Thinking of going pro? Read this first

TL;DR - there are maybe a dozen builders in the entire country who actually make a decent living, and a lot of fancy IG accounts are disguising what is actually a money losing hobby supported by a spouse with a real job (I’m not joking, sadly).

This entire article is worth a careful read for those who are interested in framebuilding as a business/career.

-Walt

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Interesting read. I had not seen that, thanks for sharing.

Yes, that report was a little disheartening.

I think it is similar to playing music. There are some who can make a living doing it, but most are not. And even if you are very good at it, it’s no guarantee you will make money. Maybe some weekend beer money. However, being a musician you could make millions of dollars, but that’s not going to happen in frame building. So the dozen or so out there who are doing it and making a living are like the Billboard chart toppers of the frame building industry. :slight_smile:

I have found that just like playing music there are 3 things you need for frame building. Time, money, and space.

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Ben did a great job putting that together, the follow up papers he has planned sound like they will be pretty interesting as well.
I’ve definitely been mulling over his research as I consider a second stab at framebuilding.

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Great shoutout to Ben’s work. I’m an academic type too, but never came across his writing. His last blog post resonated a lot with my feelings of frame building as a passion and potential career. Also i can relate to not having outlets to share and cultivate ideas. I envision this forum to be a “blog 2.0” where people can write directly to their audience. Search algorithms control what we see and what we can find, and good work like his flys under the radar.

Do you know him personally to invite him to the forum? Or is he already on?

I think some needed context is that starting any business is hard, running a successful business is harder. If you aren’t 100% committed to making the business be successful it won’t be.

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I only know him a little bit, though we have some 3rd-order connections as I’m a former statistician and social scientist so we know some of the same people.

I can drop him a line if you’d like. I’m sure he’d be interested in the forum project, the demise of the proboards forum a few years ago was a topic we discussed at some length.

-Walt

It’s probably not any worse than trying to start a restaurant, in terms of the odds being against you. But the payoff is a lot lower.

The custom bike space, just like the general retail space for bikes, is always flooded with passion-project folks who are willing to work for nothing (not to mention the people who don’t know how to do even basic accounting and don’t realize they’re losing money), so unless you’re really lucky and/or clever, even really good builders are usually doomed.

I don’t want to be a jerk, but I’d bet that nobody currently on the forum (of the folks who sell bikes) will still be in business in 5 years (I’m not sure if I should count myself, since I’m only very slightly in business at this point).

-Walt

You’re technically retired right?

Having watched my parents run a successful business for most of my life, my point was that it is more work than most people are prepared to do.

One of the most important lessons learned from by backseat point of view is to have a plan to weather the hard times, they will come and sometimes often. If you just expect sunshine and roses, you’ve set yourself up for failure.

This is of course a generalization for starting any business and I fully understand and agree that framebuilding presents a number of additional challenges to attain true success.

I instructed at a road racing (motorcycles) school for a number of years, I would always tell my students that a successful racer is the one that breaks even each season, maybe for some in framebuilding that is the goal, and in that case, success comes a bit easier. But then that begs to questions, is that person a professional?

Yes, I’m retired. I do still build a few days a month and accept orders, so I suppose you could have a debate about whether that constitutes true “retirement”.

There’s nothing wrong with having a hobby that pays for itself and I think it’s fair to call yourself a “professional” at that stage.

That said, sooner or later doing a hobby for money tends to start feeling like work (once you’ve cut a few hundred miters, the bloom tends to be off the rose), and if you’re doing something that feels like work to break even or slowly sink, well, that won’t last long for most people.

Don Ferris and I had a longish conversation about this once and we concluded that the framebuilding world would be better off without the breakeven-for-a-while-and-then-quit cohort because they tend to suck the oxygen out of the room for folks who are really talented and trying to make a living, and they also tend to give framebuilding a bad name (“oh, your lifetime warranty was only good for the 2 years that dude was in business”, etc) . Unfortunately (I’m dating myself here) the general bike buying public thinks we’re all Matt Chester at this point.

For better or worse, though, there’s no real barrier to entry. So to succeed you have to survive competing with tons of people selling similar products at breakeven or a loss.

-Walt

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High churn is the expected outcome when the barrier to entry is low.

Maybe we need a union. :laughing:

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There have been several union/guild attempts over the years.

http://www.framebuildersguild.org/ is the most recent that I recall. I don’t remember how exactly it was going to work, I think they were inviting the initial members and then you could apply or something.

There’s a great thread where ATMO and company bicker about it on the V-salon forum, I’ll see if I can… yes:

-Walt

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I was being mostly facetious.

While unions have their places, I don’t think this is one of them.

At the end of the day the world of custom and handmade frames is a free market, anyone entering it should plan accordingly.

Moderator sliding in, to keep the thermostat set to cool :cold_face:

All these experiences are valuable, the seasoned pro, the newcomer, and the aspiring hobbiest.

I appreciate @anon91558591 perspective because he is one of the most experienced not afraid to dish out the truth!

As everyone rightfully points out, there are a lot of challenges framebuilding or any small business have to face. However, the nature of work, culture, and technology is always rapidly changing. I believe that there are avenues to make framebuilding sustainable as a full/part/hobby. This is one of the reasons why this forum was created: so we could have conversations to identify and solve these problems together.

This is also why people like Ben exist: to research, study, understand, and ultimately change these aspects of our society. @sizemore thanks for linking his blog! I’ll read up on it this weekend.

I will reach out to Ben and invite him to the forum, I would love to hear his perspective.

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Ben Brewer here–I actually just got on the forum after hearing Daniel’s interview on Shut Up and Build Bikes, though I’m thinking I should change my user ID here to reflect my real name!

Very interesting to see the forum idea come back up again as I share Daniel’s concerns about the limits of Instagram as a useful (and reliable) place for a community to emerge. And as a scholar, the idea that there could be durable archives of conversations is always appealing! One of the great tragedies of the very original phred email list from the early-00s (from which NAHBS actually emerged) was that the archive of that list was lost when the last remaining hard drive holding the full archive died.

I’m glad to see Walt share my data report, and much of what you all are talking about here are things I’ve still been working on–albeit too slowly (e.g. what constitutes “professional” in a field like this and why it might matter, efforts to organize builders in different eras of the trade).

I stopped paying for the dedicated-domain hosting for what had been my research “blog”–largely because I had used it so sporadically it was kind of embarrassing. But, then I never revised my university-hosted site to make the report available again…and seeing this discussion is giving me incentive to do so! I think the blog (such as it was) simply reverted to a wordpress site, so hopefully people can see it.

I’m still working on papers from this project (in fact, I just finished a revised one about the role of “work passion” in framebuilding and how it connects with these dynamics of low remuneration and underpricing of product–Walt had read an earlier version of this) and would like to be part of some of these conversations here on the forum. I had in mind with this MADE show coming up in August that I’d see if they were doing any “seminars” (like at Philly Bike Expo) and maybe I’d put something together for that.

In any event, I’m busy this weekend but will double back on this thread and chime in on a few things as well!

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When I took my framebuilding class the first thing Rob Gassie (Bing Bicycles) told me was that a framebuilding course wasn’t to learn how to build a bike, it was to learn whether you like it or not. Everyone posting here knows the woes and hard parts of building a bike, and how frustrating learning can be (especially when it is $ wasted).

For a year I was really intent on it being a nice business, maybe based in the country side, with trails on my property… none of that happened, because I moved somewhere I actually want to live. We lucked out, we moved back to our home province of Quebec and live two blocks away from the busiest Conservation park in the country with some elite level trails. We were lucky enough to buy a home with a detached shop that I spent 8 months renovating.

There isn’t a ton of competition from other framebuilders in Canada. We all know each other, and we almost all live in different provinces, hundreds, or thousands of KM away from each other. In the Cobra podcast with Rolling Dale Cycles, Dale talks about how Canadian framebuilders don’t really compete with each other because we have local relevance.

Daniel Schon has set up a great framebuilding program in Squamish. Many people where I live have noticed it and have inquired about framebuilding classes with me. I won’t proclaim myself as an elite level builder, or really even an expert, but it’s an example of how Canada framebuilders differ from American ones in terms of business. Daniel Schon’s class is the only one in Canada currently.

I’ve set aside my aspirations of framebuilding being my ~job~ and decided to enjoy it for what it means to me. I make about 10 bikes a year and I’m happy with that. I’m finishing a diploma in programming and have work lined up in that field that pays really well, I work from home, and I only do 30h a week. Path Less Pedaled has a great video with Swood Cycles where he talks about the same thing, he works 10-15 hours contracting programming work and does Swood the rest of the time. To me, this is the sweet spot. I don’t have to tear my hair out trying to make it work, I can just subsidize what I want to do with my programming work.

This mentality has come from finishing a Bachelor’s of Music and working as a professional Orchestral musician, burning out from low paying gigs, declining my paid Masters and PhD, and harassment from Orchestra employees demanding that I accept bad pay because of the ‘passion’.

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I think (without hopefully putting words in Ben’s mouth) that’s what he’s so fascinated by - the idea that “work” isn’t necessarily about making money, but about self-actualization.

For old guys like me (I’m 46, so solidly Gen-X) the idea is weird, because I was raised with the sort of bone-stock Protestant ethic idea that work isn’t something enjoyable, but it’s necessary and somehow makes you a better person to suffer through. I’m not sure that’s entirely a healthy mindset, though.

I do wonder if the work-as-self-actualization idea is dependent on not having children (to be clear: no judgement here) since without kids (most builders don’t seem to have them) your financial needs and responsibilities are much less pressing. Add in a spouse who works outside the home and it would be crazy to make yourself miserable trying to scrape up every dollar. Hence the free-hobby model, which if taken to it’s logical extreme would be a sort of post-capitalist/minimalist society model where everyone does stuff they enjoy and presumably robots do the trash pickup and such. Sounds pretty good!

Are there folks who do the semi-pro part time building thing long term, Ben? Of the (again, old guys) I know who have been in business long term (say, 10+ years) they’re all full-time or close to it.

-Walt

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I’ve met and talked to a lot of builders over the years and @anon91558591 is definitely one of the exceptions not the rule. I mean seriously…he is retiring before 50 having built frames for 20-ish years and has never been to NAHBS… He is just smart in how he does it, he can somehow whip out not-so-easy-to-make frames in a short amount of time and limit customer interaction to only what is needed. He is frugal, he doesn’t buy the latest and greatest tooling, or another machine to parse out the process, he’s been using the same tools and machinery since he started and found ways to adapt. He is a great example of how to be successful as a one-person framebuilder.

On the other hand, having tried to make this my primary job for 10 years I can now say that I’ve failed. I have successfully made my customers happy but not myself or my bank account. I have a good work ethic, stubborn and driven, but I spend too much time figuring out how to do weird things that I should have said “no” to. I spend too much time on email with customers. I’m not good at saying “no” and charging what I need to make a profit. It’s hard to know how much to charge when you don’t know how long it’ll take you to build the frame when every frame is different. It’s not easy or even possible to charge what you need to, especially if you need to create or purchase new tooling &/or fixtures to make it happen.

Seems like the most successful business model for US handmade framebuilders is making stock frames with custom tweaks and offering custom finishwork so those bikes look good in photos on Instagram. Bikes that have a custom look and feel but have a streamlined process and only a little customer interaction. I’ve leaned that although my queue is full each year of customers wanting to co-design their next dream bike, there are many many more people out there that just want a nice bike and they want trust the builder to make it great for them.

Talking to @Daniel_Y lately and learning what he and @Neuhaus_Metalworks have created and how many bikes they’ve built and sold…it’s awesome. I didn’t think it possible a relatively newer builder could sell that many frames in a year! I’d like to hear more success stories like this.

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The best thing @Daniel_Y and I did was clearly define what was out of scope knowing that we would inevitably turn away a percentage of potential work with understanding that it meant we would be able to build a better product for our target customers. Just like everything in life, you have to have boundaries.

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@anon91558591 This is indeed something I’ve been intrigued by–especially in this academic paper I’m re-submitting for review in the next week. Or, what I should say is that the idea of having “work passion” (seeing work as a space for self-actualization that reflects not only a love of the work but also a reflection of one’s “true” self) is surprisingly prevalent across many different categories of work and workers. And, a field like framebuilding seems like “peak” work passion in many ways–but, more broadly, self-employment in micro-enterprise is increasingly framed this way in the larger culture. As folks here know from experience (and I see @Meriwether speaking to this as well as I’m typing this!), the downside of a “passion-driven” field is that there is steady supply of new entrants putting downward pressure on pricing, lots of turnover, and lots of builders who remain in that kind of “in-between” zone–not true full-timers charging enough to make a living, but still visible and in the market. I’ll be happy to share the longer-form version of the argument when I can get the paper published, too!

That in-between zone is what makes this…

…hard to fully pin down. Certainly the dedicated, high-quality part-time builder with other line of work/profession seems like one pathway. Frankly–and this gets more speculative because most people don’t to talk about this given the general taboo against talking about money/wealth–I think there are also plenty of seemingly full-time folks (even some pretty famous ones) who just can’t really be living their visible lifestyle (based on cost of housing, travel, etc.) on framebuilding alone–even, that is, if it constitutes their full-time work. This is where family money/wealth might come into play, or perhaps the good fortune of some other (non-generalizable) windfall, etc.

It does feel to me like the era of the one-person artisan shop making totally bespoke product (the early NAHBS-type “model”) peaked a number of years ago and was always difficult to sustain for the majority of people pursuing it.

As @Meriwether is also mentioning, there is also what feels to me like a “next wave” of builders who are very intentionally and explicitly pursuing strategies of batch building, limited product runs with “drops” on social media, more standardized models that scare off customers with big dreams for super customized product, etc. Sometimes this also is combined with a more intentional approach to treating framebuilding as a part-time (even if serious/professional) endeavor, coupled with a “day job” for which they might also have some passion.

And, bringing this back to the “work passion” frame, what I find interesting with builders like this is how they situate framebuilding within their life and household more broadly as being part of a passion-drive life. That is, instead of pursuing the “artisan in a shop making custom works of art” as THE path to self-fulfillment and actualization, they see well-managed and profitable…but part-time…framebuilding as one component of a larger passion-driven life, with multiple sources of income coming into the household, with a spouse/partner pursuing this strategy as well.

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