Office manicure startup Manicube under scrutiny from Mass. regulators

Photo courtesy Manicube.
Photo courtesy Manicube.

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, New York, and Chicago is attracting scrutiny from the Massachusetts board that licenses cosmetologists and nail salons. At issue: whether it’s kosher for Manhattan-based Manicube to offer manicures outside of a licensed nail salon. This is the latest tussle between regulators and a startup taking a new approach to an established industry, similar to Uber in transportation or Airbnb in hospitality.

The Division of Professional Licensure’s regs in Massachusetts seem to clearly state that “all ‘cosmetology’ services…if offered for pay, must be performed in a licensed salon by licensed personnel only.” The part-time employees who get assignments from Manicube are registered manicurists, but they perform the 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 individual employees.

According to a document provided to BetaBoston, the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Cosmetology has informed Manicube’s attorney that “they are in violation of state regulations, but a written notice will be issued once investigation is complete and the matter is brought before the Board to determine if fines or other action other than a [cease and desist] order will be issued.” Amie O’Hearn, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Consumer Affairs, said she couldn’t comment on any investigation.

One of the complainants is Conan Owen, co-owner of Virginia-based Relax & Rejuvenate, which offers mobile spa services to hotels in 16 cities around the US. Owen says that his company offered manicures at hotels in Boston about a decade ago. “I didn’t know it was illegal,” he says. “We had to withdraw the services.” Owen says that he still gets requests “from private individuals and companies wanting us to do nail services in Boston. And we tell them we can’t.” (Two of the three states in which Manicube currently operates, New York and Illinois, don’t have similar restrictions.)

This past April, Manicube raised $5 million in venture capital, most of it from Boston’s Bain Capital Ventures. Scott Friend, a managing director at Bain who led the investment, wrote via e-mail that, “As with many other disruptive new business models that are objectively better for consumers and workers (like Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, etc…), there are often hurdles in local markets based on outdated regulations. We knew this would be the case with Manicube when we invested and continue to trust 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.”

Three Boston salon managers with whom I spoke weren’t familiar with Manicube, but all said they devote significant time and money complying with state regulations about ventilation, tool sterilization, and eye wash stations. “There’s a lot of work that goes into making sure that you’re complying,” says Tiffany Amorosino, co-founder of Bella Sante Day Spa.

Could the Board of Registration of Cosmetology decide to make changes to its rules? Helen Peveri, who retired last month as the board’s executive director, says that “the board is looking at some different options. The public wants more services and more availability, like mobile salons for example, and all that is being discussed.”

Manicube co-founder Elizabeth Whitman said via e-mail that current regulations in Massachusetts do not allow for “new, innovative models that perform services outside of a brick-and-mortar salon. A strict interpretation would prevent even everyday occurrences — like bridal parties having their hair, makeup, and nails done in a home or hotel.” Whitman points out that the implements used by Manicube’s contractors are disposable, and so they don’t require sterilization between uses. She says that the company plans to “work cooperatively with the regulatory boards to modernize the regulations.” Whitman and co-founder Katina Mountanos both previously worked at Quidsi, an e-commerce company that was acquired by in 2011.

Manicube hasn’t yet launched in San Francisco, but the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology is already aware of the company’s plans. (Manicube has posted several jobs in the city, and an e-mail I received over the summer said the company had planned to launch there in September.) Kristy Underwood, executive officer of the California board, says that “we don’t have any proof that they’re operating, but our understanding is that they’re looking to open. The type of service that they’re providing wouldn’t be allowed.” If Manicube did start operations in California, Underwood says her agency would issue a cease and desist letter, and that Manicube would be subject to a $1000 fine.

I wrote about Manicube’s Boston launch last year.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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