I’ve been enamored with the Das Keyboard since it launched in 2005. These supremely clicky, IBM-style keyboards are some of the most rugged mechanical input devices you can buy. Their Pro model — an all-black monolith with black keys and no key markings — is the gold standard for Gibson-esque console jockeys who believe that the best keyboard can be used as a weapon and shouldn’t be touched by mere mortals.
The company just launched a new “quiet” version of its Das Keyboard, Model S Professional Quiet, and I thought it would be fun to talk with Daniel Guermeur, founder of the company who went from being an open-source software maven at the turn of the century to making one of the most sought-after and coolest keyboards on the market. While Guermeur still works in software, his clicky Das Keyboard is probably his most lasting legacy in the gaming and programming world, a unique tool suited to unique professionals.
John Biggs: We’ve been talking about Das Keyboard for years, but I don’t think anybody’s really talked about how you started the company, what the inspiration was?
Daniel Guermeur: The company started in the year 2000 as a software company. At that point, we started with open source software. We actually commercialized or distributed one of the first point and click content management systems.
Within 30 days of that software being released, it was No. 1. It was the most downloaded server software on SourceForge. We had been selling there, so our model was to provide tech support for that open source software.
We did pretty well until the end of the dot-com boom, and at that point, every, most software companies had trouble finding customers, so we had to downscale a little bit. But we still kept going with that. We were pure software at that point.
Me being a software person, I spend my time on the computer, like 8 or 10 hours a day every day and the weekends and so on. Even more than 10 hours, I guess. One day I realized that I’m a pretty slow typist and if I typed faster, I would actually achieve more. I kind of tried to understand why I was slow and it was because I was looking at the keys.
So I thought, hey, if I could not look at the keys, my mind will know where the keys are. It will memorize where the keys are. So I asked my assistant to find me a keyboard with nothing on it, no key inscriptions and she came back, saying, “Hey, it doesn’t exist. I could not find one.”
So I told her, “Hey, could you contact somebody, could you find a factory in China and have them make one just for me?” And she did. And so three months later, I received a blank keyboard, totally black and totally blank and I typed on it.
And amazingly enough, I doubled my speed within 30 days.
DG: So I was pretty happy because I was very slow. I was around 30 words a minute, now I’m at 65, something like that. And I kept it on my desk and the amazing part is that people who came to my office, friends and colleagues say, “Hey, wow, you have a blank keyboard. You must be really good.” I said, “Yes, that’s me, I’m really good.”
So there was this cool factor I didn’t know about before people told me, that it really looked bad ass. And so I kept going, using my keyboard and after about a year, I had so many requests from people asking me, “Hey, where did you buy that keyboard? We want to buy one because it’s so cool.”
I said, “Hey, let me do a little study and you’ll be able to buy it from my website within one month.”
I went to see my friend, Maurice Miller, who’s one of the founders of Rackspace and I told him, “Hey, I want to ask your sysadmins to test my keyboard to see if they would buy it because a blank keyboard is something that nobody wants to buy except crazy people like me.”
My assumption was that people who are in the tech world, like sysadmins and programmers, they would like that because they were more or less like me. They said that they really liked the keyboard. About 60 percent said they would buy it, so I thought, “Hey, it’s a marketing result.” It was an informal marketing survey, nothing scientific. I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive — 60 percent — it’s incredible. I’ve got to try that, to set it up online.”
What I did is I created a one-page website over the weekend. I took a picture of my keyboard. I think it was on Monday we made the website public. It was linked to a stock Yahoo store, totally ugly. The whole website, the concept was that the blank keyboard is only for the geeks — for the ubergeeks. That was the angle.
We sent one email to Gizmodo — a five-line email — saying, “Hey, Gizmodo. We’ve got a kick-ass, a bad-ass blank keyboard called Das Keyboard,” and we sent them the link. That’s all the marketing we did. I thought, they probably won’t publish that, ever, but my idea was that if I sell 15 keyboards, then maybe there was a market. Then if I have totally misjudged the opportunity I’ll sell probably five, so between five and 15.
Actually, Gizmodo published a little blog post, and within five days we had millions of visitors. The keyboard was featured in the New York Times. In the print edition we had a picture of the keyboard. It was on Slashdot, CBS News, we got MTV, World News Report, we got a ton of people talking about the keyboard.
We got millions of visitors. The web server was so busy we had to upgrade the machine. It kept crashing. We got thousands of orders within a few days.
JB: I just realized that was my post on Gizmodo. I’m looking at it now.
JB: I wrote that. I just checked. I wrote that in 2005.
DG: Thank you so much. Wow. That’s awesome.
DG: Yeah, so I’m talking to you.
JB: Yeah, I’m the guy who made your company work.
DG: I think you are, yes. Yeah, that’s really awesome. Hopefully at some point we can meet in person so I can shake your hand.
JB: That would be nice. Anyway, keep going.
DG: We had a huge demand, and we didn’t plan for that so we didn’t have any inventory. We identified a few possible suppliers, but we didn’t talk to them. We said, “Hey, what do we do? We are a software company. We know nothing about hardware, and we have customers.”
We said, “We should try to deliver within three months.”
We contacted the customers and said, “Hey, we are out of stock. Are you willing to wait three months, and then we’ll ship?”
The vast majority said, “Yes, we are totally wanting to wait three months because that keyboard is so bad-ass. The blank keyboard, we want it.”
We said, “OK.” Then we worked really hard to procure all the keyboards and deliver them. That’s how it started.
At that point we decided, “Let’s upgrade the quality of the keyboard,” so we have been starting to improve the design, improve the technology, always focusing on the highest possible quality of every component we use.
Then we actually were able to carve a niche with positioning, which is Das Keyboard is the ultimate typing machine, where everything we design, the spirit of it, is to have the best, highest quality possible. The best typing experience possible.
That was our idea.
We think people spend at least eight hours a day typing on a keyboard, which makes a keyboard very important. That’s the object many people touch the most in their entire life. It’s a keyboard. That’s why we think, if you have a very responsive keyboard, very comfortable, your whole life gets upgraded. I don’t know what kind of keyboard you use, but I can tell you our customers really love it. When we have a new opening here on Metadot, they come and they start typing on it. They just love it.
We started with the blank keyboard. That is the one I have on my desk. Then we said, “Hey, there is a lot of demand for a high-quality, very tactile keyboard, but with inscriptions,” so then we decided to do it as well. We call it the Professional. The blank one is the Ultimate. The other one is called the Professional.
We went through several generations of products. The latest one is generation No. 3. It’s the latest, and we have several flavors.
Two models — which is Ultimate, blank one, and the Professional — and within those we have options, like the typing experience. One is the blue key switch, which is the most clicky. We have the brown key switch, which we call Soft Tactile, so it’s less clicky but still very tactile. Less clicky means also it’s not as audible as the blue key switch.
Today, we launched what we call the Quiet Keyboard. It’s a quiet key design. It’s a red key switch with a quiet key design, which makes it very quiet. The tactile feel is absolutely unbelievable. Maybe we should send you one like this so you can…
That’s the demand we have now. It’s a little bit like the tomato sauce. You have tomato sauce with the gigantic piece of meat, and some people like that, and some people prefer when the meatballs are smaller, or a lot smaller. There is like a flavor of experience that people want to have. What’s amazing is that, on paper, the specifications are very similar, but the user experience is so different.
JB: Where did you get the name? What’s the inspiration of the name? Is it just because it sounds cool?
DG: It’s a combination of things. First of all, the switch technology is German. I’m French, and my partner is German, so we looked at a good name; we looked at a blank keyboard, and so on.
A good name that actually meant something for many people was the word “das,” which is German for “the,” and “Keyboard” is really honest, so it will be “The Keyboard,” but with some German elements to it, which is about high quality, high performance, and good reliability, like the German concept of technology. That’s the idea behind it.
JB: What’s the future of the keyboard? Do you think you guys are going to be making keyboards in five years? Do you think keyboards are going to stick around?
DG: The answer is yes. In the ’80s, already I heard that the keyboard is dead — people are going to use voice recognition within a few years. I thought, “Wow, that sounds cool. I want to use that.” But the reality is that when people do serious typing they use a workstation, and they have a big screen. They have an awesome mouse, and they need to have an awesome keyboard.
If you check on Google Trends, the search trends of “mechanical keyboards” — just those two words — you will see that the demand has been exponentially increasing in the last years. There is a huge demand, and I think the demand is going to increase, even though people buy less desktops.
I think people who are still doing that are buying better-quality components that they use for a longer time. Hence, I think Das Keyboard is the key to doing that.
We have lots of things in the making. A lot. If you look at the competition, typically they do, “Hey, we have a keyboard. Now we are going to do a mouse, and maybe some different keyboards, more keyboards, so 20 keyboards or 50 keyboards.”
We are not going to do that. We have a different strategy. It’s a strategy that nobody has done yet. I cannot tell you all of it now, but the idea is that we’re going to focus on a very limited number of keyboards and we are going to increase the kind of products we sell, different kinds of products.
The concept that we are trying to address is that people want to be more productive when they work and we are going to give them tools so they are more productive in general.
JB: I saw the reusable earplugs on the site. That’s funny because it’s so true. This is the loudest keyboard ever. Who is the strangest or most interesting person that you’ve met who has been using Das Keyboard? Anybody famous or amazing that you know?
DG: I know that Noam Chomsky has one.
JB: I’m not sure that’s a good thing for some people.