After a few months of chatting with different manufacturers it became clear that I had to be on-site to properly verify the materials used. Something as simple as 'light grey linen' would yield completely unpredictable results from the various agents.
The run I was going to do was fairly small -- about 3000 or so --- so it didn't make sense for me to travel. Instead I shelved the project.
Regardless, for items with any sort of customization, I can only imagine that its nightmare after nightmare as the client (me) aims to get the ideal product, while the manufacturer tries to maximize profit (etc.)
Prior to this experience I never considered backing a Kickstarter project, but now that I've gone through the most basic level, I'm not surprised with the amount of projects that fail due to location and language barriers.
Presumably they decided what was in their backers interests vs fighting inside a foreign system that they'd likely have no say in.
This, in concert with the fact that the factory has agreed to give it a second shot, makes that scenario unlikely. For a factory owner in the business of scamming people, it would be far easier just to back out than suddenly start operating like a legitimate business once your scapegoat got busted.
Before commenting on this update
As we wrote at the start of this update, it contains some sensitive information and we're a little hesitant about posting it. In order to be able to post this publicly, we've got to set a few ground rules.
It's perfectly ok to post comments telling us that we were naive and too trusting. We're well aware.
Please do NOT post any comments or speculation about the identity of our account manager or factory or their motivations. Doing so may limit our ability to share details with you in the future. And we really want to be able to share details with you in the future.
"please do not speculate about motivations"
this is important. it makes the factory look bad, and in china that is an insult. doing that is not helpful for their relationship.
(Also I suspect the upper limit sentence for this kind of crime may be the death penalty ... probably not for $100k of private money, but you never know)
Our story was a bit different. We first got to know about factories through a hardware service provider and consultant firm. We decided to continue with two well-known factories, one for molding and the other for pcb and assembly. At some point, we paid $9k to start the final injection. Our project manager in the molding factory made up a story that their email were hacked and someone had intercepted the invoices and that we had paid to a wrong account! He knew we could not follow up the story as we were under pressure and investigating the issue could delay the production for at least a year.
We paid again, this time with a lot of double confirmations in each step. A lot more problems occurred after that. The final quality of the product was different from what we expected and from what we controlled in the factory. So we did not continue with them.
These factories have no control over their staff. There should be multiple points of contact to avoid these problems. Overall, hardware is hard and manufacturing in china is even harder.
Cost and time are the killer, though. To manufacture a simple electronic product in the US could easily double the lead time compared to a Chinese manufacturer and tooling costs might be 2 to 10x. Per-part cost really depends on what it is you're making and how much hand assembly is required.
My industry is much more concerned with quality and predictability than cost, so choosing US (or European) manufacturers hasn't been a hard choice. But for consumer products, I'm not surprised that the math doesn't work out.
That will be a red flag for me from the start. hardware service providers, consulting firms, and auditors making money on naive Western entrepreneurs are quite often big crooks themselves.
It is the same story with companies in financial space being forced to pay 10x premium to get just anything done on software front because they have near zero internal expertise, and they have no alternative to following whatever crooked colluding consultants say them to buy.
If you were homed on the moulding factory by a consultant, there is a big chance that he himself was in share with them.
I myself, I never had any issue ever on that front. Never place the whole order. Look for mid-sized contractors with a track record and cultivate your own relationship with them. Prioritise ones with shorter lead times, and ones pitching on their ability to handle design changes, and expertise on work with different materials.
The paragraph above is what people in Shenzhen charge $1000 and more in consulting fees (hourly.)
In our case, we had to get help from experts to setup contracts and relations between parties. We naively thought everyone is responsible for their part. But it seems they can easily fool customers ;)
The only answer other than "you don't" is that you learn, people don't become electronics magnates without spending a career in the industry.
As for Americans, it is even tougher for them, as they have close to no experience in modern manufacturing to mentally to superimpose on things in China.
One can probably become Mark Zukerberg with just really a lot of luck, but nobody becomes Duan Yongping without spending his entire youth on assembly line
I've been extremely impressed with Jesse and Kaia's transparency throughout the whole process. I'm sure they will come out on top of this.
* The 'fn' buttons under the palm are super ergonomic. They make the lack of physical function keys a non-issue. Which leads to:
* vi-style arrow keys everywhere! Just hit 'fn'!
* Modifier keys under the thumbs took a little while to get used to, but are so much more comfortable in the long run.
* Frequently used keys like 'Return', 'Tab', and 'Esc' are under your strong index fingers. Can't tell you how much better my pinkies feel between this and the previously mentioned modifiers being under the thumb.
* Curly and square brackets are very close to the home row. You just press 'fn' and they are right above the fingers of your right hand.
* Individually sculpted keycaps aren't a gimmick; they really make it much easier to find where your hands go.
In addition to those features:
* Matias keyswitches have long been my favorites.
* It has high quality wooden enclosures and cool programmable LEDs that really look great and stand out in the office. (Could be a con if you don't like the attention)
* Open source! Need I say more?
On top of that, it's been fascinating to read Jesse and Kaia's blog throughout the entire process. They are extremely responsive to questions and comments. You can tell they really have a passion for this product.
Note: there have been several loosely similar keyboards. Both the Esrille folks and the keyboardio folks were inspired by some of the same sources, such as the English Maltron from the 1970s and the Japanese TRON project from the late 80s–early 90s. e.g. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/TRON-Key...
(And of course both are directed by human hand anatomy.)
But it is not accurate to claim that the Esrille was a primary inspiration for keyboardio.
> non-standard switches
There is no “standard” type of keyswitches.
Matias keyswitches are fantastic, I've never heard of anyone calling them "non-standard" or "cheap". They are a recreation of the classic ALPS keyswitches used in early Apple and IBM keyboards.
I have one of each, but I generally prefer the quiet ones.
I used the Matias Ergo Pro with the Quiet Click switches pretty much exclusively before I got my Model 01, so I was already very used to that style of switch when I first got the board.
There is a good reason most companies who choose to manufacture in China tend to co-locate a person within the manufacturer's facility.
It should be, but for as long as "just source it from Alibaba" remains a recipe for quick buck that works 90% of times, the SV startuper types will keep doing so, and such stories will keep repeating.
You can outsource many things, but you can't reliably outsource communication.
As soon as there were any issues with the payments and shipping, the owner of the factory should have been involved, even if he doesn't speak English, a translated email or WeChat message will be good enough to get the ball rolling.
This is another example of why I would never support a hardware project on Kickstarter, building stuff in China is hard, and it is nearly impossible to know whether the company you are "pre-ordering" from has any experience in Chinese manufacturing. They got lucky that it was all able to be sorted out, but it shouldn't have ever gotten to this point.
I backed this keyboard (received mine months ago!) and have met Jesse and Kaia: they're good people trying to run an honest business. I'm glad I got to back this hardware project on Kickstarter, I didn't "pre-order" anything but rather took a risk on a product and on people who wouldn't have had a chance otherwise.
These are some of the most important things I've learned dealing with (and being burnt by) Chinese manufacturers. Always have multiple contacts at a company that you maintain a relationship with, and never accept dealing through an intermediary. If the intermediary is being cut in for introducing you, so be it, but always have direct contacts at the factory (even in North America).
Whether or not the people running the project are good people doing the best they can is irrelevant. Based on my personal experiences with manufacturing facilities (especially in Asia), and the low level of real experience behind the vast majority of Kickstarters, I simply don't trust any project to actually be successful.
That is in stark contrast to Chinese ran Kickstarter-like campaigns. Alibaba backed kickstarter clone keeps stamping successful startups one after another, and Chinese companies themselves are some of the best performers on the original Kickstarter
Is this a cultural thing? Why were people in the factory lending her money? So weird.
it is a cultural thing to build more personal relationships in china, and especially with superiors in your or other companies that can potentially help you later.
None of their drivers/guides/factory workers with high school english were able to tell them something was wrong? They never offered to take the owner out to lunch and discuss the issues?
They say day 1278 that's an over 3 year relationship, it boggles the mind they were no naive and dependent on one person.
chinese treat customers and especially foreigners very politely. a chinese person might have noticed something off, but without understanding chinese and being very familiar with chinese culture, you or i would not be able to tell.
That's a recipe for tanking a deal...
Looks very cool though!
I've never seen this KS project but it looks interesting.
Disclaimer: The keyboard layout is different, and it will take some time to adjust. I think it's worth it, but be forewarned.
Also, hi Phillip! High five!
I'm just using a Razor mechanical keyboard at the moment, keep the quiet one at home and the noisy one at work to bug my co-workers.. Always worried about going Ergo keyboard incase it's too difficult for me.
I'm not a business expert and am probably oversimplifying this. Corrections or a better explanation is welcome.
And, of course, there's a sampling bias at work: even very experienced commercial users of Chinese ODMs have these stories. They just don't write them up publicly for everyone else to learn from.
The real takeaway is that these founders seemed happy to simply have an account manager "who had influence within the company", "spoke english"... A good scammer gives you what you want. If you are building hardware, you should not want to be able to outsource such an important aspect of your business.
Take for example "we sent 20 defective units back so they could study and improve xyz". It turned out they were in an unopened box. I don't get how they didn't follow up to work on why they were defective, what is being done, and the lessons learnt. Just saying "nobody speaks chinese" is just a plain lazy out.
The founders seem genuinely nice and passionate, but they have to get their heads out of their aes. They really should NOT be looking for a middle person because there is so much to learn by directly working with relevant people in a factory. It's a really bad sign for people who buy these keyboards to know that the actual manufacturing part- where quality control is done etc, is not a priority.
(For the record, I have no kind of relationship to Keyboardio.)
I also don't get this logic: "On the other hand, Kaia pointed out to Jesse the other night that this actually makes her more confident about our ability to manufacture products in China in the future."
Nevertheless, running a small business is hard. I don't judge them too harshly. When you are small potatoes, you also deal with other small potatoes who could be incompetent (the factory owner is also blame here). You also don't have the resources to micro-manage (ie. have someone in China all the time).
The logic here is that, despite being lied to by a trusted account manager, they shipped all of their promised products, at very high quality. They have made continued software updates for years, much better than either Kickstarters or other project's I've purchased: https://github.com/keyboardio/
If you follow their updates, they've made many trips to China, despite having a newborn baby and running a new company.
- Jesse and Kaia had considerable difficulty manufacturing and shipping the products this update is about (a keyboard with parts from multiple factories, and additional accessories for it)
- They managed to do it anyway, with a lot of effort on their part.
- It turns out there was actually a person working against them, and not all of the problems they met occured "naturally".
- Without such an antagonist in the future, it should be easier to pull off the same result.
in addition, given how that account manager made them look to the factory, the factory owner showed incredible patience and good will and vice versa. such people are exactly the ones you do want to work with, especially in china.
factory and keyboard.io people likely bonded over the experience leading to a better cooperation in the future.