24/09/2020

One of the most appealing benefits of mechanical keyboards is their customizability. Artisan keycap maker Tiny is on a mission to bring some joy to the keyboard with her custom keycaps, which are made from polymer clay and resin.

I like cute stuff, so I just wanted to make my own.
Tinymakesthings
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Every week, The Verges designers, photographers, and illustrators gather to share the work of artists who inspire us. Now were turning our Art Club into an interview series in which we catch up with the artists and designers we admire and find out what drives them.
One of the most appealing benefits of mechanical keyboards is their customizability, and artisan keycap maker Tiny is on a mission to bring some joy to the keyboard. Her custom keycaps, made from polymer clay and resin, range from designs like waffles drenched in syrup, Baby Yoda, and Kirby, mid-inhale. Whether its a lone burger-shaped keycap in place of the escape key or cute characters lining the row of F-keys, her keycaps exude charm and personality. Shes even made one featuring the titular goose from Untitled Goose Game, which works perfectly as a honk button.
Based in San Jose, Tiny first got into mechanical keyboards as a hobby, as she collected keycaps from other artists online. Its a very male-dominated hobby, and a lot of the designs that people were making were guy-ish designs, like robots, skulls, and zombies, she says. I like cute stuff, so I just wanted to make my own. She began practicing clay sculpting and streaming her process on Twitch as a way to stay consistent, and eventually started taking commissions. Wanting to turn making keycaps into a sustainable career, she began resin casting, which allows her to create and sell batches of keycaps at a time. Its now been two years since Tiny quit her job as a software engineer, and shes since become a Twitch Partner as well as a rising star on TikTok. I caught up with Tiny to chat with her about the niche mechanical keyboard community, how keycap sales are like streetwear drops, and the business of being a creator.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You have a huge following on TikTok and youve been pretty active with it. How do you think thats helped you with your business?
TikTok is this new frontier that a lot of people, maybe the older generation of people, dont really know about yet. The audience there, a lot of them are teenagers who dont have money to buy keyboards, let alone a keycap for that. Im not trying to sell my products on there, I think Instagram is more geared toward that. TikTok, I just have fun with it and I think it gets my name out there. I think Ive gotten a lot of media attention from TikTok because people have been reposting my videos, with or without my consent, on art channels on Instagram and on YouTube. And then Ill get a bunch of followers on Instagram because of that.
I think its great to bring awareness to what it is. Im always interested in telling people about mechanical keyboards and why theyre so great. For some reason, TikTok has been my biggest and best platform, even though I feel like the stuff that I do there is kind of wacky and weird.
Yeah, its funny how follow count doesnt really translate to sales.
Yeah, I have over half a million, and I havent tried selling. Its hard because [the process of] selling artisan keycaps is really weird. People just do drops, kind of like raffle sales. Most of the time, artists dont make enough for people to buy it. Its not like people just have them on stock all the time. Sometimes there are group buys so you can sign up to buy a keycap and youll get one for sure, but I would say a large part of the community does these raffle-style sales, where people make X amount of keycaps, and you enter to win a spot to buy it.
I personally cannot make enough for people that want my designs. Part of it is its a tedious process with really detailed shots of resin, or certain colors or whatever. And because of that, I cant really tell if there is actually a rise in people buying my stuff because I dont have it available. People ask me if I have an Etsy or a storefront and Im just like, Yeah, whenever I have enough keycaps, Ill just do a sale. Ill announce it on Instagram and my newsletter, but I cant tell if TikTok is actually doing anything because I dont have a store with stock.
This raffle sale sounds super competitive, Ive never heard anything like it. Is there a specialized website for this?
People just do Google Forms. I think someone tried making a website for it, I dont know if its launched yet. But its a really small community of people and you kind of know all the makers out there, so you follow them and you wait for them to drop. I feel like its similar to streetwear, with specialized drops. Like its only open for like an hour or two hours. Sometimes the raffles are really intense, theres like a two-minute window time, and you have to answer a trivia question.
Theres no central system set up for it and people kind of just do their own thing. A lot of people are hobbyists, even people who make keycaps. They dont do it full time so some people just make their own websites and run it through there. However the maker wants to run their sales, its pretty up to them.
It sounds very lucrative for a creator, if youre pretty well-known and you make quality products. Basically everything you make is going to sell out.
I think if youre one of the big makers, that is true. It is likely that you will sell out, or theres just people who are wanting to buy your keycaps all the time.
But I think thats still because its a small thing and you know who the creators are. Like if it was commercialized, in a way, I think that would lessen the cost of the keycaps and the demand for it. And because its small amounts of art that someone is releasing. I think thats why its kind of lucrative like that.
How much of what you make comes from sales, commissions, or from being a Twitch Partner?
It used to be split between three sources, so Twitch being one of them, sponsorships, and then sales. I have cut back on Twitch a lot, I think you have to be pretty consistent about streaming to make a decent amount off of Twitch nowadays. Especially since its so variable in terms of how many people are subbed to you and if you stop streaming, people just stop subbing, which makes sense. Its very hard to say, This is how much Ill get every month. So I mostly rely on sales nowadays just to make sure that I can make enough money.
What are the kinds of companies and brands that sponsor you?
I have a company that sponsors me and Ill promote their stuff, its a mechanical keyboard company. That one is more like a month-to-month thing. And then theres one-time sponsorship deals that Ive done and are looking to do. Companies like Logitech, I worked with last year to do a giveaway. And Im trying to work with gaming companies to see if I can do small runs of keycaps that are related to their game. So it ranges from companies like Corsair, Ive also worked with in some small capacity, and companies that make keyboards, and gaming companies.
What would you say is your dream sponsorship?
If I could make, like, official Animal Crossing keycaps, that would be amazing. Ive made Discord keycaps before I havent sold them, just given them to people who work there, but if I can officially make them keycaps, I would love to. Or for large companies like Riot. If I made like a Teemo keycap or something, that would be pretty awesome.
Whats something you wish people knew about mechanical keyboards?
I just wish people knew how cool they can be. One of the big things that drew me into it was that I can customize this keyboard however I want to, like I can do different colors for the keycaps, I can make it whatever layout I want it to be. I worked in an office, I typed on a computer like eight hours a day, so it made sense for something that I use so often, for me to customize it, decorate it, and for it to actually have very practical benefits.
It doesnt only apply to people who are programmers, obviously. Theres a lot of people who sit in an office every day on their computer. Its a hobby that anyone can really benefit from or enjoy. And also they dont have to be loud. I think thats a common misconception. There are some loud ones
Ive sat next to a pretty loud one once.
(laughs) And Im sorry for that. But there are some very quiet switches that are meant to be silent and smooth. People are like, I dont want a mechanical keyboard because its too loud. Im like, it doesnt have to be loud.
Whats one of your favorite commissions that youve done?
I did one that was of someones cat, sitting on top of a keycap. They actually used it as a wedding gift. So they sent me pictures of them at their wedding, the bride and groom actually opening up the little keycap present. So they have official pictures of that. I felt really flattered. So I do get commission requests like that, as gifts for anniversaries to get a significant other or something. Those are meaningful to me because it feels like Im making something that is part of their life.