TL;DR: We got dumped. We’ve had the ceremonial pint of Ben & Jerry’s and we’re on our way to finding a new manufacturer. Before you ask, no, there’s no Tinder for keyboard factories.
Once we’ve got a new manufacturer on board, we should be able to share a revised timeline for delivery of your keyboard. You can rest assured that we’re not going to compromise on quality and that your keyboard will be as good or better than if we’d continued working with the original manufacturer.
The past month has had its bright spots, too. Parts for the first prototype of the production Model 01 design are winging their way to us from Shenzhen now.
So, what happened?
The first hint that something was catastrophically wrong was when our manufacturer’s sales guy, who had left the company months earlier, messaged Jesse on WeChat out of the blue late one night just over a week ago.
“Hey, I’m really sorry that things turned out this way. I feel horrible about it.”
And yes, things had been rocky with the manufacturer, but we’d done a pretty good job of mitigating the issue and things seemed to be getting back on track.
When we wrote in November that we were negotiating terms for the Statement of Work, that was 100% true. Then the manufacturer told us that they didn’t want to sign paperwork until the design was ‘finished.’ This sounded a little bit fishy to us, so we asked around. Everyone we talked to in the industry told us that yes, that’s a pretty standard thing to hear from a larger manufacturer. They seemed fairly engaged–providing design feedback and even having a partner make samples of our wooden enclosure to prove their capabilities.
In December, things started to slow down a bit–replies were taking longer, but we were still getting enough information to make design decisions as we crafted the production design of the Model 01 around their capabilities.
By early January, we’d completed the electrical design (with the updated LEDs and chips) and handed it off to them for feedback and build-out of the first test boards. Getting feedback was like pulling teeth. And the feedback we eventually got was, roughly, 'yeah, looks fine.’ When we asked them about those prototype boards they were going to build, the response was a request for information we’d already delivered to them with the circuit designs.
As February crept up, we still didn’t have boards and were still waiting for pricing feedback on mechanical designs we’d presented to them in December. The excuses and explanations varied, but mostly revolved around the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday. They asked us if we’d had prototype PCBs made and if we could send them some.
This was probably about the point that the panic really set in. We reached out to the folks who’d first introduced us to the manufacturer and who were helping us out with project management to express our concerns. They got on the phone with management at the manufacturer, who assured them that yes, they were still super excited about the project and that yes, they would devote more resources to it just as soon as the Chinese New Year Holiday wrapped up. They swore up and down that they’d have a run of prototype PCBs made as soon as they were back from vacation.
So we went on vacation for two weeks, still slightly uneasy, but at least slightly reassured that management was now aware of the issue and had committed to making things right.
When we got back to Oakland, the mechanical engineer was just putting the finishing touches on the CAD and mechanical drawings for the enclosure, feet and interconnect mechanism we’d designed based on the advice and in-house manufacturing capabilities of the manufacturer. At the same time, we reached out to them to ask about those PCBs. They said they were getting us a price and asked if we could send them the firmware and flashing instructions.
We sent them off the final documentation packet and a couple days later, we followed it up with the firmware. When we asked them about the PCB status a few days later, they said they were still evaluating the firmware. That was…not the right answer. So we asked the folks helping us with project management if they could see what was going on, with both the documentation packet and the PCBs.
This was Tuesday, almost two weeks ago. Management said that they were 100% on-board with staffing up our project and that they’d brought the project team lead’s boss in to resolve the delay issue. Boards would be produced immediately and we’d get a final quote ASAP.
Once we got that quote, we’d finally be at the point where we could sign the Statement of Work with the manufacturer.
What happened next is unlikely to surprise you.
“Hey, I’m really sorry that things turned out this way. I feel horrible about it,” the sales guy said.
“Yeah, it’s been pretty rocky for a while,” Jesse said, “But it sounds like things are finally on an upswing. Yesterday, management said they’re making team changes to fix things. What have you heard?”
“Oh. I thought you knew. I was texting with a buddy who’s still at the company and he told me they’d cancelled the project.”
“Oh. Uh. Oh. Uh. Well, that’s unfortunate. Thanks for giving me the heads up.”
We reached out to the folks who’ve been helping us with project management and ended up in a 2am Skype concall. The long and short of it was that they’d reached out to the manufacturer again earlier that day to see how the promised project staffing changes were coming along. The response they got was that the manufacturer had neither R&D nor production resources for us as one of their larger customers was demanding all of their capacity for an upcoming product launch on short notice. The project managers were working to come up with a plan B.
Plan B is basically to rebid the project. That means reaching back out to potential manufacturers with the hopefully-still-final design and an updated bid packet for quotation.
The project management company has spent the week vetting potential keyboard manufacturers. We’ve spent the week updating the bid packet to contain all the detail a company who hasn’t been working with us for the last 6 months would need to fully understand the design and design intent.
Some of the folks we’ll be reaching out to are the most plausible backups from Jesse’s trip to China last fall. Some of them are the companies recommended by the project management firm. And a few are among the best of the keyboard OEMs Jesse met at CES in January.
It wasn’t until this Wednesday that the manufacturer finally took the time to write us a one paragraph breakup note.
We’ve spent the past week dissecting what went wrong with the relationship and what we could have done differently.
The truth is that they were out of our league. They’re one of the biggest keyboard OEMs on the planet and we’re one of the smallest keyboard companies. They told us that it didn’t matter because they were excited about building a 'premium’ keyboard like ours to show off their capabilities.
There’s a rule of thumb in manufacturing: If you’re not important enough to get face time with the boss, you’re never going to be their priority when there’s an issue. We thought we’d mitigated this: the folks who introduced us and were helping us with project management had an ongoing relationship with the manufacturer and they had a relationship with the manufacturer’s management team. In the end, it sounds like they were as surprised as we were.
In November, we told you we were going to be a bit late. We also told you that we weren’t going make claims about an updated ship date until we had firm promises from our manufacturing partner and a signed Statement of Work. Given the current state of things, the earliest we’ll have a manufacturing partner selected is roughly around the time of the next backer update. This sucks and we hate not having answers for you. The good news While we were naive and oblivious and should have seen the writing on the wall earlier, we weren’t completely clueless. The day we sent our production design to those jerks we don’t talk about anymore, we also sent the design to StrongD, the prototyping shop we’ve been working with for the past 18 months to have them build us a full mechanical prototype of the production design, including the feet, hinges, keycaps and enclosure. When we spoke with StrongD today, they said it should ship out tomorrow and be in our hands on Monday or Tuesday. We debated slipping this backer update until we had the unit in hand to show you, but decided that we wanted you to know about the state of things sooner, rather than later.
The good news
The project management folks are getting us quotes for a short run of test PCBs that will let us keep iterating on the firmware and turn the mechanical prototype from StrongD into a fully functioning keyboard.
We’ve done relatively little work on the firmware this month. Most of what we have done has been to set up automated build tests for the firmware and all of the libraries we’ve written. This has the pleasant side effect of making sure that all of our example code actually compiles (and keeps compiling, even as we improve the code and APIs.)
We’ve been really careful with your money. Because this is our first product and we’re doing this on what many companies would consider a laughably small budget, we’ve been incredibly conservative with costs and expenses. We have plenty of cash in the bank to make and deliver your keyboards, even if our manufacturing costs are higher than expected.
Onward and upward
Over the next week, we’ll be reaching out to the manufacturers on the list we mentioned again, getting NDAs in place and sending out bid packets.
Truth be told, we probably need another pint or two of Ben & Jerry’s.
But it’s all for the best. We’re better off without them, anyway.