Group buy guide 2021
Purchasing keyboard related stuff can look strange and confusing for an outsider or novice keyboard enthusiast. In this honest article I explain all the stages and technical terms involved in the group buy process, along with the benefits and risks of this form of purchase.
Let's right dive in!
What is a group buy?
A group buy or GB is a form of fund raising prior to production, just like projects on kickstarter. Group buys are one curiosity in this hobby which may require some explanation.
Group buys getting the most attention are probably GMK keysets with hundreds or thousands of customers. However, similar rules apply to a small-scale PCB or macropad group buy.
Personal note: I try to stay away from group buys and that's what I recommend to beginners, especially to people new to this hobby without settled preferences or being aware of their many options.
What's the purpose of a group buy?
Group buys are a great way to support designers and help community initiatives to come into existence. Many niche products would be never manufactured without prefinancing by the community.
OK, but why not just buy things in shops?
A single vendor or manufacturer would have to invest a lot of money into the production of e.g. a keycap set (the pricey molds of double-shot keycaps!), and taking all the risk turns them away from these projects.
With group buys and prefinancing the risks are taken by the buyers. Not much risk involved from the manufacturers perspective.
The purchasing power of the community may result in lower prices.
Who can run a group buy?
The group buy runner or organizer may be a respected member of the community, experienced in group buys, but that's not a prerequisite at all.
Anybody can start a group buy (risk 1).
In fact, you send your money to a stranger on the other side of the world without any warranty.
How does a group buy work?
The major phases of a group buy are generally the interest check, group buy, manufacturing (with quality control), shipping and official closing of the process.
The group buy runner (the designer of the product) or a vendor helping him/her posts an interest check [IC], usually on geekhack.org or the r/mk subreddit.
Only a concept is needed, since we are talking about a non-existing product yet (risk 2).
The interest check has double purpose:
- Firstly, it is for investigating the, well, interest in the product. This is a reality check for the runner.
- On the other hand, an interest check is often a requirement for the next stage: the runner needs some promising numbers before contacting vendors and manufacturers with an idea.
In the interest check stage, most of the time, only the concept is presented: some graphics or renders. Prototypes are rare. But this is not a problem yet, since expressing interest in a non-existent product costs you nothing.
After a successful interest check (if enough people reacted positively) the runner starts the actual group buy. In this phase, usually spannig 3-4 weeks, customers can pre-order the product from shops (vendors) as they were actual products. They even pay the full price of the item in advance.
To optimize logistics and tax administration, there are different proxies for different geographical regions/continents. E.g. you may preorder the same stuff from Novelkeys in the US, Candykeys in the EU and Zfrontier in Asia.
Again, there are good chances that only renders are available in this phase. No one has seen the actual product yet since its manufacturing starts only months later, using the money raised during the group buy (if the group buy is successful at all).
This is the period when you hear the most about the product since runners have to heavily advertise their project to meet the minimal number of orders required.
A successful group buy means the minimal order quantity [MOQ] is met. In this case the item will be produced and the buyers get their stuff a few months/years later.
But many group buys or kits don't meet the MOQ and never make it to the production phase.
Let's say, a keycap set is offered with various kits: Latin alphas, Japanese alphas, accented keys, spacebars, and the MOQ is 200 kits.
If only the Latin alphas and accents reach the MOQ, then the other sets will generally not be produced and the buyers get their money back.
Depending on the final numbers, the designer or vendors may buy the remaining sets to get the project through this hurdle.
For the customers, the manufacturing phase is mostly about waiting without much feedback from the group buy runner.
The hype is temporarily over, these are the days of hard work.
From the production side, in many cases this is the phase to finalize designs, manufacture molds for double-shot keycaps, doing the actual molding, some iterations evaluating samples, quality checks, etc.
The exact workflow depends on the product type.
When vendors get the manufactured products, they start shipping them to the consumers.
This is the phase when, after months of silence, the project is reborn from its long half-dead state.
Posts with the newly received products start to flood r/mk. (My personal favorite post type: unopened boxes.)
Things still can turn out badly: damaged products, sets lacking a single key. Replacement is tricky because of the limited runs.
Vendors handle customer complaints, replacements, but the final solution, a refund, may be gut-punching after a year of waiting and with all the other happy owners showing off their gems.
Ending the group buy
Once every customer has received its precious item, the group buy can be closed and the group buy thread on geekhack can be archived.
GBs & FOMO
Most groupbuys are one-time occasions which may be percieved as a psychological pressure if you are into e.g. caps.
That said, jumping into group buys may become a form of mental illness for many IMO (risk 3). The fear of missing out encourages hoarding: buying sets you will never use and will keep in a drawer untouched.
The reasons for this behaviour are understandable. While almost all the vendors will have some extra sets available for sale (at least for keycaps), these are generally offered for higher prices compared to the groupbuy, and normally sell out fast.
Some shops sell the extra GB items in stages. One lot after the GB, before shipping: this is still a preorder (you have to wait) and may be offered for 10-30% above GB price.
Another lot may be put on sale when the GB is delivered and r/mk is full of the glamour shots (free advertisement). These extras may be 30-50% more expensive than the GB price.
That's why vendors almost always order extra keycap sets in GBs that reach MOQ. Either as a buffer or to offer them as extras.
Some groupbuys have a rerun or rerelease, but these only happen for very popular sets after a year or two of being released.
If you miss out, one of the only places to get them would be on r/mechmarket. But the aftermarket prices are sometimes really crazy.
Group buy issues
It's worth noting that group buys can often go off-track. Long waiting times, postponements are common. Partly due to unexpected manufacturing difficulties, quality issues (risk 4), shipping issues, financial problems etc. A lot of things can go wrong.
In addition, the final product may not even look like the renders in the IC and GB phase (risk 5). Complains about differences in real life colors (compared to the renders) are common.
Also, because of the time scale, by the time you take the product in your hands, there's a chance you can't even remember what's that and when did you order it.
In the meantime, after many months, with a lots of similar overhyped group buys at your back, several long forgotten projects may be in various stages of production or on the way to your post box.
How to handle group buys and FOMO?
That's simple. Don't follow group buys. If you do, don't jump in another until the previous one is finished and/or you've used/built the last thing ordered.
Do you have a keyboard already? Does it do its job? Fine. You don't need another. Do you have a proper keycap set? Nice. You don't need one in another color.
At the end of the day, these are just regular products: overpriced slabs of aluminum and a handful of colorful plastic pieces. Buyer's remorse is guaranteed most of the time.
My recommendation: Keep your sanity and try to stay away from GBs unless you really need a particular product for your next build.
How to follow group buys?
I see you like playing with fire.
The best place to follow ICs and GBs is probably geekhack. The interest checks and group buy thread are the cradle of most keyboard related projects.
Recently, several websites emerged with the aim of following group buys and monitor their progress. I'm not familiar with these because of the lack of interest, so this is just a list without warranty or any evaluation:
Group buy trackers: mechgroupbuys.com, keycaplendar, keycapsets.com, Sleek.
Risks of group buys
- group buy runner disappears with your money
- inexperienced group buy runner
- corners cut due to manufacturing difficulties
- quality issues
- color differences
- delays, postponements
- your mental state
- your financial situation
Group buys are great! They help some great community projects to come into existence.
Group buys suck! They drain your wallet, drive you crazy and a lot of risk is involved in the process.
Now you should know enough to decide about your fate. I personally prefer building over hoarding. Check the Keyboard Builders' Digest for some great projects.