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 it’s 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. She’s 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. “It’s 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. It’s now been two years since Tiny quit her job as a software engineer, and she’s 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 you’ve been pretty active with it. How do you think that’s helped you with your business?
TikTok is this new frontier that a lot of people, maybe the older generation of people, don’t really know about yet. The audience there, a lot of them are teenagers who don’t have money to buy keyboards, let alone a keycap for that. I’m 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 I’ve 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 I’ll get a bunch of followers on Instagram because of that.
I think it’s great to bring awareness to what it is. I’m always interested in telling people about mechanical keyboards and why they’re 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, it’s funny how follow count doesn’t really translate to sales.
Yeah, I have over half a million, and I haven’t tried selling. It’s 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 don’t make enough for people to buy it. It’s 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 you’ll 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 it’s a tedious process with really detailed shots of resin, or certain colors or whatever. And because of that, I can’t really tell if there is actually a rise in people buying my stuff because I don’t have it available. People ask me if I have an Etsy or a storefront and I’m just like, “Yeah, whenever I have enough keycaps, I’ll just do a sale.” I’ll announce it on Instagram and my newsletter, but I can’t tell if TikTok is actually doing anything because I don’t have a store with stock.
This raffle sale sounds super competitive, I’ve 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 don’t know if it’s launched yet. But it’s 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 it’s similar to streetwear, with specialized drops. Like it’s only open for like an hour or two hours. Sometimes the raffles are really intense, there’s like a two-minute window time, and you have to answer a trivia question.
There’s 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 don’t 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, it’s pretty up to them.
It sounds very lucrative for a creator, if you’re pretty well-known and you make quality products. Basically everything you make is going to sell out.
I think if you’re one of the big makers, that is true. It is likely that you will sell out, or there’s just people who are wanting to buy your keycaps all the time.
But I think that’s still because it’s 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 it’s small amounts of art that someone is releasing. I think that’s why it’s 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 it’s so variable in terms of how many people are subbed to you and if you stop streaming, people just stop subbing, which makes sense. It’s very hard to say, “This is how much I’ll 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 I’ll promote their stuff, it’s a mechanical keyboard company. That one is more like a month-to-month thing. And then there’s one-time sponsorship deals that I’ve done and are looking to do. Companies like Logitech, I worked with last year to do a giveaway. And I’m 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, I’ve 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. I’ve made Discord keycaps before — I haven’t 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.
What’s 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 doesn’t only apply to people who are programmers, obviously. There’s a lot of people who sit in an office every day on their computer. It’s a hobby that anyone can really benefit from or enjoy. And also they don’t have to be loud. I think that’s a common misconception. There are some loud ones —
I’ve sat next to a pretty loud one once.
(laughs) And I’m sorry for that. But there are some very quiet switches that are meant to be silent and smooth. People are like, “I don’t want a mechanical keyboard because it’s too loud.” I’m like, “it doesn’t have to be loud.”
What’s one of your favorite commissions that you’ve done?
I did one that was of someone’s 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 I’m making something that is part of their life.