This is a post in a long series of articles that will dive into what’s involved in running a group buy, and what to expect through all stages.
I think the very first step to producing a keyboard is to figure out exactly what you want, and whether or not the idea is viable for production and distribution to the “mass market”.
Let’s begin with figuring out what you want.
In the case of producing a one-off, this should be the only step that matters – kind of, we’ll get to other considerations later…
First figure out a form factor you’re aiming for, it could be TKL, FRL, 60%, Hyper-7, anything you can think of – but consider that changing the layout down the line will be costly and annoying.
Now that you’ve got a form factor in mind, will you base it off an existing PCB? If you’re doing a TKL, it makes a lot of sense to support A87 or B87 PCBs to facilitate compatibility down the line, same with readily available 60% PCBs. If your layout is too unique, you’ll need to consider the associated costs of designing and producing a viable PCB. In general though, it is always recommended to use existing available PCB formats – it makes your life far easier down the line if people want replacement PCBs and you are no longer in the hobby, or preoccupied with real life stuff.
The downside to existing PCB formats is usually the preset location for the usb connector, though this is easily mitigated by using a daughterboard – open source designs for a daughterboard are available here:
A daughterboard allows you to use quite a few off-the-shelf PCBs with minor adjustments (or none at all if the pcb already supports a JST header to feed a daughterboard).
If your design is too unique to use an existing PCB, keep in mind the various costs associated with getting one made:
- Designer costs (or time sunk into learning PCB design)
- Prototyping costs + assembly
- Testing and firmware coding
- Actual production and shipping
The average sunk cost into a PCB design and prototype (not including any designer fees) can range from $50 – $150+. So it’s important to consider this up front cost before proceeding.
Next up would be deciding on mounting method and case materials. Will this keyboard be a simple top-mounted design? Are any gaskets involved (and do you have a reliable source for acquiring them)? Do you plan on using a particular metal for the case? Some steels are harder to machine sharper angles on for example, while softer materials may lead to a more consistent anodization/finishing, at the cost of being more easy to dent or scratch.
Will your design have a weight? Or multiple? Adding more parts or complexity can quickly add up in machining costs. (We will cover this during the case design chapter later). But it is best to decide on all of this before going to a designer – or before starting design yourself.
This should cover the bare minimum requirements for where you want to go with the design. The next step would be to reach out to a designer – unless you plan on running a group buy for this keyboard. In which case we need to consider feasibility; designs and ideas that would be hard or impossible to machine, reliably finish, and use are likely bad ideas. Here’s some examples of things that aren’t really feasible:
-Decent Bluetooth (current PCB designs have very poor battery life)
-90 degree angles (these are near impossible to anodize properly, and are very brittle)
-Very complex multi-part designs (this would place the price point far too high for most buyers)
Now on to the meat of this topic – Is this something I can sell?
There are a lot of factors at play here, things like existing keycap compatibility, size and weight, competing designs running in parallel, target price point, geographic location and ongoing politics/current events, a defined target audience, and more.
We’ll kick it off with a silly example, the illuminati iS0. On paper this seems like a terrible idea right?
The idea started relatively simple, pwner shared a silly 1 key iso macropad as a joke – but this joke got me thinking, what if something like this was actually viable? What if I set out on making the highest quality 1 key macropad possible, with a top mount polycarbonate plate and a custom usb C pcb?
I first took a look at the top selling GMK sets for the previous 2 years, and saw that there were easily 5k+ sets out in the wild being used by people who had no intention of using their iso enter keys. Alright, so the use case for the caps was fulfilled, but what about cost? Making something with a finishing on par with other high end makers wouldn’t be cheap, or easy. How many units would I need to produce in order to get the price down to something at least moderately comprehensible (this ended up being $69 per unit and 150 units).
I then took a look at the total amount of buyers that had purchased previous higher end macropads, being the Rama M6 and the SingaKBD Ocelot – these had a few hundred units between them in sales – but were far more useful in real-world applications than a simple 1-key macropad. At this point I gambled on the hope that there were at least 150 people interested in something like this, with the funds to be able to actually purchase it. (Though less of a complete gamble, as I ran through all of the recent higher end keyboard buys, and concluded there were easily thousands of people with the financial means to go out and buy a $69 single-key pad).
All in all, it ended up selling very successfully considering the price point and practicality of the units. But if for example, the unit took an ANSI enter, the amount of people with unused ANSI enters would have been far lower. If I had not marketed it as such a total overkill meme-pad, it would not have sold as well, and very importantly, if this was my very first keyboard for sale, I would not have gotten as many orders.
What does this mean for you?
Well, an initially silly idea might have a market. But the opposite is also true – a very usable keyboard with very little risks taken can do poorly…
I asked Ai03 what his top 3 factors for determining if a keyboard is a good idea or not:
- I like the design enough to want one
- The design is universally functional and agreeable to a certain level
- It’s possible to manufacture
He then had this to add:
I honestly don’t consider whether or not it’s mass market at all. If it sells volume, it does…. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t
The three points above are a good starting point for determining viability for an idea. If you don’t see yourself being able to use your own keyboard, then something is clearly wrong and you don’t even consider your keyboard idea worthwhile. It goes without saying that you should love your idea.
The next point covers what others think of the design, see if others also think the idea isn’t totally nonsensical. As long as a good percentage of others think the idea has some merit, its worth a try at the very least.
The last point shouldn’t need to be explained, it makes sense on it’s own, don’t try to machine hypercubes!
We’ll call it here for this week’s post – Next week we will discuss size and weight, competing designs, politics and current events, and defining a target audience. I will also have an in depth interview with someone special, where we cover more general thoughts about idea viability in the current keyboard market