone is a tall order...but the real ambition is even broader: to use the position of the handmade builders as a window on the global commodity chains (or "value chains" as some would have it) that link production and the use or "consumption" of bicycles and bicycle gear in the world economy, and the cultural and institutional contexts in which those are embedded. However, rather than jump into the global bike trade from the "top" or "above" - looking at the major producers, this project will start from the margins of sorts, a bit more from "below" in that sense.

Why "Handbuilding Value"...or "Building Value" at least?

The most straightforward answer to the question is the most pragmatic: although I conceived of the project, and it has been IRB approved, under the working title of "Building Value", that url is already taken! Surprisingly enough, "handbuildingvalue" was still available. There you have it.

The more substantive reason for the new name relates to my own scholarly background. My work thus far has focused on the structure and function of global industries and the role of such activities on the global distribution of wealth, power and status - so-called global inequalities. An influential body of theoretical and empirical work has gone on there under the heading of the "global commodity chains" framework, but this literature has partially fused with another line of work that has gone on under the "global value chains" moniker. There are, as you could expect, a number of points of debate about one heading being better than the the other, which is more fruitful, and so forth. These debates really aren't worth going into for our purposes here, so I'm rather arbitrarily going with the "value chains" moniker because I think it sounds a little more open for a non-academic audience. [This is ironic, though, because my scholarly theoretical sympathies actually rest with the "commodity chains" approach!]

Now that I've adjusted to the "Handbuilding Value" blog title, I am actually keen on this for the long run because I could envision this inquiry into the craft/small batch/artisanal side of the bike trade leading to some comparative work with other such niches, many/most of which might frame their own space as being defined by "hand" production.

Getting Started

First post here at the new blog, though it's not going to be monumental in the least! Though I've been blogging elsewhere - very sporadically - over the years, I'm using the advent of a new project as a moment to make a fresh start on the blogging. I need and want to be writing more, or at least more routinely (though writing more wouldn't be so bad either!) and I've had the idea for a while now that perhaps I could blog a research project as I moved through it. Given the cross-over or "popular" appeal of the topic at hand, this could plausibly draw on a broader set of audiences than the typical academic or research blog. But even if this just gets me to put some more words (even unread) out into the world I will consider it a victory!

My plan for now is to get rolling with a series of longer posts that will lay out the broad contours of the "Building Value" project and where it sits in various popular and scholarly discourses and debates. These early posts will hopefully give way to shorter ones over time, in which I can report and work through various "bits and bobs" that pop up from the research. I would imagine the original posts will eventually become part of the "About" page, or a "Read Me First" backdrop, but I'm making that up as I go!