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Keyboardio Kickstarter Day 1278: A startling discovery (kickstarter.com)
192 points by paulannesley on Dec 16, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 85 comments

A few years ago I was going to start a line of thick notebooks, 5mm lines on the right, and 5mm grid on the right. There were some other simple features --- and if all went to plan it would have been nice.

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.

This is the general mantra of Bunnie Huang's book The Hardware Hacker. He goes into lots of detail on why you need to be on-site, all the things you can expect to go wrong/get misinterpreted, and red flags when shopping factories. It's a really captivating read if you're interested in the minutiae of hardware manufacturing.

Quite a few negative comments in this thread. Shouldn't the attitude be: very good job on the transparency front!! Everything else doesn't matter -- or rather, it does (filling all tge orders, etc.), but the high morals I find most interesting in this case.

I wish they had called the police. Apparently they chose not to because the penalties are severe? That's ridiculous, she deserves a hefty jail sentence.

Right, but if the choice came down to: Call the police and have her punished, or actually get the products shipped, factory still working with them and potentially some of the money not lost?

Presumably they decided what was in their backers interests vs fighting inside a foreign system that they'd likely have no say in.

I wouldn't be surprised if the "owner" was on it together with the account manager or that other dodgy things are going on that would have been discovered by LE.

> The factory agreed in writing that we own all the tooling we've paid for and that they will make it available for us to move to another factory if we want to.

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.

But is he really an owner?

at the end of the original post is this statement:

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.

They chose not to because they felt the chance of getting a positive resolution was lower if they proceeded with criminal charges instead of civil.

I can understand a foreigner not relying on the Chinese police; you never know if you might be dealing with organised crime, in which case this will just make your life worse. Especially if the factory decided not to get the police involved.

(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)

I have a similar experience manufacturing a kickstarter hardware in China. Although we could ship with a few months of delay, we lost $9k.

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.

Are there any better choices for manufacturing stateside? From what I can tell, not only is manufacturing stateside much more difficult and expensive, often times factories don’t want small business.

I've worked in product development consulting for over a decade, and I wouldn't say stateside manufacturing is more difficult -- quite the opposite really for many of the reasons mentioned in other comments. There are plenty of small molding, machining, PCB, etc. shops across the country who would love to work on these kinds of low-volume jobs.

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.

> We first got to know about factories through a hardware service provider and consultant firm.

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.)

I believe that was not the case, at least for us. They simply helped us find factories we needed and they were not part of the process after. We were lucky that we had friends in HWTrek. They helped us a lot to resolve the issues.

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 ;)

How do you start if you have no contacts or expertise in this space? I'm seriously asking because I was trying to source something way simpler than a keyboard - a couple thousand meters of simple brass chain in spools - for months without luck.

> How do you start if you have no contacts or expertise in this space?

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 backed Keyboardio in the initial round of funding, and now use the Model 01 every day. It is truly an incredible product!

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.

Would you mind elaborating on what makes it different from any other programmable, mechanical split keyboard?

I've had RSI issues for a few years now, and I've tried a whole lot of split mechanical keyboards. I've found others I like, but there are a couple of "killer" Model 01 features that will keep me from going back to any other board:

* 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.

The Model 01 improves upon its inspiration, the Esrille, but has wobbly, non-standard switches and the keycaps feel cheap. The open source community built up around the hardware is the real asset.

> its inspiration, the Esrille

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.

I could not disagree more. I bought one after the Kickstarter, and the hardware is very high quality.

Same here. If you think there may have been QC issues with your board, reach out to Jesse and Kaia and they will take care of you.

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.

Although I am overall happy with my Keyboardio, I must say the Matias keyswitches have been a bit of a disappointment. They're okay, but don't feel quite as nice, to me, as actual ALPS — I still have a working Kinesis Evolution that I use frequently, so I can compare them directly — or as Cherry switches. I wish they'd gone with Cherry.

Do you use the quiet ones, or the clicky ones?

I have one of each, but I generally prefer the quiet ones.

I originally ordered two with the Quiet Click switches, but when my first one arrived I wasn't that taken with them, so I asked Jesse to change my second one to the Click switches. But those were even worse; some of the keys were sticky. There was eventually an update from Keyboardio (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/keyboardio/the-model-01...) about the problems with the Click switches, but before that came out, I decided to try converting the Click keyboard to the Quiet Linear switches, as described by someone on the forum. I do like the Quiet Linear better; I think they're almost as good as anything else. However, I have also noticed that I dislike the Quiet Click less than I originally did; I think they've loosened up a bit with use. (The problem I had with them was that there was a bit of friction in the travel; not enough to make the key stick, but enough to make them less pleasant to type on.)

Do you have a link to the forum post about the Quiet Linear mod? I'd be interested in checking that out.

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.

Honestly this should be required reading for anyone who's motto is "just source it from Alibaba."

There is a good reason most companies who choose to manufacture in China tend to co-locate a person within the manufacturer's facility.

> Honestly this should be required reading for anyone who's motto is "just source it from Alibaba."

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.

My takeaway from this article: anyone who's planning to manufacture products in China should have at least a few employees who are fluent in Chinese.

You can outsource many things, but you can't reliably outsource communication.

From their website: Keyboardio is Jesse and Kaia. Having a few employees who speak Chinese would be more than their employee count.

Agreed. It's easy to be held hostage when you can't ask around to verify what you're hearing. Someone taking this endeavor seriously should work on learning Chinese, or just charge more and manufacture stateside.

Most of these problems read as someone that didn't do their due diligence when it came to auditing the factory and getting all the required information about the business before engaging with them in business.

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.

As I understand it, they were talking to someone they believed to be a representative of the factory the whole time. When the story is laid out, after the fact, it's easy to see that someone is being scammed. But the reason scams work is that it's not so easy to see it from the inside. I wonder if you would expect the same, that the owner of an American business personally contact you and cut their own account manager out of the loop at the first problem, if the factory weren't Chinese. Because that's not how it works, there are account managers and explicit points of contact because there's roughly always issues to be ironed out.

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.

In China you have your main contact in sales, who this account manager was, but they are relatively limited in what they can do for you other than liaise between you and the other employees that may or may not speak English. Some of the time, you end up stonewalled because of the limited responsibility they have, as well as wanting to save face. In these cases, you often have to reach out to the owner or the factory manager and have a conversation to "re-align your expectations". It is amazing what a quick conversation on WeChat (which automatically translates) with someone can do that even weeks of emailing couldn't do.

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.

> 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

I've actually never looked into whether there are Kickstarter equivalents in China. It wouldn't surprise me if they were much more successful. Just knowing the business culture of the country makes you significantly more likely to succeed. Also, there is really nowhere else on the planet quite like the Shenzhen area when it comes to supporting new business.

> When Jesse told him a bit about what was going on, he revealed that a couple months back, our account manager had called him up to say that she was travelling internationally, had lost her wallet and needed him to loan her some money so that she could get a flight home. When Jesse asked if he’d paid, the wood supplier said that he told her that it was wildly inappropriate to be asking a suppliers for personal loans, and that she ought to ask a close friend or family member instead. He may be the only person in this whole story who didn’t get conned by our account manager.

Is this a cultural thing? Why were people in the factory lending her money? So weird.

she was a colleague and (at least indirectly) a superior.

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.

I find it amazing that they visited the factory multiple times and didn't notice this. They never spoke to anyone/took a meeting with the owner who hadn't been paid? They never noticed anything unusual in the way they were treated as "broke/deadbeats"?

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.

> They never noticed anything unusual in the way they were treated as "broke/deadbeats"?

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.

It would have been a terrible move politically -- if you actually did that, even in a good business relationship it'd look like you were trying to cut the account manager out of the deal.

That's a recipe for tanking a deal...

I'm working in an engineering consultancy in Shenzhen, feel free to have a mini-AMA with me.

Here's a thought. Manufacture in the US. Given the losses that they are having this would have saved a lot of hassle and it probably would have cost the same for the size of runs that they are doing. Kinesis makes the Advantage in the US because the volumes are not high enough to produce them overseas.

Just a comment - I would be completely unable to use this board. I think the angle of the two halves of your board is way too steep.

Looks very cool though!

Good lesson for all. Sad that you found out through first-hand experience.

Does anyone here on HN have the keyboard? Did you go from a traditional keyboard to the split one? How is it?

I've never seen this KS project but it looks interesting.

I have one. I went from a Microsoft Sculpt Ergo keyboard to this one. I loved the Sculpt, but like this better. I'm typing on it now. It feels really nice to type on, the key press feels nice, and I'm happy that I can customize the keyboard layout via simple Arduino programming.

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!

A STALKER! Haha. 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.

What's the disadvantage of using an American factory? Too expensive?

As far as I understand, the advantage of Chinese production is their network of subcontractors. If they need a custom screw, they can order it from the factory next door and have 10k delivered that afternoon.

If they'd take the business at all

Why not? Isn't there an outcry for more American-made products? Aren't factories closing down because jobs are being outsourced to places like China? I know Keyboardio's products won't save hundreds of jobs, but they could try looking at the U.S., a place where a language barrier is almost non-existent, before trusting someone thousands of miles away.

I'm not a business expert and am probably oversimplifying this. Corrections or a better explanation is welcome.


This is both unnecessarily unkind, and inaccurate: keyboardio seems like a successful use of Kickstarter to me, even with these issues. They have produced and distributed product to their backers which delivers on their promises as far as I can tell.

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.

They shipped after about two and a half years of excuses, so now their success rate is 50%. Par for the course.

Shame on them for trying - your attitude stinks. I've backed a few small projects and they came through; however, if they had a similar story to this and failed I would certainly be understanding. When you back a project on kickstarter you assume a lot of risk. Perhaps Kickstarter should make it VERY clear that the product you're backing may never come to light and that your funding is going to be used to TRY to bring the product to life. Backers are not pre-ordering the next iPhone - they're literally helping someone boostrap an idea that "might" come to life. Back all projects accordingly.

I tend to agree somewhat, but think that this is mostly a strength. As a Kickstarter supporter, I tend to intentionally choose to support smaller and less experienced creators, because I believe in their vision. I want to join them in this journey to see whether they can, or maybe cannot, bring that vision to life. As long as the creators are doing what they can and being honest about their process, I get exactly what I paid for. If I just wanted a product, I would've gone to the store.

I like the idea of the idea of Kickstarter but it's hard to argue against him for execution. I'm only on month 28 of waiting for my Superbook order to ship. Original estimated delivery date? Feb 17. Luckily nothing changed in consumer tech over the past 22 months of bad luck and poor decisions holding delivery up, right? Shall I even mention The Coolest?

Except that, despite all this drama, they delivered an excellent product (eventually).

That's the point of Kickstarter, isn't it? I've backed some pretty awesome products in the past and have, so far, avoided the failures.

Well, business is a lot of failing forward. And their product is a good one.

Don’t be like that.

Opinion presented as fact.

Holy crap.

If you're going to build a business around selling a hardware keyboard, finding a middle-man account manager for your primary manufacturer is just plain lazy.

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.

they were not looking for a middleman. when they started the account manager was an employee of the company, and they believed that to be true until they found out different a short time ago.

This reads to me like Keyboardio is lying and blaming it on “business overseas.”

If Keyboardio wanted to be dishonest, they could have just been one of the many (majority?) Kickstarter projects which take money and find an excuse not to return a product at the end. If you were more familiar with them, you'd know that they aren't one of those projects: they have already produced and delivered product, and my sense is that most backers are satisfied with the result.

(For the record, I have no kind of relationship to Keyboardio.)

I kick started a set of playing cards that I thought were pretty cool. When the guy received the cards, he disconnected from everything, used the money to pay for university and sold the cards on ebay. Never got the cards in the end :( Some guys found him on facebook and informed his employer about the scam, who just said it wasn't their problem and their employee 'seems honest'

Can you tell this story in more detail, with links? It sounds interesting.

(Or not, since “interesting” translates to “lynch mob” in this scenario on the open Internet.)

You think the simplest interpretation is that they're conning us similar to their account manager in the story? Why even bother writing that short story?

What did they write in the post that makes you feel this way?

That was a bit too detailed and rambling, so I skimmed it. Some missing info: 1) Will all the backers receive the products they paid for? 2) Losing $100K seems large in comparison to their kickstarter revenue of $650K. Are new customers safe to order?

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).

This is an update from a Kickstarter that ran in 2015. All the backers got their rewards, and I ordered one after the Kickstarter was over and got one of the highest quality products I've ever ordered.

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.

The incomplete items that this update is about are an extra set of keycaps that I honestly can't even find where on the Kickstarter we were promised them. The main product successfully shipped long ago.

To expand on a sibling comment, the "this actually maker her more confident..." logic goes roughly like this:

- 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.

they got a trial by fire, as the saying goes. they now learned not to put their trust into a single person. next time something goes wrong they'll be sure to check through alternative channels if there isn't some (intentional or not) miscommunication.

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.

"I didn't read the article, but here's some info I missed." is a bad faith way to engage with the content. They made it quite clear that it's not enough money to kill the company, and started the article by mentioning that keyboards are in stock and ready to order from their website.

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