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 2×2 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 2×2 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!

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