Noncompetes are the wrong gear for boutique bike makers
Except for all the welding, custom-building titanium bikes is like many other fields: There’s no one place you can go to gain the necessary expertise, and doing your best work often means changing employers or striking out on your own.
Tyler Evans, 41, a founder of Firefly Bicycles in Dorchester, studied sculpture at MassArt. While in school, he worked as a bike mechanic, and then got hired at Merlin Metalworks, which at the time was based in Cambridge. There, and later at Independent Fabrication in Somerville, he learned on the job how to design and build bicycle frames. “Making thousands of bikes,” says Evans, “teaches you how to make bikes.”
His cofounder, Jamie Medeiros, 47, used to be a bike messenger. He, too, worked at “Indy Fab” for years and figured out the business step by step. In late 2010, when their employer announced a move to New Hampshire, he and Evans, along with coworker Kevin Wolfson, decided to launch their own boutique bike company.
Crucially, nobody stopped them.
How free should workers be to switch employers, or start their own companies, within their chosen fields? In a knowledge-based economy, this is an urgent question. Massachusetts legislators are once again considering whether to invalidate so-called noncompete clauses — contractual language prohibiting workers at a given company from taking a new job with a competitor.
Supporting the status quo are large, mature tech firms, such as Hopkinton-based data-storage giant EMC, that fear losing their trade secrets and the investments they’ve made in training workers. Opponents include entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who say noncompetes discourage start-ups, turn go-getters into joyless lifers, and fuel an exodus to California, where noncompetes aren’t enforceable.
In Boston’s boutique bicycle industry — where the price of a single two-wheeler can easily reach five figures — the vibe is more casual, and talent has moved around more freely. The blurred lines between competition and collaboration have turned the region into a miniature Silicon Valley for a dynamic little industry.
A chart online shows how the seminal New England bike makers of yesteryear have given rise to new firms — Fat City yielded Seven, by way of Merlin. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake this genealogy for a family tree of rock bands. Some of these personnel shifts occurred when established companies moved or changed ownership. But this tumult helped the region develop rich talent networks and an environment ripe for on-the-job learning.
Historically, many trades perpetuated themselves through apprenticeship; when established artisans hired younger assistants, they knew they were training potential competitors. Today, companies in a variety of industries take a less generous approach, indiscriminately demanding noncompetes even from sandwich-makers, summer-camp counselors, and other entry-level employees.
Noncompete clauses exist in the high-end bike world, too. Bob Parlee, founder of Parlee Cycles in Beverly, says he asks key employees to sign them. A former boat maker, he works in carbon fiber. His operation is much larger than Firefly’s — whose owners say they understand why he uses noncompetes. While the knowledge of how to make bikes out of metal is widely diffused, Medeiros says, building carbon-fiber frames requires much more complex engineering up front.
Still, Parlee voices some hesitation about noncompetes. In a passion-driven industry, how hard should small firms cling to employees who’d rather move on? Parlee wants his company to grow. “I want to give these people a place where they’re excited to come to work,” he says of his 27 employees. “That’s as important as designing bikes.”
Opponents of noncompetes say beefed-up protections for trade secrets could satisfy employers’ legitimate concerns. In the meantime, argues venture capitalist Paul Maeder, Massachusetts is putting itself at risk. “If a tree could prevent any other saplings from growing around it, that tree could get very, very large,” he says. “When the tree grows up and dies, all you have is a dead tree in a desert.”
Silicon Valley, he believes, is a forest where older companies and the new ones they’ve spawned all protect one another.
Similarly, Boston’s boutique bike industry is an extended family. Theoretically rivals, Parlee and Firefly’s owners are on good terms. They don’t use the same materials, so the two companies will never fight over welders. They’ve created different business models and found different niches.
The upside of this fluid ecosystem is evident when the guys at Firefly get down to work making bikes. They’re doing what they love and freely practicing a craft that they’ve spent decades learning.