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MK Vendor Trust and Safety System: Increasing Awareness and Mitigating Risk

Cobertt, MK Vendor Trust and Safety Admin, sheds light on the events leading to the new initiative and what it means for the future of promotion on official platforms.

Cobertt
Published December 6, 2023
This post is part of the KBD.NEWS Advent Calendar 2023. The previous article was: How to organize a keyboard meetup by Gordon Diggs. Stay tuned and check back for more articles tomorrow!

Introduction

For those that don’t know me, I go by Cobertt. I’ve been into mechanical keyboards since 2008, with the purchase of my first Happy Hacking Keyboard. I’ve been a long time digital introvert, meaning I didn’t post much, simply lurking and reading threads and quietly joining early group buys. I never really took a break from learning about mechanical keyboards, instead turned my desk into a revolving door of keyboards.

During the pandemic, I decided that I would be more active in the community. I began offering assistance to users in the new MechGroupBuys server on Discord. I was asked to run the help channel where I was jokingly given the title of Keeb Guru, as I had enough background knowledge to help on pretty much any subject. I was eventually approached about moderating /r/MechanicalKeyboards and worked with the team to bring PSAs and Announcements to the community regarding vendors who had closed with open projects, exit scammed, or just completely disappeared.

The PSAs were a large step forward when it comes to the collaboration of various mechanical keyboard platforms. While I represented both /r/mechanicalkeyboards and MechGroupBuys, we had moderator representatives from /r/Mechmarket, Discord Mechmarket, and Geekhack all working together to inform the community of vendors in trouble. While exit scams and failed group buys had happened in this hobby before, the COVID-19 Pandemic created a perfect storm of factors that brought us to this point.

MK boom

The mechanical keyboard hobby boomed during the pandemic. With near global stay at home orders, people found themselves with more time, and in the case of many tech related careers, more money, to spend on hobbies. We can see this in the following chart of MechanicalKeyboards’ subscriber count:

Pic: MechanicalKeyboards’ subscriber count

MechanicalKeyboards’ subscriber count

In 2020, we grew by 50%, and by 2022 we had doubled in size to one million subscribers. This was great for the community, but arrived with its own unique issues. Mechanical keyboards are a niche hobby, there’s no denying that fact. Before the pandemic, the majority of projects were funded using the group buy model. At the time there was an understood risk that came with joining a group buy. While we had a few major vendors at the time, the majority of group buys were run by individuals. In fact, the group buy process was originally adopted by the hobby because individuals wanted to run personal projects with the support of the community. Eventually individual run group buys were picked up by vendors to offset the burden on the designer. This system generally worked for the hobby.

During the pandemic however, there was a mass influx of users and with that, purchases. I would be remiss not to mention the rise in popularity of streaming and the influence of Taeha Types’ Tfue commission to the growth of the hobby. That video is still his most viewed at 8.8 million views, his next highest viewed video is his legendary Fjell with lubed Holy Pandas video. In what felt like an overnight sensation, products were flying off the shelf. The hobby had never seen this kind of demand for keyboards, switches, keycaps, custom cables, stabilizers, and lube. There was a time during the pandemic that getting Krytox 205g0 was a challenge, that stabilizers would sell out within minutes of release, and GMK keycaps were on everyone’s wishlist. The idea of near unlimited demand is what sets the stage for the problems we now face in the hobby.

During the Pandemic, demand for the hobby was rampant. There were group buys and preorders for almost everything, switches, keycaps, keyboards, even keyboard cases. We saw all time highs for numbers of group buy purchases. If memory serves, GMK Modern Dolch r2 became the best selling keycap set of all time, with over 7,000 base kits ordered. That set ran through Omnitype (then Dixiemech) during June of 2020.

Pic: GMK Modern Dolch 2 orders

GMK Modern Dolch 2 orders

The consistent success of group buys were quite alluring to the hobbyist looking to dip their feet into creating their own keysets, keyboards, and switches, or even becoming a vendor. Unfortunately, this tempting market is where things start to go south, although not immediately transparent to the majority of the community.

During the pandemic we saw rise to many new vendors. There was room in the market for new vendors. We also saw existing vendors become larger, and expand to even more product categories. In theory, this was really good for the hobby. We saw competition, more designs being created, it felt like there were plenty of options to build and purchase components that were catered to you. However, in the background some vendors were falling into bad habits. It wouldn’t be apparent for a while, but vendors were essentially gambling with group buy funds, and they continued to bet on unlimited growth and demand during this height of the hobby.

Post-pandemic tendencies

If we know anything about the global market, we know that it ebbs and flows like the tide. Sometimes the market is low, and sometimes the market is high. Post pandemic, the economy looks a bit different. Money became tighter, the stock market dipped, suddenly, luxury goods were not as important anymore. Custom mechanical keyboards were one of those luxuries that hit a wall in terms of demand growth. The market became saturated with product, and we started seeing group buys fail to reach the record numbers we had seen in the height of the pandemic. It was a slow decline in comparison to the boom the hobby had seen, but it was a decline nonetheless.

During this time, we saw vendors try and pick up the slack, purchasing extras to ensure that projects made MOQ, or minimum order quantity. In the past, extras were snatched up as a continued interest in projects from newcomers was often seen shortly after the initial final product photos were taken and shared across the community. As with many hobbies that have limited quantity items, FOMO or fear of missing out, drove a lot of sales. Extras were another way of capitalizing on FOMO. Extras were originally purchased by vendors or runners to make sure that if there were any errors in kits or shipping, that there were back ups, and later after any issue within the main group buy was solved, could be sold to generate an extra revenue and profit.

During the early days and later periods of unprecedented growth, extras were not a problem in the hobby. Extras became a problem, however, as vendors purchased additional inventory with GB funds, to hit MOQ, and gradually become over leveraged. As demand subsided and inventory backlog grew, it became apparent that the bets vendors made during the pandemic turned out to be poorly placed.

Today, we have to deal with the poor business choices that some vendors made during the pandemic. Not all vendors are in this situation, but certainly you’ve heard of the ones that are. Many keyboard vendors closed their doors as the market began to dry up. 3D Keebs, Prevail Key Co, among others closed up shop. Some more gracefully than others. It’s a challenging situation, realizing and acting upon the idea that your business isn’t working. I like to give a little grace in these situations, as I tend to think of the person behind the shop. For some, this was a dream of theirs, and it’s painful to face the reality of things not working out.

Unfortunately, there were vendors who pretended that things were fine, until it became abundantly clear that they had dug a hole too deep to recover from. Mechs & Co was a company that unfortunately dug one of these deep holes. Mechs & Co was a pandemic era business that ran multiple simultaneous group buys, before they even shipped a single kit. Using data from KeycapLendar, we can see that between December 1, 2020 and May 5th, 2023, Mechs & Co ran a total of 51 group buys. In May of 2021, I even participated in the group buy of GMK Arch. Luckily, I received my keyset. Unfortunately, for many others this isn’t the case.

Pic:

On June 23, 2023, as a /r/mechanicalkeyboards moderator, I made my first PSA post on Mechs & Co. At the time, the owners of Mechs & Co were communicative with us and were working to a better resolution. They made promises of what they were going to follow through with, but unfortunately the promises they made were empty. A week later, I made a follow up post. The owners, Chris and Mike, had gone silent, but had provided us with some information. Sadly, some of the information was inaccurate and there was a bit of information withheld.

Eventually it came to the point where we, as a moderation team, had had enough. We recommended that customers used chargebacks to attempt to get their money back. I believe that at this time, it would have been beneficial for us to use our platform, not only as we did to hold vendors accountable, but customers too. We might have stressed a bit more how a chargeback should be the last resort option, but our priority was rapid customer awareness. During this time, we received other complaints about vendors who may be in the same overleveraged position Mechs & Co found themselves in. Other vendors who bought tons of extras to cover MOQ and bet on the continued growth of the hobby, now were deferring payments due to mismanaged group buy funds.

The problem with extras

When the cross platform moderation team started digging deeper into the issues surrounding Mechs & Co, we found that the mismanagement of funds was primarily related to purchasing extras. Extras were able to achieve a couple things for both vendor and designer. Extras could be used to jump up to the next minimum order quantity tier, meaning a decreased unit purchase cost, this would land some extra money into the pockets of vendors and designers, as today, the price of the group buy no longer decreases as sales increase through pricing tiers. Extras provided future income for vendors for those that missed out or felt FOMO as they would be sold at a higher price. Some designers requested their share of extras sales up front, increasing their cut up front. The higher price of extras, made people feel like they were saving money by joining a group buy, when in reality, as soon as vendors took over and stopped offering incremental decreases in price as sales number rose, the money saving stopped.

Today you can purchase extras for lower than base group buy cost, which greatly devalues the proposition of a group buy. Some hobbyists have reacted by calling for the end of group buys as a sale model entirely. While ideal in theory for some products that have sufficient demand, in practice this becomes much more difficult. This hobby was built on group buys. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. Without the group buy model, our hobby would not be what it is today, both the good and the bad.

Even though this hobby has grown in population, it’s still relatively niche. We’ve seen a great improvement in both the number and quality of in-stock options in the hobby, especially in the budget scene. However, the more esoteric, custom products in the hobby still rely on group buys. Without guaranteed sales, running 50-100 quantity of a $300+ keyboard is virtually impossible for a hobbyist or smaller vendors, both from a risk standpoint and a financial one. Instead of barring group buys as a whole, we want to increase visibility into vendor group buy history and their ability to fulfill, and let consumers make more informed decisions, while also providing a centralized mechanism to report problematic group buys. This brings us to the creation of the Trust and Safety Team.

Trust and Safety Team

The Trust and Safety Team currently consists of five core members, all moderators across different platforms. Our representation currently covers /r/MechanicalKeyboards, /r/MechMarket, Geekhack, Discord MechGroupBuys, and Discord Mechmarket. This group formed organically from the dealings with Mechs & Co and other failed vendors. Once we started peeling back the layers of issues, we realized that this is a much larger problem than what was originally thought. Based on discussions with other members from across the hobby’s popular marketplaces, platforms, vendors, and influencers, it became apparent that it was time for hobby to have a more mature “vetting” system for vendors running group buys, not only to protect hobbyist consumers, but also to highlight vendors who are proven to be trustworthy.

At this time, the /r/mechanicalkeyboards mods met and determined that for the time being we would temporarily pause the advertisement of interest checks, group buys, and preorders. We were originally hit with a decent amount of pushback, especially from smaller vendors and designers. We understood that by limiting what was posted on the subreddit, we were removing an advertising platform for these groups.

Many did not understand why interest checks were also targeted in our pause of advertisement. Interest checks are one of the best tools that we have in this hobby. It allows designers and/or vendors to receive feedback on products. Unfortunately, the term interest check had become watered down, and many were abusing the mechanism for advertising. Some designers were running pre-interest checks, which had no fleshed out work done, and there were interest checks run mere days before a group buy started, which only served as glorified advertisement of a group buy. In short they were being abused by designers and vendors as an advertisement, instead of what they were actually meant for, constructive criticism, feedback, and community input to help improve products.

The mod team felt that rewriting the rules on group buy and preorder promotion also required rewriting some of the rules in other areas as well. It was a lot to bite off in a single project, but we felt it was worthwhile tackling it if it meant that the community would be better off for it in the long run.

Trust and Safety System

After tens of thousands of discord messages, hours of live calls, and months of work across dozens of platform mods, vendors, designers, influencers, and veteran community members, we created the initial framework for the Mechanical Keyboard Trust and Safety System for Keyset and Keyboard Group Buys. The initial draft looked very different from the version that was first released for public review and feedback, but it served as an important starting point to refine and improve upon.

Over the coming weeks, we would go over this document with a fine toothed comb. There were times where we butted heads about what was feasible in this initiative, we knew that in order for it to be successful we needed buy-in from both the community and from designers and vendors. As long time members, many of us have contacts within the community for both designers and vendors. We called in some favors and asked designers and vendors that we trusted for their feedback on our work. We were incredibly happy when both designers and vendors shared their desire for some sort of system, and came on-board to work with us to refine the system. I want to personally say thank you to all those who gave feedback on the initial documents and the vendors who signed up. I would be lying if I said there weren’t times where this seemed too enormous of an issue to tackle. The support that we received from both the community and the designers and vendors kept us motivated to continue.

Pic:

The Mechanical Keyboard Trust and Safety System is not a perfect system, nor is it ever likely to be perfect. This does not solve the issue of overleveraged group buys. This does not put the money back in people's pocket, that was managed irresponsibly by failed vendors. This does not make it impossible for a vendor to overleverage themselves in the future. No system is going to completely protect consumers from irresponsible vendors or group buy risks. What this system does do is provide consumers and hobbyists with at least some basic information to make informed purchases. It also relies on community feedback to maintain the accuracy and timeliness of the information.

The system is in its infancy at this point. As of the time of this article being written, vendors are invited to submit a form to get rated in the system. This initial submission of vendors will require the team to work hard and may take longer, so several platforms have provided a grace period for onboarding.

For the system to work, the community also needs to do its part. The community needs to report when troubles arise with group buys or vendor fulfillment and communication. Issues like ghosting support tickets, ignoring emails, unexplained missed deadlines. It is impossible for one small team to keep up to date with every group buy from every single vendor. We can make public service announcements and restrict advertisement, but it is critical to remember that at the end of the day, vendors are not beholden to platform moderators.

Pic:

Future

While currently the Trust and Safety System is aimed solely on keyset and keyboard group buys, there is potential for expansion to cover other products in the future. Before we can expand the current system, however, we need to fine tune and adjust what we have. The system itself is considered to be a living document. The document can and will evolve as we continue to work to better the system.

It is important to note that this is not a “ranking” or “review” of vendors. Rather, this is meant to assign a “relative risk category” that reflects objective data based on vendor characteristics, GB history, and communication commitments. This is admittedly a difficult and nuanced distinction to explain, especially when many will look at the document, see a company with a AAA next to them and think that this is a “better company” to buy from than a company with an A risk rating. That is not the stated purpose of the rating. The AAA rated vendor has more successful group buy experience than the A rated vendor. Both have an excellent history in fulfilling group buys, one just meets higher criteria than the other and is given more berth for advertising multiple simultaneous group buys on the participating platforms.

That is the purpose of the system: to give buyers a clear picture of the vendors they are purchasing from and enough history and data to make an informed purchase, while also limiting exposure of those vendors who may be taking on too much risk. We cannot stop the harm that irresponsible vendors have caused, but we can give consumers the tool to, hopefully, limit the harm in the future.

Check out the initiative at mktrust.org.

This article was typed on one of my favorite keyboards, not only for its simple design and thin bezels, but it’s unique pin style mounting system that shows old hobbyists like me that there is still plenty of room for innovation in this hobby:

Cable Car Designs Prophet HHKB, 205g0 Lubed and Filmed 63g Thic Thock Marshmallow switches, polypropylene plate, Durock v2 lubed with 205g0 & XHT-BDZ stabilizers, GMK Masterpiece keycaps (Clarity Kit and Rama), GMK Masterpiece Wave deskmat, custom cable by Cablemod.

Pic: Cable Car Designs Prophet HHKB

Cable Car Designs Prophet HHKB

Cobertt

LocationMidwest, USA
DescriptionHobbyist, Commission Builder, Switch Designer, Consultant, Moderator
OccupationEducational Technology Director
Joined2008
NicheHHKB Layout Boards, Commission Building/Repair, Switch Design
Fav. switchNebulas (my switch), Gateron Oil Kings, Zealios, Zealios v2, Gateron Minks, Cherry MX Black
Fav. keycap profileCherry, KAT
Other hobbiesDadlife, Destiny 2, Computers, and Gaming
Linksreddit
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Published on Wed 6th Dec 2023. Featured in KBD #2023.


Tags: community

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