Late last month, I conducted a Skype interview with Brian Kreps, owner of EliteKeyboards.com. He shared a lot of interesting anecdotes, viewpoints, and keyboard history with me, and I am hugely excited to publish it all here for you.
EliteKeyboards is the only official North American retailer of Topre Realforce and PFU Happy Hacking keyboards. In addition, they recently started carrying keyboards from KUL, a new company whose products have received rave reviews online. EK is also is a great place to get rarities like Topre keycaps, Topre number pads, handmade leather 3-star palm rests, keyboard dust covers, and more.
Check out their web store at http://www.elitekeyboards.com/.
KC: How long has EK been in business?
Brian: EK was founded in late 2008, early 2009. I incorporated in May 2009.
KC: How would you identify yourself? A retailer? A user? A collector? An enthusiast?
Brian: I qualify as all of these labels to some degree. Of course my initial experience was as a user and an enthusiast, but these days I spend a lot of time researching how technology works and is designed, and more importantly what people use technology for and the life cycles of different products. So you could say I’m kind of a keyboard technologist. Being the kind of niche vendor I am is a logical leveraging of some of that research and knowledge for me.
KC: What was your first mechanical keyboard? Which models do you personally own now, and what’s your favorite?
Brian: Apple IIe! SMK switches I think, but I was more fascinated with how the floppy drives worked and what it meant to die of dysentery. I was later introduced to Model M terminal boards doing support for IBM POS systems and IBM AS400 operations while in college. My first Cherry MX board was a Filco Majestouch 104-key I bought while working in Japan. These days I own a lot of keyboards, mostly for research purposes, but my daily drivers are a KUL ES-87 with MX Browns and a Realforce 87U 55g that I switch in between.
KC: What did you do before you started EK? Did you quit your day job to start it?
Brian: I was a working for a Japanese company designing products for broadcasting. The company’s market focus changed a bit around 2008 and that allowed me come back to the states to handle some family issues and look for other employment. I didn’t start EK with the intent of really making a legitimate business, but in the first few months I began to realize that there might be something to it, and having the legitimacy of an incorporated business was going to be the only way to find out where it would go.
KC: Was there ever a do-or-die moment, a point when there was no looking back? Starting a business is a big risk.
Brian: Having your own business brings all kinds of worries, and I battle with that all the time. When I started EK, I was at a point in my life where I really didn’t have a lot to lose. I had an education, and I knew I could go get a job. When I started EK, I was looking at a lot of job postings, and sending my resume out, but I had the ability to put a roof over my head. I wasn’t so worried about the financial aspect when I started EK, because I didn’t see it as something that would require an investment. I saw it as an opportunity to fill a demand and make a little money on the side. Things grew gradually enough that it wasn’t too painful. I know that a lot of people who want to get into an existing market would not have it so easy. If you want to get into the mechanical keyboard market today, it’s really hard. There’s a lot of competition. You really have to make a splash if you want to get attention, and I think that requires a bigger investment than I had to make at the time.
Part of it’s that, but also, I’ve always had an inclination to do things on my own. I wouldn’t say it’s because I don’t like to work with other people, but I find something very challenging and satisfying in being able to achieve things on my own. I always want to do things my way, and that’s part of my personality. I have a certain way that I see everything working perfectly, gears oiled and moving along. Being at a point in my life where I didn’t have any strings attached, no wife or kids, that was the time to give it a shot and see what happens.
And honestly, I got lucky. I got into something that no one else was paying attention to, and I had an enthusiastic customer base right from the start. I’ve been very fortunate. I can give people all kinds of advice on starting a business, and there are things I’d do differently now. But the number one piece of advice I have for people is to be lucky. There’s no way to make that happen, but being prepared to take advantage of something when the opportunity arises is part of luck. I’d spent years trying to learn Linux with no expectation of any payout, administering servers, learning how to run websites. I always figured I’d end up working for someone else, but when the opportunity presented itself, things fit together.
KC: Take me through a typical workday at EK.
Brian: Personally, my day-to-day duties are mostly emails, accounting, and research. I do occasionally get to play in the lab or take some product photos.
KC: You’ve made a couple references to keyboard research. And EK has a lab? Can you provide an example of the research you do, and explain how you apply the results to your business?
Brian: That’s a good question. I’ve been in business for six years, and as I started to sell keyboards, I realized that I would need to be responsive to constant feedback from customers. About things that could be improved, or things that weren’t working. One of the biggest concerns as a retailer is dealing with returns, and providing customer support. I wanted to make sure that I could understand customers’ problems and give good feedback to the manufacturers. I also wanted to improve the reputation of the brands I carried, so I wanted to make sure that I had a good understanding of what was going to impress customers.
So, understanding how keyboards work became important to me very early on. For example, with Filco, the first brand I carried, I had to understand why switches were failing. Filcos at that time also had LEDs that were way too bright. I had to understand why the factories were unable to integrate LEDs so they wouldn’t burn your eyes out. These were things I needed to understand not just from a technical standpoint, but also from a manufacturing standpoint on a large scale. What happens when you buy 10,000 LEDs and you make a thousand keyboards? Are they all going to be the same? What kind of variation can you expect? I needed to understand that, so that’s one side of my research, understanding the product, how it works, and where things fail.
But in addition to that, I have to do a lot of research into the customer experience over the long term. Is this a product that people like using for a long time? Do they get tired of the switches? Do the coatings wear out after a year? Where do people have problems and complaints? That’s research on the human side, talking to people, reading a lot of forums, reading every single review I can find and analyzing them to quantify that data. So, not only can I tell the manufacturer to improve their product, but also when I pick other products to carry, I can look for those qualities to make sure the customers I already have are really going to appreciate it.
In our lab, we do keyboard repairs, testing on different components. For example, with Filco, we picked new LEDs and sent them samples. We use switch testers to test the characteristics of switches. Another example is with Topre. Their switch weightings have had a lot of variability, sometimes as much as 10-15 grams. Those are the specs they want to commit to out of the factory, but I wanted to know whether the real-world results would really be 10-15 grams, or if they would only be, say, 5, so could I have an authoritative answer for customers when they ask. I need to have tools to analyze these things, so I can give people respectful answers.
KC: So Filco was your first brand, but you don’t carry it now. What happened to Filco, and how did your current brands (PFU, Realforce, etc.) come into the picture?
Brian: I have to go back a bit into the history of EK to answer these questions. Bear with me!
When I was working in Japan in 2005, the only U.S. layout keyboards I could easily find were very cheap and uncomfortable, so with the help of a colleague I got some recommendations to look at Filco Majestouch. At the time though, they were being pulled off the shelves due to slow sales. It was a great keyboard, and I’d never seen it for sale in the states. So a few years later, upon returning, I looked it up only to find no mention of it on English speaking forums, except one result: GeekHack.org.
iMav, GeekHack’s founder, had imported a Filco Majestouch tenkeyless through some means, probably one of the first Japanese forwarding services, they weren’t all that common back then. I’m sure it was the second Majestouch in the US; (ahem!) mine was the first! Well, it sparked quite a conversation on the forum and several members were interested in getting one to supplement their IBM Model Ms and Das Keyboards, so I offered to see what I could do in bulk since I was familiar with business in Japan.
So, interesting things began to happen. GeekHack members weren’t satisfied with just MX Brown and Black switches, they wanted Blues now, but Diatec (Filco distributor) wasn’t very interested in the Western markets at the time and didn’t want to sell blue switches because they were a big support headache. So with the help of a colleague I made a contract with Diatec that released them of liability and gave me Filco distribution rights for all of North America. The rest is a blur really. With the feedback of all the good folks at GeekHack, my keyboard lineup grew into 20+ different Filco models made just for U.S. customers.
This is when this whole mechanical revolution and reawakening began. At the time, GeekHack was made up almost entirely of computer users with nostalgia, using either POS keyboards or aging Dell AT101s and IBM Model Ms they found in thrift shops. In short time, GeekHack users started sharing their experiences about different Majestouch keyboards around the web–and computer enthusiasts, programmers, and writers started paying attention. There were a few other consumer mechs on the market at the time, Das III (blue switches only), Matias, and some cheaper ALPS boards, but only Filco had the same exact keyboard with multiple switch options. This had never really happened before to the same model keyboard. It was never a marketing focus of any keyboard brand to offer multiple weightings and characteristics for one keyboard.
And then the market flattened out mid-2010. I started getting frustrated that things were slowing down and did dumb things like encourage people to troll Das’s webpage with Filco ads. A rebel, I know. I wasn’t sure what to do. Then, as if pennies from heaven, a Korean gamer, whose name escapes me, won $80,000 in a Starcraft tournament. And he was using a Filco Majestouch. Sales doubled virtually overnight. Unfortunately, unresolved quality issues we reported to Diatec went unaddressed, and my focus on quality started to weigh too heavily under the increased sales. I was repairing new Filcos before they went out the door to make sure the product was consistent and polished enough to maintain the reputation needed to demand its high price. The increased demand also started to weigh on Diatec too, and they were unable to supply enough keyboards to fulfill our orders. It seemed the ship was sinking fast. I needed to jump ship and diversify if I wanted to survive.
Enter Leopold, Topre, and PFU. These brands have made up most of the last 4 years for EK. And in 2014 we had to leave Leopold behind for a number of reasons including quality and supply issues. Over those years I had focused EK’s resources on just carrying the best quality available; I wanted products that I felt had integrity, and respected and exceeded customer expectations.
I feel really lucky. EK has come to stand for something I can take pride in: very honest products that do not need to hide behind trademarked buzzwords and flashy marketing.
KC: Great story, and particularly interesting bit about the Filco Majestouch 1. You’re saying it was a historically important keyboard, because it was the first time a company offered different switch types? That’s an odd concept today, when practically every Cherry keyboard can be had with the switch of your choice.
Brian: At the time, I didn’t realize it. It’s only now when I look back at the market that I realize how important that product was. I don’t even know if it was Diatec’s intention to really shake up the market in that respect, but it was a key component. It was the little push that this mechanical resurgence needed to get to the next stage. While there were other mechanical keyboards out there at the time, they all had their own personalities and were designed around one switch to be a certain way. There were a lot of other factors contributing, of course, but when I look back at what really inspired people and caught their attention, it was that these MJ1 keyboards had this switch selection. It wasn’t just the Majestouch–you could get a Das with Blue switches, or a Matias with ALPS switches, and a little later a Realforce, which was even more exotic. But initially, what caught on with people were these diagrams of Cherry switches, how they were unique, and how they were all options on this one keyboard, the Filco Majestouch 1. These switches were always available, they’d been around for years, but no one ever offered the product in such a straightforward way where customers had a choice. It was a new way of looking at keyboards that people didn’t have before. I’m sure someone will read this and say, “Oh no, somebody else tried to do this back in 2002 or 1982,” and that may be the case. But, the MJ1 was a perfect storm. Here was this information, these options, and it got people’s attention. It brought new membership to GeekHack, and it really, I think, created this whole reawakening of mechanical keyboards.
KC: I wasn’t a member of GeekHack back then. What was it like? You and iMav posting your Filcos and everyone else drooling over them? Was there a tidal wave where suddenly the MJ1 was the cool keyboard to have?
Brian: Filcos were our own niche for a short time, but plenty of other members had their own niches. I think iMav had a tenkeyless with brown switches, and I had a full size with brown switches. The tenkeyless had just come out, and I think it appealed to iMav because he’s always been interested in compact IBM boards like the SSK or the HHKB. When he saw the tenkeyless come out from Filco, and saw them on the Asian forums, I think iMav went right out and got one as soon as he could. Just that energy Filco brought to keyboards, of somebody making something that’s brand new instead of something you bought from a thrift store for $15 with yellowing plastic, was something that the Filco brand injected into the community. All of the sudden a lot of people started getting interested. There were still niches within the community, but it was new for a lot of people and that energy and low-profile minimalistic case was something fresh. People took to it pretty quickly. It was surprising.
KC: You mentioned an awakening of mechanical keyboards. There’s no doubt we’re still in the midst of that. Do you think it would have happened the same way if you hadn’t imported the MJ1, or if GeekHack had never existed?
Brian: Good question. I would say that GeekHack really did play an important part, so much that it was relevant to Eastern markets as well. It created a much bigger community around keyboards. At the time, there was a small resurgence of interest in Asia, and I think members of GeekHack picked up on this. Having a community in the United States and in the west, I think, invigorated the communities in Asia and it went back and forth. I think if GeekHack hadn’t been created and EK hadn’t brought Filcos over, I think mechanical keyboards may never have become the market force they are now. I think some Asian communities may have persisted, but it would have been even more niche. By things spreading around the world through GeekHack and all its members, and having Diatec making Filcos and me distributing them to the USA and Europe, it really invigorated people’s enthusiasm. I think it’s still that way to this day. Communities in the United States and Europe are still inspired by Asian communities, and vice versa. It goes back and forth and we all amplify each other’s efforts.
KC: Best Buy recently started carrying mechanical keyboards. I wonder if that would have happened if GeekHack hadn’t existed.
Brian: Right. And timing had a lot to do with it. At the time there was not only a need, but forums on the Internet were really becoming powerful tools in the consumer market. That was really the time for it to happen. It was a perfect storm, and it could have happened a lot differently, absolutely.
KC: The market for mechanical keyboards is definitely growing but it seems mostly driven by gamers and PC builders. Do you think we are going to see Logitech or Microsoft start to release executive-style mechanical keyboards and take them mainstream?
Brian: I think the ho-hum reception of RGB mech keyboards is a good indication that the gaming portion of the market is leveling off a bit, but I still see a ton of opportunities for innovation within keyboarding in general — and a lot of that is being inspired and driven by mechanical keyboards and enthusiasts.
KC: So, going back to Filco, the good times eventually came to an end. Can you speak more about that?
Brian: The time we decided to drop Filco was a time where demand was really increasing. They had a very solid product, and even by today’s standards, the Majestouch would still be a competitive product. But there were a number of things in the design that were causing a pretty consistent number of failures, and this was really not in line with the price point of the keyboard. It felt like, something that cost this much needed to live up to the mechanical promise of being able to achieve 50 million keystrokes. I thought it should be a top priority for Filco, but they didn’t seem to think it was as high a priority as I did. That, I think, was where we first stopped seeing eye-to-eye. I gave them a lot of feedback on ways to improve the product, to lower the number of returns, to eliminate failures, but they were very reluctant to make a lot of those changes. Of course, at the time I was not as familiar with the market and the construction techniques, so I was a bit naive. In retrospect I may have been forcing my hand too much and maybe I was out of place voicing my concerns to the extent I did. But I wanted good things for them and I wanted their brand to succeed. That was the only way I knew how at the time.
I think that Filco made some mistakes that I could say I wouldn’t have made, but at the same time I don’t want to be known as going around and being super critical. I’m not in those people’s shoes, and I don’t know what it’s like to be in their exact position. It’s really not my place to say, “that was dumb,” or “that was unethical.” In my experience, every decision in business is very multifaceted. There’s technical questions, economic questions, political questions. Every decision involves a lot of different variables that have to be weighed. All I could do is say that it wasn’t good enough for my customers and wasn’t going to work economically. In order to survive, I had to make that decision. I did the best I could at the time.
KC: I think you bring up a good point about all the variables involved. On the forums, it’s especially easy to criticize companies and their decisions. Everyone is guilty of that at times. But we rarely know the details.
Brian: There are a lot of things that go into making products that we don’t see from the outside. It’s easy to say, “Oh, they’re just trying to save money,” or “The quality of blue switches has gone way down and Cherry just doesn’t care anymore.” There are always these perspectives we can come to fairly easily. I think it’s really important, in my experience, to step away from those quick judgments. You don’t necessarily have to empathize, but to look at things from a bigger picture and see that there might be reasons beneath the surface. Demands in the market, price points, so many different things that go on that are not that vendor’s or manufacturer’s fault. Maybe Cherry is having problems with the gold cross point manufacturer. Maybe their plastic supplier is having problems. Maybe they’re having no problems. Maybe they have the absolute best materials they’ve ever had, but they have supply problems. Maybe their CEO is very sick and he can’t make decisions. There are so many things like that, and they’re not really for us to know.
KC: Are there any specific rumors or claims going around the forums now that you want to dispel?
Brian: Honestly, any claim that someone makes without hard evidence always makes me shake my head a little bit. I’m having to deal with all kinds of different rumors and having to weigh evidence myself. I frequently find, and maybe it’s just the nature of comment forums and being anonymous, people sometimes like to say things that are very one-sided. I guess at one point in time, I looked at those things and shook my head and I’d say, “You’re not completely crazy for thinking that, but you’re not seeing the whole picture.” But as I’ve gotten more experience, I’ve come to see those conversations not so much as an individual issue or point, but just part of a broader feeling. So when I see things like that I don’t chastise them immediately anymore. I look for other types of opinions and I try to look for the general feel, the temperature, the mood of the market, when I start to see things like that.
KC: Even if people are repeating something that’s wrong, it’s going to affect buyers’ purchasing decisions when they research the product.
Brian: Absolutely, and that’s a big concern as a vendor, and manufacturers have that problem too.
KC: One example that comes to mind is the whistling on the HHKB Type-S. A few folks, me included, noticed this on our units and posted about it, and then suddenly a lot of people started to talk about it.
Brian: That’s a great example. I’ve seen the conversations on the forums, but I’ve been selling the Type-S for over two years now and I’ve had two, maybe three people wanting to exchange their keyboard for the whistling issue out of the hundreds I’ve sold. So is it as big an issue as it appears to be? Definitely not. But I get emails and phone calls on a weekly basis asking about that particular problem because it’s a very expensive product and it’s a big investment. There aren’t that many conversations about it on the web, so I think when people look it up, that’s one of the conversations that comes up. It becomes a very powerful conversation and a very powerful rumor.
KC: People aren’t exactly getting together on the forums to empathize with vendors and manufacturers.
Brian: Yeah, I read all the forums and I know exactly what you’re talking about. That’s fine. People contribute to those discussions for a lot of reasons, often for their own entertainment and that’s totally fine. But in my experience, I hear all kinds of rumors inside the industry about why things are happening. But I know that latching onto one particular rumor can get me into trouble with my decision making and it can be embarrassing sometimes if you latch onto one rumor for too long and it turns out not to be true. So I always try to take a step back from those things and try not to look at things so narrowly.
KC: Let’s shift gears a little bit. According to your website you opened your showroom in early 2014. That’s a big milestone for a small business.
Brian: Oh thank goodness, yes it is a big milestone, and it was a long time coming. I’ve moved three times in the last 5 years! The response to the showroom has been great.
KC: Do you get much foot traffic? Has any random Joe ever walked in and impulse bought an HHKB? Or is it mostly people who’ve read about EK online?
Brian: Random foot traffic is rare and has never resulted in a sale, as we aren’t located in a retail park, but we have people come in almost everyday who’ve read about us online. Being smack between Los Angeles and Orange counties sure helps a lot. I keep the showroom open late on Fridays. A lot of people get off work and call me, and say, “Hey, can you stick around? I’d like to come try the Happy Hacking keyboard.”
KC: Do you ever see yourself relocating to a retail zone, or do you think your products are too niche for that to ever work? I’ve seen photos of keyboard shops in Japanese and Korean shopping districts. Will EK be the first to copy that concept in the USA?
Brian: EK isn’t a good fit for retail in the US, I mean, New York may be dense enough to make random foot traffic worth someone’s time, but with our current non-flashy concentration, it’s just a distraction. The flashy niche keyboard stores you see in Asia are all in tech retail centers with very homogenous customer affluence. We don’t really have that kind of place in the US.
KC: I’ve seen some emails posted on GeekHack from a “Tiffany.” Does this mean you’ve hired your first employee?
Brian: Tiffany is a lifesaver! I’ve paid friends and family to help enormously over the years, but Tiffany was my first regular multi-duty employee after setting up the new office.
KC: What has been your biggest challenge running EK?
Brian: Maintaining a good reputation is probably he hardest part of it all. I mean, there are incredibly painful individual challenges that come up; supplier drama, a bad product batch, and server failures, but ultimately maintaining a customer-respectful approach in every decision we make is the most time and energy consuming thing I have to do.
KC: Does EK do any business-to-business sales? Seems like a good market… if you can get them to bite.
Brian: We have a lot of corporate customers, but few of them are buying such high-priced boards as Realforces in bulk.
KC: Yeah, every office needs keyboards, but I imagine it’s a tough sell, getting businesses to spend $75 or more on a mechanical keyboard instead of spending $5 on a Dell.
Brian: Absolutely. I had not had any experience with business-to-business keyboard sales before I got into the keyboard market. It’s definitely a lot harder than I had imagined. Part of that is because of the price, yes. But in addition, I didn’t have the best understanding of corporate procurement, and how they get equipment for their people. When you work for a company, you may not even know how the computer and keyboard on your desk got there. But what I’ve learned is that frequently there are several people in between the manager of a particular department and the people who actually procure something like a keyboard. So yeah, it’s a big challenge to get into bigger companies because of that. There are a lot of smaller companies who come to us and they’ll just buy five or ten keyboards. Frequently departments of big corporations with their own budgets will come to us and do something like that. That’s not uncommon. But actually becoming a regular purchasing point for a procurement department within a large company is very difficult. I’ve found that you can spend days and weeks of your time trying to get these people on the phone and it can often be fruitless. While it seems like that’s a good place to focus energy, it can be very discouraging. There are a lot of hurdles and walls to cross before getting products onto desks of big corporations.
KC: Do you know of any big companies that are using mechanical keyboards on a large scale?
Brian: Oh yeah. Pick a big tech company and they’ve probably bought keyboards from us. I’m sure MechanicalKeyboards.com would tell you the same thing. When the user can sell the value proposition to their budget manager, they can get the keyboard. But it’s hard to go the other way. Trying to market the cost savings or durability seems to fall on deaf ears, but when I can reach out and connect with employees themselves, that’s where the sales happen. The Internet goes a long way here. If it were 30 years ago, I would have to be walking door to door to businesses and giving them free samples. But with the Internet, people can see what the possible value of the product is and that changes everything.
KC: I know big office supply companies are notorious for bribing secretaries to order with them instead of their local competitors. Maybe you just need to get into bribery.
Brian: I believe it. That’s a great technique and it’s used in business a lot, but it’s not to my tastes. I think the people who use our products in corporations, like secretaries, transcriptionists, programmers; I’m sure they could be convinced but it’s not really the way I would like to do business.
KC: That makes sense. That’s consistent with the values you’ve emphasized during our discussion. Shifting gears a little bit, can you tell me what has been the most surprising thing you’ve experienced while running EK?
Brian: The most surprising thing I’ve encountered would be customers being so happy with their keyboards that they go out of their way to advertise for me. It’s really flattering. The people who send their keyboard back for a repair with things… furry things…. living under the keycaps would be a distant second, but still “surprising.”
KC: Lately there’s been a lot of new-old stock posted on Leopold’s website, eBay, and even EK. Where did this stuff come from, was it from a warehouse in Korea?
Brian: Leopold has been trying a lot of different things to grow and diversify over the last couple of years and I’m not sure they have control of every seed they’ve sowed.
KC: I see. By the way, what’s going on with blank Realforce keysets?
Brian: I’m not really at liberty to say what goes on inside of Topre. To the best of my ability, what I can describe is, I think we’ve put in a lot of queries to Topre for keycaps, special keyboard designs, special editions. For the most part, what seems to be going on at Topre right now is that they’re focusing their efforts elsewhere. So, they’re a bit disappointed with the performance of the Realforce line, I think. It’s concerning to them, and I definitely understand that and wish I could sell more $200 keyboards for them. I think they’re focusing their efforts on other things and trying to cut back on making things on their line that aren’t as high margin. Keyboards have a much higher margin than having someone pack keycaps into a tray. Because they’re in such a niche, they have to make some business decisions that require them to cut products from their normal line.
KC: What about the silent Realforces? Did they pull the plug due to poor sales?
Brian: Oh no, those were actually selling great. Those were discontinued because for whatever reason, the tooling for the purple silent switches was partially paid by Leopold. And since we stopped carrying Leopold products, Leopold decided that they didn’t want to be distributing the silent keyboards to the US market anymore.
Brian: Yeah, it’s unfortunate, it’s one of the perils of having to cut someone off like that.
KC: And about Leopold, why did you stop carrying their products?
Brian: Leopold had a lot to offer early on. I had found a supplier that was interested in responding quickly to US market demands and had a focus on quality. However, over time our relationship ran into problems because their attitude toward me shifted from wanting a contributing partner to wanting a subserviant US dealer. This despite a lot of feedback that helped define some of their products, but it got to a point that I felt they might throw us to the dogs at anytime and I didn’t want to be caught off guard like that.
I don’t hold a grudge with them; as the market has become very competitive, so profits are smaller. I guess that’s the only way they knew how to deal with it. In the end, I found myself making too many excuses for them; i.e. supply shortages and quality issues — this diminished the confidence I had in what they were doing. I felt it was too much risk for EK to continue taking with such a limited product line. I know some people in the mech keyboarding community who pay close attention to our product line may find our parting to be a failure on my part, they say “Leopold has this great product; EK really screwed up,” but I tried for four years and there were definitely some successes in there. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, but I do still try to support previous Leopold customers the best I can.
KC: You’ve heard about the Topre PBT spacebar group buy. I know you were contacted but declined to participate. Can you tell us why?
Brian: When I first heard of this group buy, either on GeekHack or Reddit, I heard that the price would be about $9 per spacebar. My initial reaction was that’s a very expensive spacebar. Yes, it would be a rare item and something like that could demand a price premium, but it’s not fair, I think, to ask customers to pay that much for a spacebar because you need to make the custom tooling for it. At the end of that sale, someone owns the rights and ability to make that product. What a lot of keyboard enthusiasts don’t understand is how expensive the tooling is to make keycaps. When it comes to making a new tool like that, in the community it’s a very difficult proposition to put to people, and to ask them to not only pay for the product and the manufacturing cost, but then to also pay for the capital that goes into making that, and they don’t get to own any of it. My feeling is, at $9 a keycap, everyone should own a portion of the capital and a portion of all profits that are made from that tool. It’s one of the first group buys that I’ve seen in the keyboard community that really requires a fairly expensive tool to be purchased. I think the quote they were giving was something like $13,000 or $15,000. That’s a big chunk of money, and if you’re going to ask enthusiasts to pay for that, they deserve to own part of that.
Also, for anybody to go out and do a group buy on a Topre keycap or any accessory, they’re potentially setting people up for disappointment. You see so many Topre keyboards on GeekHack. Everybody’s posting them, and you might think that Topre has a much bigger market than it does. But when people actually give me a phone call and we start talking about that, I’m happy to tell them how small the Topre market really is. I wish it were bigger. There’s no one who knows the Western Topre market better than me. I don’t mean to sound arrogant; it’s just a fact.
KC: Interesting point about tooling. I can think of one other example, which is the Cherry Replica keyset on Signature Plastics. Prior to that they didn’t have Cherry legends and the whole point of that group buy was to fund their production.
Brian: That was the only other thing that came to mind. I didn’t follow that to its completion. What ended up happening?
KC: They made them, and Cherry legends are now an option on PMK group buys.
Brian: Oh, that’s great, but it’s a big debacle. It’s a really interesting time in enthusiast communities now, with the 3-D printers and this great forum software we have. We can really start to do things together. But this tooling capital that comes up is a real problem. Anytime something comes up that a business normally manages, it becomes a big hassle for the community to bring their ideas to fruition. So I’m constantly reading about these different group buys and seeing how people are handling this. I’m really interested to see how things pan out over time.
KC: Tell us about KUL. It came out of left field. Who are these guys?
Brian: To the best of my understanding, the founders of KUL are people in the industry who are dissatisfied with the way some things in the market work. It’s a collaboration; I’ve contributed a lot of information to KUL about the market and I’m rooting for them.
KC: I saw someone mention on GeekHack that KUL tried to make a Topre keyboard but got shut down. Is that true?
Brian: Yeah, I heard the same, I think they went to Topre and were told no. I think that was right around the same time that Cooler Master went to Topre (about the Novatouch). I think what happened is Topre said, “We’ve got this real big established company here,” (CM Storm) and it was purely a rational business decision. Here’s a company I’ve never heard of, (KUL) and here’s a company that’s huge and promising me thousands of sales. I think I’d have made the same decision if I were in Topre’s shoes.
KC: You mentioned that your favorite keyboards are the KUL and 55g Realforce. What would you say is the worst keyboard you’ve ever used? For me, it’s those white Apple rubber dome keyboards.
Brian: *Laughs* I’ve used those too and they’re pretty atrocious. For me, it was when I was in Japan. I was used to the U.S. layout and I’d grown up on it. They gave me a Japanese keyboard, which is similar but slightly different. Going back and forth between the two layouts was hard. It slowed me down by half. I started looking for other keyboards, and when I would go to the local electronics shops, the only keyboards I could find with a U.S. layout were these ten-dollar, terrible keyboards. When you pressed two adjacent keys at the same time, they wouldn’t come back up. Those were the worst keyboards I’ve ever typed on.
KC: And that’s when you got your Filco, right?
Brian: Right. That’s when I knew I had to get something better and I went on my Filco quest.
KC: Any cool upcoming products you can tell us about from KUL, Topre, etc.? Is the HHKB3 right around the corner?
Brian: I’m bound by NDAs so I can’t say what’s up and coming.
KC: Maybe you can answer a different question. I know a lot of folks would like to see a HHKB3 in particular. Do you think PFU is keeping tabs on consumer trends? Do they know people want this? Or are they out of touch?
Brian: I think the pulse they have on the market is Japanese-centric. Pretty much every response I’ve seen from them has been in response to the Japanese market and what’s going on in Japan. When we started selling Happy Hacking Keyboards back in 2010, sales were declining in Japan. It was not because interest in Happy Hacking Keyboards had declined, sales were just stagnant because everyone who wanted one had one, so there were fewer new sales. So I think PFU had to deal with that, and while they’ve seen sales increase with this whole revitalization of the mechanical keyboard market, and produced the Type-S and some new accessories, for the most part the rest of the world is just sort of at the mercy of whatever Japanese customers want. That’s where PFU’s focus is. Do they have a Happy Hacking Keyboard 3 in the works? I honestly have no idea. They’re not a company that broadcasts their news or plans. They don’t even tell distributors.
KC: Can you tell me what EK has in store for 2015 and beyond?
Brian: One thing I can mention is that EK does have a new website in the works that will allow more payment methods (finally); no release date yet.
KC: What sets EK apart from bigger retailers like MechanicalKeyboards.com? Why should customers buy from you?
Brian: I can’t make a direct comparison between EK and retailers like MechanicalKeyboards.com since our approach to the market is so different. We aren’t trying to carry as many products as we can find customers for. I’ve always wanted “Elite” to stand for a more ethical and respectful product — something that isn’t attainable by everyone, but everyone knows is worth the money.
Be sure to check out EK’s website, especially if you haven’t visited in the past few months. There are a lot of new products available. Check it out at http://www.elitekeyboards.com/, or if you’re in the Los Angeles area, visit in person at:
10321 Los Alamitos Blvd
Los Alamitos, CA 90720