Massdrop cofounders Steve El-Hage and Nelson Wu grew up on forums. Steve, who moved around a lot as a kid, used them as a tool for adapting to different school environments. Whether it was a new school or a whole new country, he found he had an easier time making friends when he was able to share their interests—and forums offered the perfect crash course in just about everything, from music to sneakers. As for Nelson, he’d always been into cars and photography, and forums gave him a place to connect with others like him and deepen his knowledge.
Steve El-Hage and Nelson Wu
Steve and Nelson met at a hackathon in Toronto, where Steve was studying economics and Nelson was working as a technical developer for another startup. They talked about the magic of forums—how they helped beginners explore new hobbies, gave enthusiasts a place to share their experiences, and formed communities with people of all levels of expertise. They talked about the role hobbies play in identity; how what you do becomes a big part of who you are. They also talked about the ways that forums of this time fell short: disorganized meetups, unreliable group buys, and a general lack of ownership and support.
Then they talked about Steve’s idea for Massdrop: a site that would support these enthusiast communities and take them to the next level, helping more people do the things they love and do them together. Nelson was sold. Not long after, Steve dropped out of school and the pair moved to the Silicon Valley. In July 2012, Massdrop was born.
Early products on display in Massdrop's first "real" office in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood
Massdrop launched quietly in the middle of the night in a crowded hacker hostel. Without any funding, Steve and Nelson had to move fast, but they were determined to do right by the community. So they came up with a plan: Get the site up as fast as possible, get people to use it, and then make iterations based on feedback from them. They decided to build the site themselves, because they wanted to do something no one else had done: make not a better forum or a better group-buy site, but a better place for community. For this reason, to this day, Massdrop develops all its programs in house. As for the first version of the site, Nelson built it single-handedly in a week. And while the pair admit it wasn’t pretty, it was enough to start with.
Early on, Steve and Nelson were joined by Jasper Chan and Will Bright, and together the four formed the founding team. Jasper would go on to become the CTO and help build Massdrop as you know it today, and Will—who they met at the hostel—would go on to become the Head of Custom Products and lead the effort when it came time to enter new communities.
Massdrop's "freight truck" makes a UPS delivery in 2012
The First Month
Steve and Nelson’s first project was helping members of an Audi forum run their group buys more effectively, starting with an A4 carbon fiber front grille. They found that tons of Americans wanted this specific grille, but not enough were available in America. So they located the factory in Taiwan that produced the grilles and had 200 made for just $200 apiece—which was a huge deal for the group, compared to the $500 retail price. Steve and Nelson messaged everyone who joined the group themselves, one person at a time, and after the payment was collected, sent it to the factory through PayPal.
That led to Massdrop’s first serious hiccup: PayPal flagged the transaction as suspicious ($40,000 from a brand-new account to Taiwan? We get it.) and froze their account. The factory wouldn’t ship the order without the payment, the group was getting anxious, and waiting for PayPal to unfreeze the funds could take weeks or months. So Steve and Nelson made the tough call to front the order themselves. They had to empty their bank accounts and take the maximum cash advances on their credit cards to do it, but everyone got their grilles on time and the vendor was happy. All the while, Steve and Will kept the group in the loop, and for their trouble, even gave them free shipping for life. When PayPal unfroze their account three weeks later, Steve and Nelson paid themselves back. Since then, it’s always been community first.
Steve sends the Audi grilles off to their final homes in 2012
The First Year
With the first group buy under their belts, Steve and Nelson went on to run other car-related products, then headphones, mechanical keyboards, and more. When it came to getting users, they did something different: They focused on the hardcore enthusiasts; the 50 or 100 people who were more into their hobbies than just about anyone else. They chatted with them online, they hung out IRL, and they asked them what they wanted from a site like Massdrop. It worked. Forum admins started posting about Massdrop, and forum members started showing up and asking Steve and Nelson to source various products for them—and they did. Around this time, Massdrop got its seed round of funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield Baker, First Round Capital, and Cowboy Ventures, and landed on the front page of The New York Times.
Jasper (left) joins the Massdrop house in 2012 after a six-hour motorcycle ride from Pasadena to Menlo Park. Will (middle) rocks the helmet.
The Discussion System
As Massdrop grew, the team noticed that all the communities they entered had something in common. Though members’ interests varied, they all shared an appreciation for quality and craftsmanship and they all wanted a place to talk about it. So Steve decided to add a new component: a discussion system. No ecommerce site had done this successfully, but of course, he had never intended for Massdrop to be an ecommerce site exactly. Jasper built the discussion system from scratch, and it immediately became a core part of the experience. Respectful debate, knowledge sharing, passionate back-and-forths about the merits of fountain pens: It was everything the team had hoped for.
The first Massdrop-hosted mechanical keyboards meetup in September 2012
The Birth of Community Collaborations
The discussion system also allowed members to connect directly with the people who made the products and learn more about the features and process. On one such occasion, the members—active users of other audio forums—gave a manufacturer some constructive feedback on how he could improve a particular set of headphones. Taking their suggestions to heart, he modified the headphones and sold the new version on Massdrop to a great response.
That’s when Will realized the true potential of the enthusiasts on Massdrop. They knew the products better than anyone, and they knew what they wanted better than anyone. So it only made sense that they should have a say in how these products were designed. Massdrop’s first community collaboration was the Massdrop x AKG K7XX: a pair of headphones inspired by the legendary K702 65th-anniversary edition and updated based on input from the community. Many others would follow: other headphones, plus mechanical keyboards, raw denim, chukka boots, trekking poles, and more. And products weren’t limited to those made by well-known brands. Massdrop also became a platform for small makers operating out of a bedroom, kitchen, or garage to bring their ideas to life.
One of the first drops: a special-edition WASD keyboard with the original Massdrop logo
Now in its sixth year, Massdrop has grown from a team of four living and working in a hacker hostel to a team of about 80 based in a much roomier office in San Francisco’s Financial District. Though we no longer pack and ship every order ourselves, we’re still hands on with every drop and deeply committed to the needs and wants of the community.
What’s next? We want to keep improving the experience of becoming an enthusiast by introducing more content and meetups. By producing our own content and publishing content from our users, we hope to make different hobbies and topics more accessible for everyone. And by hosting meetups, we hope to give people a new way to connect and explore their interests together. All the while, we’ll continue to support makers, big and small, on their mission to make the coolest products in the world.
Left: Richard and Hassan visit Massdrop's New Jersey warehouse for the first time (2014). Right: The team starts outgrowing their second San Francisco office (2015).
Left: A mariachi band visits the office on Nelson's birthday (2015). Right: Nelson celebrates Massdrop's Series A funding (2014).
Thanks for coming along for the ride! Because Massdrop was built around its members, we literally couldn’t have done it without you. We can’t wait to see what the next five years have in store.