One of the most attractive advantages of mechanical keyboards is their adaptability, and the handcrafted manufacturer of keycaps, Tiny, has made it its business to give the keyboard a little bit of pleasure. Your custom polymer clay and resin keycaps range from waffles soaked in syrup to Baby Yoda to Kirby mid-air. No matter whether it is a single burger-shaped keyboard instead of the escape key or cute characters in the row of F-keys, their keycaps radiate charm and personality. She even made one with the title goose from Untitled Goose Game that works perfectly as a horn button.
Tiny, who lives in San Jose, first became involved with mechanical keyboards as a hobby when she collected key caps from other artists online. "It's a very male-dominated hobby, and many of the designs that people made were guy-like designs like robots, skulls, and zombies," she says. "I like sweet things, so I just wanted to do my own." She started practicing clay sculpture and streaming her process on Twitch to stay consistent, and finally started taking on orders. In order to make the production of keycaps a sustainable career, she started casting resin, which enables her to manufacture and sell several keycaps at the same time. It's been two years since Tiny quit her job as a software engineer and has been a Twitch partner and rising star at TikTok ever since. I met Tiny to talk to her about the niche community of mechanical keyboards, what keycap sales look like streetwear drops, and what it's like to be an inventor.
This interview was edited and compressed for reasons of clarity.
You have a large following at TikTok and have been quite active with it. How did that help you in your business?
TikTok is this new frontier that many people, maybe the older generation, don't know about yet. The audience there, many of them are teenagers who have no money to buy keyboards, much less a keyboard cap for them. I am not trying to sell my products there. I think Instagram is more focused on that. TikTok, I'm just having fun with it and I think it will be my name out there. I think I got a lot of media attention from TikTok because my videos were republished with or without my approval on art channels on Instagram and YouTube. And that's why I get a lot of followers on Instagram.
I think it's great to raise awareness of what it is. I am always interested in telling people about mechanical keyboards and why they are so great. For some reason, TikTok was my biggest and best platform, although I feel that the things I do there are kind of crazy and crazy.
Yes, it's funny how Follow Count doesn't really affect sales.
Yes, I have over half a million and I haven't tried to sell anything yet. It's difficult because [the process of] selling crafted keycaps is really strange. People just do drops, much like a raffle. Most of the time, artists don't earn enough to buy them. It's not that people keep them in stock all the time. Sometimes there are group purchases where you can log in to buy a keycap and you are sure to get one. However, I would say that a lot of the community does these raffle-style sales, where people make X lots of keycaps, and you step in to win a place to buy it.
Personally, I can't do enough for people who want my designs. Part of it is an arduous process with really detailed shots of resin or certain colors or whatever. And because of that, I can't really say if there is actually an increase in people buying my things because I don't have them available. People ask me if I have an Etsy or a shop window and I just ask, "Yes, if I have enough keycaps, I just make a sale." I'll announce it on Instagram and in my newsletter, but I can't say if TikTok is actually doing anything because I don't have an inventory store.
This raffle sale sounds super competitive, I've never heard of it. Is there a special website for this?
People only do Google Forms. I think someone tried to create a website for it. I don't know if it was still started. But it's a really small community of people and you kind of know all the makers out there, so follow them and wait for them to stop. I feel like streetwear with special drops. As if it's only open for an hour or two. Sometimes the raffles are very intense, it takes about two minutes and you have to answer an important question.
There is no central system for it, and people are just doing their own thing. Many people are hobbyists, even people who make keycaps. They don't do this all day, so some people create and run their own websites. However the manufacturer wants to do his sales, it's up to him.
It sounds very lucrative for a creator to be well known and to produce quality products. Basically, everything you do is sold out.
I think if you are one of the great doers, it is true. It is likely that you are sold out or there are only people who want to buy your key capsules all the time.
But I still think that's because it's a small thing and you know who the creators are. As if it were being commercialized in some way, I think this would reduce the cost of and demand for the keycaps. And because it's small amounts of art that someone publishes. I think that's why it's so lucrative.
How much of what you earn comes from sales, commissions, or being a Twitch partner?
It used to be spread across three sources, so Twitch was one of them, sponsorships and then sales. I've reduced Twitch a lot, I think you have to be fairly consistent in streaming to reduce Twitch in a reasonable amount these days. Mainly because it’s so different how many people are subordinate to you and when you stop streaming people just stop subordinating what makes sense. It's very hard to say, "I get that much every month." That's why I mostly rely on sales these days to make sure I can make enough money.
What types of companies and brands do you sponsor?
I have a company that sponsors me and I will advertise their products. It is a mechanical keyboard company. It's more of a month-to-month thing. And then there are unique sponsorship deals that I have made and would like to do. Companies like Logitech that I worked with last year to make a giveaway. And I'm trying to work with game companies to find out if I can make small series of keycaps related to their game. This ranges from companies such as Corsair, with whom I have also worked in small capacities, to companies that produce keyboards and game companies.
If I could do that, official Animal Crossing keycaps, that would be amazing. I've created Discord keycaps before – I didn't sell them, I just passed them on to employees, but if I could officially create them, I would love to do so. Or for large companies like Riot. If I did like a Teemo keycap or something, it would be pretty awesome.
What do you want people to know about mechanical keyboards?
I just wish people knew how cool they can be. One of the big things that made me do this was that I could customize this keyboard as I wanted, because I could design the keycaps in different colors. I can design it the way I want it. I worked in an office, I typed on a computer eight hours a day, so it made sense to customize, decorate, and actually have very practical benefits for something I use so often.
] Of course, this does not only apply to programmers. There are many people who work at their computers in an office every day. It is a hobby that everyone can really benefit from or enjoy. And they don't have to be loud either. I think that's a common misunderstanding. There are some loud ones –
I once sat next to a rather loud one.
(laughs) And I'm sorry. However, there are some very quiet switches that are said to be quiet and fluid. People say, "I don't want a mechanical keyboard because it's too loud." I mean, "It doesn't have to be loud."
What is one of your favorite jobs that you did?
I made one that came from a cat and was on 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 opened the little gift for the key cap. So they have official pictures of it. I was really flattered. So I get such commission requests as gifts for anniversaries, to get another important one or something. These are important to me because I feel like I am doing something that is part of their life.