Hi! We’re Keyboardio.
Our usual gig is making some of the best keyboards in the world. If you’re reading this shortly after we posted it, our 2023 Black Friday sale is on. You can pick up one of our keyboards for the best price of the year over on shop.keyboard.io. (We’ll repeat the marketing call-to-action at the end of this post, but everything in the middle is pure, unadulterated narrative about weird stuff you can buy in the electronics markets in Shenzhen China, with a couple brief digressions into logistics. If you want to be informed about our future Boxes of Crap, sign up for our email list)
We recently sent out 200 of our infamous “Boxes of Crap” to a some lucky customers. Each of them paid $100 for their box, including all shipping and handling. This is the third time we’ve done a run of boxes and one thing we were determined to do differently this time was to actually turn a profit, rather than losing just a little bit of money on each box. As you read along, you can see exactly how much money we spent on each item in the box and how much we spent on shipping and handling.
When we're walking the electronics markets in Shenzhen looking for cool stuff to include in the Box of Crap, we're trying to find weird stuff that will surprise and delight you. To us, the ideal Box of Crap item is something that's just 5 minutes in the future or from a universe just a couple degrees away from ours. Maybe it's something that you've never seen before or something expensive that's been made unreasonably cheap.
The first time we put together Boxes of Crap, everything was new. There was unlimited weirdness in the markets. Fake Apple Watches with a camera instead of a digital crown? Sure! MicroSD cards that lie to you? No problem! Something programmable with LEDs? Sure! A cable that combined Lightning and MicroUSB into a single connector that violated every standard? Absolutely!
The last time we sent out Boxes of Crap was in March of 2017. There was a bunch of cool, random stuff in that box, but there's one thing we included that absolutely nailed "5 minutes in the future." These things were all over the markets, but we'd never seen them before. And we knew that they were going in the boxes the second we saw them. We sent out 50 fidget spinners to 50 lucky customers who were absolutely the coolest kids on their block for a hot second.
Wikipedia tells us that we were about 45 days ahead of trend
It's been six years since we last put together Boxes of Crap. A lot of that has to do with a nearly four year gap in our China travel schedule. But we've definitely been a little bit intimidated, because it's hard to live up to the hype of our past boxes.
But, this October, Jesse found himself headed back to Shenzhen on his way to visit our factory to work on our next couple of keyboard projects and we decided it was time to try to put together another Box of Crap for you.
This time around, we made a couple important changes to how we ran the project. First up, instead of Jesse personally packing the Boxes of Crap, we decided to use our fulfillment center to do the pick-and-pack, labeling and shipping. That let us reduce the amount of sheer carrying stuff around we had to do while also letting us scale things up from 50 boxes to 200. Scaling up to 200 boxes added some exciting logistical wrinkles, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Going into it, we weren't entirely sure we'd be able to find enough of the right kind of stuff to make the boxes work, so Jesse spent an afternoon walking through the markets taking pictures, asking questions and pricing out some of the "bigger" items we wanted to include.
Once we were ready to start shopping in earnest, we didn't have time to pre-sell the Boxes of Crap, so we took a gamble on being able to sell all 200 boxes and decided to pay for stuff out of pocket. That turned out to be a very reasonable bet: we sold out all the boxes we listed in a little over six hours.
While it's possible to shop in the wholesale markets of Huaqiangbei in English, with a bit of help from a translation app, we knew things were going to be a bit more complicated this time around since we were asking vendors to ship stuff to our fulfillment center rather than just handing things over to us.
Jesse recruited Ken Li, our Shenzhen-based project manager to help shop, translate, and facilitate logistics. The plan was that we were going to meet for coffee at 10 am, make a plan, and then go shopping.
At 9:30 am, Jesse went to pull some cash out of an ATM to cover some of the smaller items we'd be buying. That didn't work. He soon discovered that his bank had, very helpfully, locked his accounts because someone in China was trying to withdraw cash from an ATM with his bank card.
Thankfully, in the last few years, WeChat Pay and AliPay have grown the ability to accept payments with foreign bank cards. The daily card limits when paying businesses are quite generous, and the person-to-person payment limits should cover pretty much any situation a normal person would run into.
At 10 am, the markets are open, but very, very few of the individual shops inside the market are actually doing business. We spent a good hour walking through a surveillance camera market, a more generic "foreign trade" market, and a couple of other minor markets before we scored our first purchase.
Just around the corner where we bought guaranteed-fake MicroSD cards six years ago, we found a sticker vendor and we found something you absolutely don't need.
The Stickers and Certificates - $0.07
Your box includes a sheet of those tiny little black-on-clear oval "Made in China" stickers. We think most of the stuff in the box is already labeled as such, but we’re guessing that wherever you’re sitting, there are absolutely things within arm’s reach that were made in China and aren't properly labeled. Now you can fix them!
As we counted out 200 sheets of stickers, we noticed big bags of little triangular paper "Qualified Certificates."
The Box of Crap requires meticulous Quality Control: It's important for us to carefully control the quality. If the quality of any individual item is too high, its cost goes up to the point where we're not able to include enough crap. So the Qualified Certificates were a must. So we bought a bag of about 350 Qualified Certificates.
Your Box of Crap will include one or two Qualified Certificates. There is no special significance to getting a second certificate. No additional Quality Control was applied to your box.
There was one genuinely interesting and surprising thing about the Qualified Certificates. With even a moment's reflection, it shouldn't have been in the least bit surprising.
They came pre-stamped by a QC inspector. Specifically, all of them were stamped "QC Pass" by inspector #13.
Jesse threw the stickers and certificates into his backpack and was immediately sure that we'd made the right call deciding to have all the big stuff sent directly to our fulfillment company.
From there, we wandered onward in search of our next score.
The Phone Lanyard - $0.62
In one of the second-tier malls filled mostly with Apple Watch knockoffs, we found a vendor with a wide range of something we'd been seeing everywhere in Shenzhen, but have to-date seen very few of in the US: phone lanyards that work with pretty much any phone and case.
The design is really pretty simple. There's a flat plastic insert that you stick inside your phone case, with a tiny ring that sticks out of the charging port hole on the bottom of the case and then there's a big, soft rope lanyard with a couple tiny carabiner-style clips that you clip to the ring.
Is it dorky? Absolutely. (Although Kaia points out that celebrities have been spotted with a much fancier version)
Is it useful? Yup. Weeks later, Jesse's still actually using his. He's paid Amazon prices (20x what yours cost) to buy them for his in-laws.
The vendor told us that she'd have them ready for us (in a rainbow of random colors) in a couple hours. Jesse tried to use WeChat pay to pay for the lanyards and ran into a weird error message. No problem—AliPay came through and we were good to go.
The 800 in 1 Video Game Console - $4.66
Turning around, we found ourselves in front of a small shop selling video game consoles.
They had options ranging from tiny arcade cabinets and really fancy handheld consoles with OLED screens and multi-emulator environments (that cost literal tens of dollars) to an ideal little item - the 800 in 1 Game Box. At $4.66, that’s just over half a cent per game!
True to its name, it appears to include 800 classic video games. We recognize a few of the headliners they include on the first page of the very, very long list of games before they switch to alphabetical order for the back catalog.
Many games have recognizable games, although a number of 'em have clearly been back-translated from Chinese and others are named for the studio that created them or some other words on the game's title screen. The games are a mix of western games for a certain entertainment system and Japanese editions designed for the same manufacturer's family computer.
When we were buying your handheld game consoles, the vendor tried really, really hard to upsell us (at about a dollar more per box) to a version that had the letters "Sup" splashed out in big, white, sans-serif printing across its body. We first saw the "not-quite-Supreme" branded gear when we were last wandering around Shenzhen in 2019 and are incredibly impressed that folks are still paying for it now.
Your game box is powered by a knock-off of an old Nokia battery design and is rechargeable with MicroUSB. In theory, if you can find a MicroUSB game controller, you might even be able to play two-player games on it, too.
Jesse tried to pay for your Game Boxes and discovered that neither WeChat nor AliPay would let him complete the purchase.
Remember those generous payment limits both platforms set for commercial purchases? It turns out that pretty much nobody in the markets uses a commercial bank account. Everybody just uses their personal bank account. And we were over the daily limit for person-to-person transactions on both WeChat and AliPay.
Ken was an absolute hero and offered to just pay for everything and have us pay him back by wire transfer. We asked him four or five times if he was actually cool covering all your crap and he assured us that he was.
When we'd been scouting the markets the previous day, we'd talked to another game console vendor and we'd planned to buy from them, but they were closed when we went by their shop. If we'd bought from them, you would have gotten only 500 games in your game boxes.
They did, however, send us their whole game console catalog, including wholesale pricing.All of the pricing examples below assume you're going to be buying at least 50 or so of the same thing. The guidance we got from folks in the market was that their "retail" pricing was just about double these numbers. What we've seen in the US is that it's usually even higher than that.
A console, much like the one we picked for you, but with only 400 games and Sup branding, wholesaled for about $1 less than the one we got you.
A 500 game racecar-themed console with 520 games was $7.25. With a second controller, it cost almost a whole $8.
A Nintendo Switch knockoff with 7000 games and a 5.1 inch screen would cost $15. You could save $2 if you were willing to take a 4.3 inch screen instead.
A multi-platform emulator running Linux with real arcade buttons and a traditional stick would set you back about $45.
The Camera With a Little Printer Inside - $13.60
Also included in your Box of Crap is a "Print Camera". This is a simple LoFi simple digital camera, targeted at kids, but… actually kind of fun to use as an adult.
We shopped hard for this camera, visiting more than a dozen potential vendors. Some of the options we looked at cost nearly double the one we chose and didn't include the ability to be a bluetooth photo printer that pairs with your phone or the ability to play MP3s off the MicroSD card through a tinny little speaker.
The vendor we bought from came in at least 10% cheaper than the next least expensive option. When we first tested out her camera, the photos coming out of the printer were worse than terrible. All you could see was a ghostly blob. We asked her if there was something wrong with the camera. She pulled out another one and it failed in exactly the same way. Ken told her that if the factory could tell her how to improve the print quality, we'd be back. She promised to message us if the factory could tell her what to do.
As we looked around the markets, we saw dozens of models of cameras. Higher-end models sometimes included a second "selfie" camera. Mid-range models mounted the camera module on a swing-out arm, so you could flip it over to take a selfie while looking at the screen.
This cute little thing does something almost as good -- it includes a selfie mirror right next to the lens. You might notice a black triangle right above the screen. Yep! That's where the second camera would go on the fancier models. The cheap cameras are cheaper because they've cut out expensive bits they don't need. Having to create new injection molds just for the cheaper camera would be an extra expense, so instead they just...stick a bit of plastic where the camera lens would go.
The settings screen claims it can take pictures at resolutions ranging from 5"M" to 48"M". We're not sure what "M" means here, but we're pretty sure it's not megapixels.
Your camera is USB-C chargeable and comes with a lanyard, as well as three rolls of thermal paper. It doesn't come with a MicroSD card, but if you add one, you can record video and save your photos digitally for later playback (and play MP3s!).
About a week after we shopped for your crap, Jesse found himself at a tradeshow where, among other things, there were a few "Kids Camera" factories exhibiting. Curious to see what the markup we saw in the markets looked like, he asked one of them for a price list. Somewhat to our surprise, we actually got a competitive price from the vendor in the market.
The Light Up Cable -$1.64
One class of thing that's always for sale in Huaqiangbei is "charging cable."
Right now, what seems to be trendy in cables is ultra-chonky cables in really bright-colored silicone tubing with overbuilt chromed connectors. Many of them claim to support exceedingly unlikely charging speeds.
Those were cool and all, but felt a little pedestrian for our tastes, and they were everywhere. We decided to keep our options open until pretty late in the day. And we're glad we did.
We've included a braided, three-headed charging cable in your Box of Crap. It plugs into a USB A socket and can charge a USB C device, a MicroUSB device, and a Lightning device.
Oh, and it features color-changing RGB LEDS. Because how could it not?
The "Carbon Fiber" Spudger - $1.04
That weird black and grey thing in your box of crap that looks sort of like it might be a Klingon pocketknife is what's known in the business as a 'spudger'.
Spudgers are an essential tool for folks who open gadgets up as an occupation (or as an avocation). They're thin tools that aren't (usually) as hard as the things they're opening, so they're not too likely to scratch or damage your sensitive electronic toys. Most spudgers are made out of plastic -- one of the most common styles you'll see looks sort of like a guitar pick with a slightly thick grippy bit in the center.
Jesse was checking out the products available at one shop in the market that typically seems to sell more to locals who repair phones than to foreigners looking for baubles to market back at home.
This is a shop that he'd combed over on every previous trip to Shenzhen, but had never bought from before. We just don't tend to need things like iPhone battery configuration tools, glass delamination tools, glass relamination tools, BGA reballing kits, or other similar, but more esoteric gear.
But then we saw their top-of-the-line spudgers. And it looked like they were made out of carbon fiber. They may well be made out of plastic and printed with a carbon fiber pattern, but they look like they're made out of carbon fiber. And so we got to place a bulk order for 200 of them.
The USB Soldering Iron - $2.60
Unlike your new spudger, the USB soldering iron in your kit is not a precision instrument. It's powered by a MicroUSB connector and doesn't offer important features for careful solder work, like temperature control.
The big features your soldering iron touts on the packaging are that it has an indicator light and a switch.
Jesse has a soft spot for this horrible, horrible soldering iron. He used a USB-powered soldering iron much like this one when assembling one of the first prototypes for the Keyboardio Model 01 in a park for a friend one afternoon.
We bought these at another shop that Jesse's spent a lot of time at over the years, but had previously never bought anything from. They sell gadgets of all stripes, with a slight bias toward tools. The soldering irons were on a shelf next to electronic doorbells. Next to those were walkie-talkies, air quality sensors, calipers, and beard trimmers.
We don't recommend using this soldering iron for serious engineering, but it's convenient to keep around and might get you out of a pinch. Of course, it might also burn down your house.
The Ultra-bright Flashlight - $0.82
We bought you a flashlight on the first floor of a shopping mall known as "SEGCOM".
Upstairs, you can find literally hundreds of small shops selling many, many thousands of varieties of phone cases. We can't overstate how many phone cases are for sale in this building.
This flashlight is really, really bright. Seriously. Don't look straight at it. Don't point it in other peoples' eyes. It will hurt.
If you hold in the power button for a couple seconds, it'll get even brighter.
It's rechargeable! And was designed recently enough that it features a USB-C port to do that charging with. That's super convenient, because we can't imagine the battery lasts all that long.
Both the power button and the charging connector have rubber covers, which suggest some amount of water resistance. We wouldn't put that to the test and recommend that you don't either. But if you do, let us know.
The flashlight has a carabiner so you can clip it to your backpack or your keys. It has a tiny, tiny kickstand you can use to prop it up to illuminate something for you. The back of the flashlight has a magnet so you can stick it in place high overhead when you need a bit more light for a moment.
The Wooden Puzzle - $1.23
Also in your box of crap is a little 3D wood puzzle. The one we have here is in the shape of a barrel, but we asked them to just send us a mix of all their various 3D wood puzzles. So some of you got cubes. Some got stars. Some got other shapes.
We don't have a really good story about this one. It was being sold by the shop next to the flashlight shop and it looked cute, so we impulse-bought 200 of them. (The shop that sold the wooden puzzles was also a flashlight shop, but happened to have wooden puzzles for sale. We don't know what the deal was.)
Yes, it really cost 50% more than the flashlight.
The Headphones - $2.73
Sometimes when we're walking the markets, there's something we see and just know that it has to go in the Box of Crap. The "shoegaze" glasses we found last time fell into that category as did the wireless chargers shaped like the Enterprise's saucer section and marked "NCC-1701-A"
When Jesse was scouting the markets in advance of our shopping trip, he saw something he knew was destined for the Box of Crap. And he only saw it at a single shop.
Sure, we could have bought you $10 knockoff Apple AirPods Pro. But this was even better. Inside your box of crap, you will find one set of Pro Air headphones.
These headphones don't say Apple anywhere on them. But boy does the design scream "We wanted you to think this was an Apple product."
Unlike some not-quite-Apple knockoffs we've seen, these don't charge with a Lightning cable. Just like Apple's newest products, they charge with USB-C.
They support Bluetooth 5.3 and work equally well with Android and iOS devices.
And they fit over the back of your head, at least sort of.
When we sat down with the vendor to buy 200 sets of Pro Airs, everything went smoothly, up until we were paying, when she mentioned that they wouldn't be able to ship for nearly two weeks. We asked what the holdup was and she told us that they had plenty of the headphones in stock, but no boxes. If we needed the headphones sooner, they could ship them in generic boxes. We didn't quite know how to tell the vendor that the Cupertino-esque box was the best part of their decidedly-weird product, but with a little prodding, they were happy to get the boxes made on a slightly-expedited schedule for you.
While we were waiting around, we asked them what their fanciest, most expensive headphones were and they pulled out a set of "AirPods Pro", telling us that these $10 (wholesale) headphones were the latest version, complete with Spatial Audio. Jesse decided to see how they stacked up to his genuine Apple AirPods Pro.
Boy was he surprised when the knockoffs started to pair with his phone through the fancy Apple device pairing flow, rather than the regular Bluetooth pairing flow. They reported how much battery each earphone had, they seemed to have some amount of noise cancellation functionality and...yup. they had a passable knockoff of spatial audio. But that wasn't the wild part.
The wild part was that Jesse's iPhone reported that "Jesses AirPods Pro #2" still had nearly a month left on their Apple Limited Warranty.
The Keychain Spy Camera Detector - $9.02
The hidden camera detector was a dark-horse entry into this Box of Crap. When a vendor had first presented it to us, it was just an add-on feature of a "GPS Tracking Device Detector." No fewer than three security-paraphernalia vendors tried to sell us these GPS Tracking Device detectors. All three of them tried to demonstrate how they worked, first firing up a GPS tracker (of the sort that you might hide under somebody's bumper) and then turning on the tracker-detector. And every single time, the detector failed. If it was tuned to be not-very-sensitive, it was silent. If it was tuned to pick up much of anything at all, it was just going off constantly. None of the vendors could figure out what was wrong. It probably wasn't the fact that they were trying to demonstrate a GPS tracker detector in the middle of a shopping-mall sized building filled with vendors selling GPS trackers. Probably.
The stores selling the GPS tracker detectors also sold cell-phone jammers. They looked very intense.
But a couple of the GPS trackers had add-on "spy camera detectors", which did seem to work a bit better. The operating theory is that they have a lens you look through and a set of bright LEDs. When the LEDs are on and you look through the lens, camera lenses will tend to glow brightly.
Chatting with friends in China, there's been something of an epidemic of small hotels being caught placing spy cameras in guest rooms, which has led to a bit of a market for devices like these. But really, if you're going to have a keychain, how could you not want to have a Spy Camera Detector Keychain?
Let us know if it ever helps you detect a hidden camera that you didn't know about in advance.
Putting the Boxes on Sale
After a hard day shopping, we took a break and waited to see if everything we ordered actually showed up at our fulfillment center. Starting the next morning, vendors started sending us pictures of giant cartons full of stuff we'd bought.
About two weeks later, everything had arrived at the warehouse and we were ready to start selling some crap. We sent out a single email, put almost all of the boxes on sale at 11AM on a Friday morning, and crossed our fingers.
A bit over six hours later, the Box of Crap sold out.
Fulfillment - $1.68
Over the past few days, the fulfillment company has been packing and shipping out Boxes of Crap. They're charging us $1.10 per box to fill each order.
They ordered custom-sized boxes with five layers of extra-thick cardboard that fit all the crap we bought with as little wasted space as possible. Those cost $0.58.
The fulfillment company gave us the choice of the five layer cardboard at $0.58 or three layers of "regular thickness" cardboard for $0.44. We feel like the extra fourteen cents are well worth it to ensure that your crap gets to you in good shape.
Shipping - $22.88
Shipping is what's turned every previous iteration of the Box of Crap from a money-making project into...not a money-making project. And it's always been batteries that have tripped us up. Shipping stuff with batteries in it is just more expensive and many carriers simply won't do it.
This time around, we got our shipping rates worked out in advance. We knew that shipping would cost us $16.29 per kilogram, with an additional $2.49 fee for the packages to be trackable.
The thing we didn't know at the time was what your boxes of crap weighed. And we still didn't know that until yesterday. We just knew it couldn't be more than a kilogram.
We were, of course, wrong. Your boxes of crap weighed an average of 1.252 kilograms, for an average cost of $22.88. The heaviest box was 1.3 kilograms and the lightest was 1.199 kilograms. Four boxes of crap were ordered by folks in Anchorage, Alaska. Shipping those cost a bit more.
Totaling it all up
Adding up what we paid for your crap, we get to $39.71.
$22.88 in shipping and handling brings our costs up to $62.59.
Shopify charged us another $2.70 in payment and order processing fees, bringing our hard costs per box to a grand total of $65.29.
That gives us a rough profit of $34.71 per box, not counting our time, flights, hotels, wire transfer fees, etc.
If we do another Box of Crap, we might try changing things up a bit, identifying the kinds of stuff we want to buy in the markets and then buying direct from the factory, so we can offer boxes to more folks. We're also contemplating branching out to places other than Shenzhen. We've heard interesting things about a region that's known for kids' toys and another that has dozens of shopping malls filled with inexpensive housewares. But there's definitely a soft spot in our hearts for Shenzhen. So we could just do that again.
Chat about the Box of Crap
We hope that you've enjoyed reading about our mini-adventure! If you want to chat about the Box of Crap, join us on Discord at https://discord.gg/qJAq3mYe5r.
We can't promise to be able to help you with any of the stuff in the box, but we'd be delighted to chat.
And if you aren't already on our mailing list, sign up if you want to know the next time we do this project.
Buy our keyboards!
Our usual gig is making some of the best keyboards in the world. If you’re reading this shortly after we posted it, our 2023 Black Friday sale is on. You can pick up one of our keyboards for the best price of the year over on shop.keyboard.io, but even if you’re reading this months or years later, you can still pick up one of our keyboards, even if it costs a few bucks more.
<3 Jesse + Kaia