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Does it violate Massachusetts regulations to have your nails painted in an empty conference room at work?

A startup that dispatches manicurists to offices in Boston and other cities is attracting scrutiny from the Massachusetts board that licenses cosmetologists and nail salons. At issue: whether it’s legal — and fair — for New York-based Manicube to offer manicures outside a licensed nail salon.

In Massachusetts, manicures must be done in a licensed salon as a way of ensuring safe and hygienic conditions. The investigation by the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Cosmetology, prompted by complaints from salon owners, is the latest tussle between regulators and startups taking new approaches to established industries, similar to the ride service Uber in transportation or home-sharing network Airbnb in hospitality.

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The people who work for Manicube are licensed manicurists, but they perform manicures in about 50 corporate offices around Boston as a convenience to employees. Sometimes, the $15 manicures are covered by employers as a perk, and sometimes they’re paid for by employees.

In a letter obtained by the Globe, the cosmetology board told Manicube officials that “they are in violation of state regulations” and the board would determine whether to impose fines or take other actions after an investigation. Amie O’Hearn, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, declined to comment.

Founded by two alumnae of Harvard Business School, Manicube launched its services in Boston last fall. The goal was to help working women use their time more efficiently, while also building a salon-type business without real estate and other overhead costs. Companies can invite a manicurist in on a weekly or monthly basis, using free space like a conference room or workout facility. Customers can sign up for Manicube’s services and pay using the company’s website.

Manicube cofounder Elizabeth Whitman said the Massachusetts rules are outdated and, if strictly interpreted, would prevent practices such as a bridal party having hair, makeup, and nails done in a home or hotel before a wedding. Whitman said the company hopes to work with regulators to modernize rules that don’t consider “new, innovative models that perform services outside of a brick-and-mortar salon.”

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For instance, rather than sterilizing implements, Whitman said, Manicube’s manicurists use disposable ones.

But salon owners said services such as Manicube’s should have to follow the same rules they do. Among those who filed complaints with the cosmetology board was Conan Owen, co-owner of Virginia-based Relax & Rejuvenate, which offers mobile spa services to hotels in 16 cities nationwide.

Owen said that his company offered manicures at hotels in Boston about a decade ago, but had to stop when the regulators cracked down. “I didn’t know it was illegal,” he said.

Owen said he still gets requests “from private individuals and companies wanting us to do nail services in Boston. And we tell them we can’t.”

Boston salon managers said they devote significant time and money to comply with state regulations on ventilation, tool sterilization, and other measures. They also must undergo regular inspections to ensure salons meet requirements for first aid kits and eye wash stations, said Christine Haddad, the spa and nail director at G20 Spa & Salon in Boston.

“I don’t see how they could regulate that if you are performing manicures in a few dozen different offices around the city,” Haddad said.

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Christine Perkins, owner of Pyara Salon in Cambridge, said it’s unfair to have a competitor that doesn’t have to jump through the same hoops. Her business pays more than $30,000 a month to rent its Harvard Square site, she said, and when she moves to a new location nearby next month, she’ll need approval from the cosmetology board to open.

“They’re going to look at my floor plans, the sinks, the utensils I use, and sanitation,” Perkins said.

To a degree, the nail salon controversy echoes the battle between Uber and the taxi industry.

Uber enables people to use a mobile app to request and pay for a ride, relying on a network of drivers using their own cars. Taxi drivers complain that Uber undercuts them because its drivers aren’t subject to the same licensing, rules, and associated costs. Some cities, such as Cambridge, have considered imposing new regulations on ride-sharing services.

In April, Manicube raised $5 million in venture capital, most of it from Bain Capital Ventures, an arm of the Boston investment firm. Scott Friend, a managing director at Bain who led the investment, said in an e-mail that his firm recognized that Manicube’s business model could create conflicts with existing rules, but “that ultimately, regulators will latch onto what matters most — consumer protection based on better hygienic standards and worker protection based on hygiene, work environment, and compensation.”

Two of the three states in which Manicube operates, New York and Illinois, don’t have similar restrictions. But the company’s planned launch in California has attracted the notice of that state’s Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, which said Manicube’s service would be prohibited there.

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Helen Peveri, who retired last month as executive director of the Massachusetts cosmetology board, said regulators are considering changes to manicure rules.

“The public wants more services and more availability, like mobile salons for example, and all that is being discussed,” she said.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.