Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Brad Agdern, and I am the founder of TechKeys, an online retail store dedicated to mechanical keyboard parts and accessories. What is a mechanical keyboard you might ask? If you are old enough to have experienced computer keyboards from the late ’80s and ’90s, you undoubtedly can recall the satisfying “snick” or “thunk” that each keypress made, giving you a tactile feedback that the key was pressed. Most modern keyboards leverage a technology known as “rubber dome” which is cheaper to manufacture as well as allow for lower-profile keyboards.
As a result of this shift to cheaper “mushier” feeling keyboards, a growing community of enthusiasts has popularized the mechanical keyboard as a high-end option for gamers, programmers, PC builders, and office professionals. This Google trends chart shows how it has taken off since 2008:
Techkeys carries products that allow you to customize, augment, or even build your own mechanical keyboard. Our most popular products are custom keys that can easily replace stock keys, our OneKeyBoard and SixKeyBoard mini keyboards, and our Tribosys switch lubricant.
As this trend continued, we continued to create new and interesting products, growing a hobby into a niche business earning $5,000 a month in revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Long before I had the idea to start a company, I had a broken keyboard. My background is in IT and I have a group of friends lovingly named “The Nerds” who are my go-to for any questions technical in nature. So I sent an email to the nerds and asked which keyboard should I buy? One of the replies suggested trying a mechanical keyboard. I had some sticker shock spending $70+ on a keyboard, but I use my keyboard day in and day out and always had the mindset to splurge on the items you use most in life.
In the process of doing some research on what was the best product for me, I stumbled onto a community of keyboard enthusiasts at geekhack that were doing some fascinating things. I was drawn in by the visuals of makers creating custom keycaps, custom key layouts, and sharing vintage models. It was on geekhack that I was introduced to the concept of a group buy. Many entrepreneurs come to understand the inherent limitation in the manufacturing process known as the MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity) and pricing that is dependent on quantity.
It was just simple inquiries that landed me coverage on Gizmodo, Linus Tech Tips, and Wired.
Being a community of enthusiasts, we were able to organize our collective buying power (similar to Kickstarter) to place a group order for an item to be manufactured. This process started with an interest check to pitch an idea and see if people would be willing to buy it, followed by placing pre-orders, then invoicing (typically through Paypal) so that one organizer collects all the funds, and then finally ordering and distributing the products. This process has some inherent flaws:
- It takes a long time from start to end
- It places a lot of trust in the organizer to handle money and delivery
- The organizer must have the knowledge of how to work with manufacturing
- Everyone must agree on a design for the product
I was brimming with ideas for products and took on the responsibility of organizing several group buys. Doing so was a lot of work, and I was providing products to buyers at manufacturing cost, which was not sustainable. After getting the hang of the manufacturing side of things, I changed my workflow based on a key observation:
When group buys were completed there were community members who saw images of the final product, having missed the window of opportunity to buy, and wanted to make a purchase. After this realization, I would leverage the buying power of the group buy to manufacture additional inventory, and then offer them to buyers who missed the original buy, but with a standard retail markup.
Dealing with buyers on an individual basis on an internet forum became too chaotic, so that was the impetus to start an online retail store. After deciding on a name and purchasing the URL, I used basic site builder software and PayPal buttons to share all my inventory with the community in one easy to find location. As time went by, I generated enough revenue to support full manufacturing runs without the need to use the community to fund the buy.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Design is one area where I needed to develop skills quickly. Early on, most of the product design was creating injection molded keycaps. This is done through the use of a vector-based drawing program like Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator. However, there are constraints as to what can and cannot be molded, like how sharp a corner can be and how large of a graphic can be molded on a key. This was a learning process as I had designs rejected for breaking these constraints.
Everything starts with an idea. What would be clever, funny, interesting, and unique on a keyboard? Once an idea is vetted as feasible, I usually Google for artwork inspiration and bring some ideas into the vector drawing program.
When the drawing is complete and complies with all the manufacturing constraints, I also like to create a mockup so that the manufacturer and I are on the same page visually as what the end product will look like:
Finally, the communication with the manufacturer needs to be clear as to the key colors, shape, and quantity. Working around trademarks is always a delicate topic. If any of my design ideas are inspired by a trademarked item I do my best to use my artistic interpretation of it, but ultimately the manufacturer will decline to produce items that are clearly a violation of a trademark.
For some of my other products that utilize a different set of skills, I have forged relationships with experts that can be commissioned to execute work outside my area of expertise. For example, the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) design of the TechKeys Programmable Card was outsourced, but I worked closely with my contact to accomplish the design aesthetic and functionality I had envisioned.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching TechKeys as an online retail storefront was surprisingly simple to do. There are dozens of “build a website” options out there, and I tried a few of them and landed on Yola. This was not an e-commerce platform at the time so I just made product pages and pasted PayPal links to each page. For the small number of products I had at the time, this worked fine.
Since my crowdfunded endeavors were already underway on a decent-sized online forum, this was my primary marketing vehicle and the key to early success. When a crowdfunded effort ended I would direct all individuals who missed the buy to the page where they could buy one at retail.
Looking back the launch seems somewhat anticlimactic. The cost was very low, the site was very simple with just a few products. I have a close friend who is a very talented artist, whom I commissioned to paint a banner which has remained my page header and logo to this day.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
TechKeys has always been a side hustle for me as I am a full-time IT Professional. As one might expect, the business did not always get the time it deserves with my obligations to my day job, wife, kids, and family. The one part of running this business that I’ve struggled with most as a result of time limitations is marketing. However, over the years I have experimented with all sorts of marketing approaches and gained some valuable insight into what works and doesn’t work for me. Keep in mind, TechKeys is a poster child for niche business so obviously this feedback may vary greatly in other types of endeavors.
Social Media and Forums
Being a niche company, finding a forum or group of individuals passionate about that niche is a gold mine. Making a presence there and building credibility will make users trust a purchase from your site. Hitting the front page of Reddit yielded some of the highest traffic my site has seen.
I have tried promoting Tweets, Facebook posts, and Google ads with very little success. I know there is an artform of selecting target demographics and allocating proper budget so perhaps I was missing some key variable, but after blowing through a few hundred dollars in ads with a very little boost in sales, I gave up.
I don’t think there is any magic bullet to boost SEO, but I have noticed a gradual improvement over time. Understand that Google is clever enough to know if you are getting users who are satisfied with clicking on you as a result. The more links to your site on reputable sources the better.
It is surprisingly simple to reach out to influencers with large audiences to see if they would be willing to evaluate your products and share them with their audience. You may not have a 100% response rate, but it only takes a few hits to do wonders for sales and more importantly SEO. It was just simple inquiries that landed me coverage on Gizmodo (Top Tech blog), Linus Tech Tips (11.1M Subscribers), and Wired (Top Tech blog and magazine).
My email list has grown over the years and I try to use the golden rule when it comes to sending email blasts. Would I want to receive daily emails? Absolutely not - I would unsubscribe. So I tend to only send blasts out when introducing a new product, restocking a product that has been missing for some time, and the occasional sale.
Marketing aside, I have always tried to continue to diversify the products available and take risks on more “out there” ideas. From my experience, a well-received product will sell well and some products tend to be duds. Get past the duds and take more shots at the home runs.
I am a firm believer in the snowball effect. Start small, test the markets, and see what customers have an appetite for.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
For the past few years, sales have been consistent and profitability has been consistent. Due to my somewhat minimal accounting practices, I struggle to calculate accurate profit numbers, but since the majority of the cost of operation is purchasing products, it is easy to estimate. When it comes to pricing I like to try to start at a 100% markup on cost, but I always take a gut check and consider -- “Would I buy it for that price?” and adjust accordingly. If the margin is too low maybe I need to look at other factors like larger production runs or even if it's a viable long term product.
I’ve always looked at the business as a fun venture, so I tend to roll a fair amount of my profits into experimental product ideas and bets on new products. The SixKeyBoard product is a polished product that has been adopted by consumers and professionals, but it started as an idea to make a digital business card that registers as a keyboard and types email addresses, websites, and social media pages. From there, we created a programmable model that allowed users to create their own macros with no programming knowledge. These were fun for tinkerers but didn’t have widespread adaptation. They led to the OneKeyBoard and SixKeyBoard which I don’t think would have been possible without their predecessors.
TechKeys has always been an online-only retailer (with one completely failed attempt to do a street fair). I have considered other distribution channels but have not landed on any opportunities that I thought would work well long term. Over the years we have seen steady but very gradual growth to our newsletter and social media subscriptions as well as SEO rankings. I don’t have a lot of comparison points but I feel pretty good about looking at stats from Google analytics selecting the past year as a time frame:
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When starting and running a business, you are forced to be very trusting of individuals you just encountered. People buy my products and trust that I will send it and likewise, when someone tells me they didn’t receive it I am forced to trust them as well. Working with vendors, suppliers, contractors, and marketers there is this default to trust rather than distrust. I am normally a skeptical person assuming people will take advantage of you if you let them, but to grow my business and build trust with my customer base, I have forced myself to default to trusting others. Speedy response to customers’ inquiries and quick order fulfillment are the best ways to make a one time buyer a repeat customer.
When it comes to product development I usually run with ideas that I personally get excited about and think are great. It is disappointing when some of those inevitably flop, but you have to move on to the next. Since this business runs in my limited spare time, I have had long spans of time where I was doing the bare minimum to just ship orders. When I did have time to focus on marketing, new products, analytics, and social media, the business took visible steps forward.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
There are a couple of tools that are crucial for TechKeys to operate smoothly. I definitely also see opportunities for other tools that could be beneficial, but simply have not had the chance to investigate.
Shopify - It didn’t take long to realize running an e-commerce site on a platform without e-commerce tools was not viable. Within a year or two of operating, I switched to Shopify which is a pricier tool but earns its keep with the excellent site and inventory management. I know a lot of Shopify users have gone down a rabbit hole of extensions, but I haven't enabled any.
Email - This is one area that has shifted a lot and been a bit frustrating. My objective for this tool has always been to keep costs to a minimum since, after all, it's just sending emails. I tend to send all emails to my full list and don’t do a lot of segmenting or A/B Testing. I started with MailChimp since it was free under a certain number of subscribers. When I exceeded that I switched to GetResponse primarily because it was the cheapest option I could find. After a while, I became frustrated with their billing and spam detection and switched to a paid MailChimp which worked well but was expensive. Recently I switched to Shopify’s experimental email service which got off to a rocky start but is reasonably priced and improving in quality.
Stamps.com - In the very early days, I was taking packages to the post office to get weighed and shipped. You can imagine this got very old quickly, and I got a thermal printer, a digital scale, and the Stamps.com service. Since I do all the order fulfillment for TechKeys, this has been the best money I have spent on a service that makes creating postage and slapping it on a package a breeze.
PayPal - From day one I have used PayPalas my payment gateway. Heavy Paypal users appreciate the simple checkout and non-Paypal users can still pay with any major credit card. I have found the payment gateways all take a similar fee, but I have been considering a switch to Shopify’s payment gateway.
Google Analytics - I know it is so much you can do with the Google Analytics platform, but unfortunately, my depth of knowledge here is somewhat shallow. I tend to use the analytics to see where traffic is coming from, how effective marketing efforts are, and look for higher-level trends.
Accounting Software - This is one gaping hole in my toolset. I primarily use a spreadsheet to track expenses, inventory, and orders. I’ve heard Quickbooks is great but I have never felt a push to get it set up.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Unfortunately, I do not have a lot of time for books and podcasts, etc. I have always been interested in entrepreneurship and I actually really enjoy the journey of figuring things out on my own. One of the few podcasts I have enjoyed is How I Built This which has some high profile guests talking about the early days of their company.
The one book I did read that may not have been influential to TechKeys but gave me a lot of perspectives was Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. I enjoyed it both from the technology side as well as the startup decisions.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
This seems like a no brainer, but be passionate about the item or service you are selling. TechKeys was created as a way to subsidize a hobby that started to become too expensive. My day job is very analytical and I love being creative both on a business and product front.
When it comes to launching a new business I am a firm believer in the snowball effect. Start small, test the markets, and see what customers have an appetite for. Spending a lot of money upfront on-site design, marketing consultants, and even product is a big gamble, but if you do a small production run, even if the margins are low, you will quickly be able to determine if you have a winner or a loser. Marketing and SEO are a long game - the more you put in, the more you get out, but it takes time.
Finally, if you have a significant other, make sure they support your efforts. I have an amazing wife who may not see the excitement in a mechanical keyboard but understands it takes time and effort to run a business. Being a sole practitioner, it does help to have someone as a sounding board for ideas and share in the successes.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At this time we do not have the revenue to support additional employees.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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