More than any group I’ve ever been part of, the mechanical keyboard community is hardcore af. The die-hard keeb freaks who haunt it aren’t content to wait for some big-name manufacturer to make something good. These folks are ready and willing to design, fund, and finance their own hardware and accessories, and if you want to score some nice gear yourself, you need to be ready to go with their unique flow.
Most of the time this custom-creation process involves something called a group buy, in which a bunch of interested fans pool their money in order to make their keyboard dreams come true. As with many things in life, it’s the waiting that’s the hardest part.
You’re likely familiar with the concept of the group buy in one of its more mainstream forms. It’s really a form of crowdfunding, like a project you’d see on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Like those platforms, a keyboard group buy gathers money from interested parties and then applies that money toward the manufacture of a product. Rather than taking a gamble on making a bunch of stuff no one wants to buy, you start with a dedicated customer base that’s already invested in what you’re making. It’s an excellent way to get a product funded and manufactured.
So a group buy is a somewhat more grassroots form of crowdfunding. Instead of using a larger platform, a keyboard enthusiast goes to a community forum like Geekhack or my personal go-to, Reddit’s r/Mechmarket. They’ll start talking about their idea for a new keyboard form factor or a new custom keyset. If you go to r/Mechmarket and sort by the IC (interest check) flair, you’ll find a whole slew of projects individuals or small companies are looking to get off the ground. Creators will show off prototypes and share manufacturing details and specs.
For example, Redditor Cyberbay recently updated the interest check for their Bubble 75 keyboard, a lovely little small form-factor, gasket-mounted keyboard with a unique layout. Cyberbay even went as far as to upload a typing video so folks could hear what the finished project sounds like.
It produces a lovely muted sound. Had I just looked at pictures of the keyboard I might not have been so enthused. Were I shopping for a new keyboard, that video might have pushed me over the edge. The interest check is basically the pitch, or the selling phase. Do you want this thing? Check yes or no.
When a creator drums up enough interest, it’s time for a group buy. The keyboard or accessory specs are locked in, manufacturing times are estimated, and money is collected from interested parties. The goal is to pay for all aspects of production, from tooling to shipping, making sure everyone’s money goes to the right place and the group buy initiator doesn’t wind up stuck having to put up extra money, from their own pocket or otherwise, to get the project done.
Let me point you toward r/Mechmarket once more, where the GB (group buy) tag is full of projects in process. Redditor Jrodna is getting ready to launch a group buy for the Orthocode, a unique keyboard design with a rotary encoder. Jrodna has their own website set up for the group buy, with an asking price of 240 New Zealand dollars and an expected ship date of November of this year.
There’s a cool little 3×3 macropad that’s available for $US35 ($47) completely assembled, shipping in September. There’s a group buy for gorgeous custom deskmats that’s available to purchase from various shops depending on your region, with an expected ship date of Q4 2021. Over at KPREPUBLIC, they’re holding a group buy for a glorious dark green and cream, wilderness-themed Domikey x iNKY Silent Forest keycap set. The all-in-one kit is $US200 ($271), which is relatively inexpensive for all you get, or you can pick and choose from the smaller sets to suit your board. Shipping is expected in December.
One problem with group buys, which should be obvious, is the whole pay now, receive later aspect. There is nothing quite as disappointing as having a little extra money laying around, finding the perfect keyboard or keyset or what-have-you, and then discovering it won’t ship for several months to a year. It’s a huge frustration for new mechanical keyboard shoppers who figure they can just buy what they want and be done with it.
Did I say the waiting is the hardest part? It’s more of a tie between waiting and hoping to hell everything goes as planned. I’ve taken parts in group buys that have been delayed months due to factory errors like misdrilled holes, broken electronics, and random scratches all over brushed aluminium cases. I’ve had keysets where certain keys somehow printed off-centre and had to be replaced. My personal favourite group buy flub took place back in 2017, when the person organising a buy for a small form-factor keyboard mis-sorted the spreadsheet of participants so that everyone’s keyboard switch selections got mixed up. Fortunately it was a hot-swap board, so I didn’t have to resolder anything, but please folks, learn how to spreadsheet.
On the plus side, a successful group buy produces a highly limited object which, if cared for properly, can fetch a high price on the aftermarket. Once a group buy keyboard starts rolling out into customer’s hands, the FOMO from folks who did not participate is super powerful. As an added bonus, the folks who buy up limited edition items like sneakers or game consoles to resell at ridiculous prices? Looks like they haven’t discovered the mechanical keyboard group buy market yet.
Just beware, that FOMO is a double-edged sword. Imagine finding the keyboard of your dreams and realising it’s part of a group buy that has already closed. Sure, there might be extras produced at some point, but will there really? (The answer is usually no. You are screwed.)
As annoying as it is to see a cool new piece of keyboard hardware and then realise it’s only available if you pay now and then wait for several months, sometimes painstakingly customised objects that meet your every criteria are worth the wait. Some of my favourite keyboards in my ever-growing collection started off with me filling out a primitive Google form saying that yes, I had a couple hundred dollars and a whole bunch of patience.
Participating in a well-run group buy can be incredibly rewarding. Just do your research, make sure you’re ok with the wait, and hope for the best.