Making Mechanical Keyboards in China
“Whatever you want to make, there is a way to make it quickly in China.”
We’re doing something new over at the podcast — occasional episodes in Mandarin! If you can’t understand Chinese, not to worry: we’ll be running translated transcripts here at the newsletter.
If you have friends who run businesses who you think would make for good guests, do let us know!
The founder of mechanical keyboard brand Meletrix, Simba Hua 华鑫, joined us to talk about:
Why people like to make their own keyboards;
The challenges and wonders of working with the Chinese keyboard supply chain;
And customer preferences between East Asian and Western keyboard fans.
Simba Hua: I’ve always been a keyboard fan. Around ten years ago, I started playing with customized keyboards. One time, coincidentally, I wanted a particular keyboard but found that no one was making it the way I wanted, so I started designing my own. I drew up my designs and put them online, and found that quite a few people actually liked my designs. So I felt very accomplished and began selling them. I kept going at it and started getting more and more customers, making it impossible to focus on my old day job. So I quit and began working in the keyboard industry full-time.
Irene Zhang: What was your old job?
Simba Hua: I worked in the service side of the vehicle industry. In China, if you major in automotives at university, you have to study design. You learn how to use all the design softwares. I myself have always been interested in that, and drew in my free time; we have industrial designers and structural engineers at the company as well.
Irene Zhang: Could you tell us about your company? How big is it, and what are the products like?
Simba Hua: We started it during the pandemic. The entire world remembers that time: I was in Wuhan, which was under lockdown. After the lockdown began, I didn’t have much to do at home and started drawing up keyboard [designs]. Once the designs were ready, I had to begin bringing them to life. That’s when we started building the brand during the pandemic. So many friends gave us support and appreciation, and it greatly boosted my confidence. From the beginning to today, what we have now has grown further than our original expectations. … Of course, as our customer base grows, obviously there are some voices of criticism, and all we can do is continuously improve and grow.
Irene Zhang: I’m curious: what criticisms do you hear from customers? What are they most interested in?
Simba Hua: The first is technique. The second is quality control. Real keyboard aficionados aren’t particularly price-sensitive, but their demands are high when it comes to quality factors. As the number of customers increased and our company grew quickly, we’ve struggled with issues of quality as well. Let’s say our yield is 99%, or even 99.9%; when overall volume grows, the number of faulty products grows as well and makes the problem seem bigger. Of course, we’ve been optimizing by increasing the number of quality-assurance staff and elongating the process.
In terms of new techniques, customers often pay additional attention to new ones. They care about whether you make new stuff.
Customized keyboard fans want to try novel things; they like unique items that no one else has.
We have a product called Promise. For Promise, practically every part is customizable, and you can change the color for every element. We even customize colors. We did the math and found there are 2.2 million possible combinations. This is a lot of pressure for our staff, but it’s our mission. … We hope everyone can have their own unique keyboard.
Irene Zhang: How did you become interested in keyboards in the first place? Why do you think others are getting into this as well, whether in China or abroad?
Simba Hua: When I was using plastic, mass-produced keyboards, I thought they weren’t heavy enough. I like hefty things with slick industrial design. When those just didn’t satisfy me anymore, that’s when I discovered customized keyboards. I started off buying them for myself: I bought so many from lots of other people’s brands. There’s a wall in my house that’s just keyboards. …
Why do so many people like our keyboards? I really appreciate folks who like what we make. Our keyboards don’t have complicated designs. Our design ethos is focused on simplicity.
Irene Zhang: Do you have thoughts on how [keyboards] suddenly became popular around a decade ago, or why people like it? Is it the key feel? I read online that maybe it’s related to e-sports becoming more mainstream.
Simba Hua: The real reason more people are interested in customized keyboards isn’t about sound, touch, or function. It’s a psychological need. Everyone wants to be totally unique, and they want their keyboards, as well as everything they use, to be totally unique. That’s how this industry came to be: a desire to stand out from others.
Irene Zhang: Do you think this could come into conflict with scaling this industry? If you want to make it bigger and more approachable, will some other customers lose interest?
Simba Hua: I’ve thought about this problem as well. Currently, we have two product lines: Wuque and Meletrix. Wuque is the one with 2.2 million options: it satisfies people’s desire for complete customization. You can have that. But if you just want some light, beginner-level customization to feel a bit different from most people, we have Meletrix. For example, our Zoom 65 has nineteen color choices, and each color comes with ten different pairing options. We have two texture options as well. That’s already 380 possibilities — quite a lot for a regular keyboard. It’d be unlikely to encounter the exact same one in the wild.
Manufacturing in the World’s Factory
Irene Zhang: It seems as though most Chinese keyboard brands are in Guangdong. Are you guys still based in Wuhan? I’m curious about the supply chain as well. Where do you source your materials from? Is there any competition in that?
Simba Hua: Wuhan is our sales headquarters, as well as where our design and administrative teams are based. But our overseas sales and production are based in Guangdong — Shenzhen, specifically. … We manufacture in Dongguan. Why Dongguan? Because the supply chains there are very concentrated. You’re never more than a short walk away from any material or tool you might need. Their techniques for surface finishing are very comprehensive as well. There’s a reason people call that area the world’s factory: it is truly very convenient. They can make anything you want happen.
Irene Zhang: Do you think this industry has diversified in terms of regions in China, or is it still mostly in Guangdong?
Simba Hua: In terms of manufacturing, it’s quite difficult to get out of Guangdong. You can’t build a supply chain in a day. To make a keyboard, you have to start with sourcing materials, then process the shell, do surface finishing, and deal with related accessories like cushions … all of these need a lot of time to build up. Our production model is mostly contract manufacturing. We have our own CNC factory, but we can’t do surface finishing ourselves, so we entrust someone else to do that. …
Any material you want is available here, whether it’s plastics, glass, or metals. Even titanium alloys, aluminum alloys, copper, and iron are common [for making keyboards]; stainless steel as well. Even glass, which is rarely used these days. We actually produce a fully transparent keyboard, which is likely the world’s first totally transparent — PCB included — keyboard. We use some specialized processes for that.
I’m very proud: whatever you want to make, there is a way to make it quickly in China.
Jordan Schneider: What’s the most bothersome part?
Simba Hua: The most bothersome part is probably surface finishing. The outer shell of the keyboard is a silvery-white piece of aluminum before surface finishing, and afterward it turns black. Everything could look perfectly fine before surface finishing, but once that’s done you can run into all sorts of problems. It’s sometimes impossible to predict faulty products. That’s a relatively big challenge for us. Our manufacturing process is overall quite mature.
Irene Zhang: So it’s hard to have a perfect yield after all.
Simba Hua: For sure. Some mirror-finish keyboards only have a yield of around 20% — occasionally as low as 10%. That’s why prices for mirror-finish keyboards are very high. Keyboards made with traditional techniques have a yield of around 90%, which still leads to a huge amount being thrown away.
Culture and Customer Preferences
Irene Zhang: Meletrix and Wuque sell domestically and abroad. Have you noticed any differences while marketing to different demographics? Do consumers in China and elsewhere have any differences in preferences?
Simba Hua: There are, indeed, differences. For example, foreign consumers tend to like rougher, frostier textures, whereas Chinese consumers prefer a smooth feel and mirror-finish. Maybe it’s because of cultural differences. But in other respects, people are pretty similar. In terms of appearances, … it’s more of a difference between Asia and the West. European and American clients like simpler, more high-end designs, while Asian consumers seem to enjoy intricate, complex designs more. … Our biggest international market is in North America. …
Jordan Schneider: Have you watched videos by keyboard content creators abroad before? Do they differ much from keyboard influencers in China?
Simba Hua: I find that influencers in China tend to focus on typing sounds and emphasize the final results after building the keyboard. But foreign creators tend to record more meticulously from start to finish; some of them make three- or four-hour-long videos. Maybe it’s because people in China have highly pressurized work environments and don’t have lots of time to watch videos. There are more short videos in China: mostly five to ten minutes long, and they’re straight to the point with results.
Irene Zhang: I see that you guys have a YouTube channel. Have you invested in short-form video marketing in China?
Simba Hua: We’ve collaborated with content creators before. Most of them are my friends from the keyboard community, so we’d give them our products as gifts and ask them to provide feedback. But most of the promotion doesn’t come from us, but rather comes from word of mouth among keyboard fans. At first, we didn’t quite grasp this, but this is what makes this industry special. When people approve of your product, they will promote it themselves. Of course, word spreads fast when people dislike your product as well.
Irene Zhang: Do you feel that keyboard fan circles in China have grown bigger since you joined?
Simba Hua: Yes, of course. Our old online community had around 4,000 or 5,000 people; if you recognize me from one forum, I’ll eventually find you on another. Nowadays, even our brand’s own customer community has around 20,000 or 30,000 people. After we founded Meletrix, the Zoom series attracted a lot of customers who previously used mass-produced keyboards to our community. They’ve upgraded from casual buyers to aficionados.
The Demographics of the Keyboard ‘Fandom’
Irene Zhang: Among consumers, have you noticed any trends: big city vs. small towns, men vs. women…?
Simba Hua: In terms of cities, I haven’t done the specific analysis, but there are relatively more clients from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. When it comes to gender, I would’ve given you a very different answer if you had asked me this two months ago. I would have said that 80% of our customers are men and 20% are women. But after Zoom 65 came out, the gender ratio of our customers is now basically 50:50. The change was enormous. I suppose it was the color options? We are looking into ways to attract female customers. Chinese women are increasingly interested in this as well.
Irene Zhang: Do you think this has more to do with differences in disposable income levels, or the demographics among people who play video games or are into e-sports?
Simba Hua: It doesn’t have as much to do with games or e-sports. I think it has more to do with people’s perception of the product and demand for a higher quality of life. I’ve also thought a lot about why there are more female customers now. On one hand, there are more color options. On the other hand, lots of women work office jobs in front of computers, so a keyboard that feels nice to the touch is going to improve their time at work.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl: we all need keyboards. Since improving the key feel and sound of our own keyboards, our colleagues at the company have begun working longer hours as well — it’s a part of company culture. Normally the end of the workday for us is 5:30 p.m., but most of our staff end up staying until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. I don’t make people work overtime, but our team tends to like having dinner together and chatting while doing some more work. It’s a young-people habit.
Irene Zhang: Is the keyboard fan community mostly young people as well?
Simba Hua: Yeah, the earliest generation of keyboard fans [in China] are people my age. A lot of people my age have “left the fandom” by now; they can’t handle it anymore. We’ve collected lots of keyboards and often do exchanges. Most of the beginner-level customers are around twenty-five years old, while high-end customers tend to be around thirty-two.
Irene Zhang: What does “leave the fandom” mean? Do you stop buying it or stop making it?
Simba Hua: The way we fans buy keyboards is: when a new keyboard comes out with five color options, we’d buy all five. We get anything that’s available. But you “leave the fandom” when you feel that most new releases are one and the same and stop buying keyboards that don’t stand out. You’d buy new ones only if they really interest you. In the past, I used to buy new keyboards every month — otherwise I’d get antsy!
Irene Zhang: So it sounds as though the market is getting a little saturated.
Simba Hua: Hmm, not really. I think what’s actually needed is getting more people involved in the community.
Irene Zhang: In order to do that, would you consider marketing specifically to potential customers in smaller cities or other communities?
Simba Hua: The thing is: in China, most high-tech firms and young people are in big cities. We haven’t done the specific analysis on which cities [our customers are in], but we’ve looked at their interests and age groups. Maybe we will collect more data in the future. But the market itself is already really, really big, and what we need to do is to guide customers toward accepting these products. We actually do very little marketing; it’s mostly customers who spread the word of mouth.
Especially in some office cultures, people recommend keyboards they like to their coworkers, and their coworkers end up buying more. These recommendations are more effective than our own advertising.
In addition, advertising is a relatively high cost for our industry. Our sales volumes are much lower than those of mass-produced keyboard brands, so investing in advertisements is relatively burdensome financially.
Competing With the Big Guys
Jordan Schneider: Big companies like Razer and Logitech obviously don’t make products of the same quality as you and other mechanical makers do. Are you worried that in two or three years, they’ll realize that they need to improve their quality and become your competitors?
Simba Hua: They’re already doing it — as in, they are already putting out customizable products. I believe that any brand, big or small, pushes the market forward when they enter the industry. New competitors encourage progress. It is, indeed, a major shock for us, but it also forces our team to improve. If they completely defeat us someday or render us irrelevant, then that’s an inevitable part of progress. That’s what’s going to happen if we don’t pursue development and innovation. We have our own advantages: for example, our teams are relatively flexible and are able to act more quickly than big companies can. We can design and change direction faster than big companies are able to. Of course, we should learn from their systems and rigor as well.
Irene Zhang: You said earlier that many people who buy from mechanical keyboard makers like you guys do so because they want a sense of uniqueness; do you think that’s actually something that big brands can provide?
Simba Hua: I think it’s inevitable if we don’t make progress or innovate. We’ll be replaced if we don’t. If a big company wants to do what we do, they just need to pull one department or one team toward this. It’s relatively simple for them; it just depends on whether or not they want to do it. Of course, some of the things we do are relatively more complicated, but they are slowly moving in this direction as well. This year, a keyboard industry report mentioned customized keyboards. But some big companies probably haven’t even heard of us, or believe this is a very niche market. Although, compared to their sales volumes, we do probably seem like a very niche market.
Irene Zhang: It sounds as though, in terms of technique, the mechanical keyboard community is influencing the mass market as well?
Simba Hua: Mass-produced keyboards are certainly moving in the direction of customized keyboards when it comes to key feel and sound. Customized keyboards have a relatively flexible manufacturing process: we don’t use manufacturing molds, and everything is done through CNC. You can adjust anything you’d like immediately. But if you’re producing plastic keyboards, it’s hard to make adjustments once you’ve already solidified the mold.
That’s the hardware side of this; there’s also the software side. Except for a few companies which develop their own software, most companies contract out software development. In terms of customization, most tend to use open-source software. For us, software isn’t a big problem; most of the challenge lies in improving the hardware and creating something different. We actually don’t just want to make keyboards; it’s only one part of what we are.
What we actually want to create is a kind of desktop culture.
Keyboards are only one productivity tool. It doesn’t last. Maybe one day we won’t be typing anymore; maybe we’ll just wear some kind of helmet and whatever words we want will just appear on the screen. It’s all possible and we might be replaceable. Maybe what finally defeats us isn’t [another] keyboard. What we need to create is a kind of desktop culture that shares a message of happiness with everyone.
Irene Zhang: Kind of like how most people don’t handwrite characters these days but there are still calligraphy enthusiasts? That’s so interesting.
What softwares are used by keyboard enthusiasts;
Foreign buyers’ Chinese-brand awareness;
Just how much of the world’s keyboards are made in China;
Desktop AI robot pets;
And why the endgame of mass production is customization…