Jun 26, 20176017 views

The History of Massdrop

The Inspiration
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.
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Steve El-Hage and Nelson Wu
The Meeting
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.
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Early products on display in Massdrop's first "real" office in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood
The Launch
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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One of the first drops: a special-edition WASD keyboard with the original Massdrop logo
The Future
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.
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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).
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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.
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gorian2222, Kevnwin, and 110 others
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I love this article so much! I could go for a piece just on the Richard and Kunal story too hahaha.
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Great Story! I Really appreciate your great offerings and prices! Also the way you set your site up is really cool...A+ Thank You
Stay humble ~ Massdrop motto!
My son introduced me to Massdrop & I love to browse, purchase, read comments and relax on this site. Your story makes me feel part of something good in this world. Keep up the great work.
Coleen
Hey, thanks for the kind words! Glad your son introduced you to the platform and appreciate you being a positive members of the community : )
Coleen
Hey Coleen - thanks for your comment and for being a part of the Massdrop community. We're glad to have you here and please feel free to reach out to me with thoughts any time: steve@massdrop.com.
Thank you for this story, truly inspiring!
You guys are awesome. Thank you.
amazing story. glad to be part of the vendor network
Thank you for sharing your story with us!
Great and inspiring model
Nice! Quite Inspirational :)
Congratulations to Massdrop and your customers. I love the drops and keep coming back for more.
Nice work!
Nice!
This was an amazing read, thank you for sharing!
quite the insight, struggles and success. thank so much for sharing your story.
Nice to meet the founders! I remember seeing more than a few "group buy" sites come and go in the early days of the web. Massdrop has a good combo with higher-end items and forums.
I'd like to see the forums integrated a little deeper. For instance, how about showing recent forum activity on the transaction page so I can see if there are new discussions about an item I bought? Also is it possible to "subscribe" to a forum or thread so I can get notifications? That would be nice as well.
Continue doing what you're doing, but hopefully there are also more community-friendly options for more common things too (with hopefully faster turnaround times)!
The idea of "Power to the People" in retail with a forum, Genus! However, If you continue to give the power to the manufacturer with price and wait time, I fear it will be your down fall. If you cant make a good deal, no matter how many customers say they want a product, dont do it. It goes against the idea your company was built on. Simply explain to your base, that a deal could not be made because it goes against everything that you stand for. I feel you will gain and retain respect from both the customers and the manufacturers . I would not write this if I didn't care. I wish you much success, Sidney Michelle
so, are you guys/gals turning a profit yet?
This was a fantastic read.
Here's to the next five years! <3
If just we could have e EU version :/ tired of having to pay 30% in tax and a taxation fee of 40usd, for products that actually come from the EU, just because they had to stop by the US :(
jespertc
They cant mark it as a gift for get rid of that and lower that value thats is marked on the parcel?
Back when Steve used to personally sign the referral box cards.
Just joined (got hooked by the Naked and Famous selvedge denim, then on headphones. Love hearing how you started, and congratulations on your well deserved success. I plan to forward this link to some people I think will appreciate it. All the best
Thanks for sharing y'all's story. I've been a part of it since the early days, as the dozens of products in my home can attest to. :-)
Room for improvement: Check my previous complaints about sharing links and editing here in the fora. And note that the ball was completely DROPped on one of my most eagerly awaited massdrops: Terraforming Mars. That ended up costing me twice the RETAIL price, after Massdrop's promise of a 20% savings completely fell through and left us empty, and only a perfunctory apology from Massdrop for trouble and pain. Likewise, an apparently unvetted product The White Fox (built, not kit) was allowed to be sold with terrible build quality. At least Massdrop allowed me to return all three defective units. Kudos for that, but now I don't have a white fox. :-(
Great post. Love your story
Great post, really won't see these types or posts or community anywhere else. That's what makes this place so damn great.
I love how much this place keeps giving me the chills. Right now I've got Raspberry Pi 3 plugged in up on the bathroom sink, mech keyboard n mouse connected, wires strewn about the entire floor, working on various complex strings of code I havent the slightest of mastery in, yet somehow slowly rolling my vision into a reality, simultaneously working my hand to the bone coding my website and trying to start a company alone, 27k $ invested into huge levels of equipment essentially rendering my PC Room into my private Audio/Visual Studio, cameras laying around, various creative/custom projects I've been working on...and every single person I've met doesn't speak my language. You guys know. The language of creators, explorers, people who KNOW what is coming and what IS going to be a profit, not because of a greedy obsession with misleading or selling the "next hot ticket item" or to put it bluntly...a cheap ass gaming peripheral with no love put into it. People like you guys, people I wish I could meet and get a chance to work with, people like me...and so many others on Massdrop, we know what the future has in store because we know what we like. We know what we love. We know how to customize, optimize. To move laterally right past the typical "annual update crap product" and right towards the idea that "if I love this idea, I know how to make it happen and I'm glowing because no one else has done it and I KNOW it's gonna grab attention...I've encountered the specter of fate." And guys...I'm only 25, but I've got two beautiful daughters an eclectic bit of hobbies that somehow led me to being apart of this community and actually PARTICIPATING in it, and give back, innovate, and stop counting on others in my small ass town of Rodeo,CA to have any idea what I mean when I say "this industry is going to explode and you needa check out this site called. Massdrop..." and in that moment I'm horrified because I realize that I promote Massdrop before I do my own business, which is Custom PC Builds/Gaming &Home Theater Immersion and I'll refrain from naming my own domain because really...I'm realizing how much I want to be apart of this...phenomenon. I live really close to San Francisco (like minutes away) and my pops used to help run a company called Technical Equities, he's really showed me the ropes in the business work and it's hysterical because he used to buy companies and it would save entire portions of the industry, he showed me so much of what it takes to run a business and how to acquire the right contacts and what a merger does to a companies name...and here I am basically saying I wouldn't flinch at an opportunity to integrate my life's work (the work that feeds my babies) with such a wonderful thing like Massdrop. It's what the world needs. A place where consumers don't feel like cattle. They feel like homies that love the same cool stuff you do and wouldn't mind at aaaallll if it came at a nice price point! Recently got back into touch with an associate of mine who has a very...interesting line on PC parts imported from our favorite parts of the world. He's the owner of the company who runs VPN for Wells Fargo, got his business card and he's about to give me a key to the pc parts fairyland, and...I don't want to keep what I have to myself. I'd really like to talk to you guys, and I'd really find it paramount that we maybe arrange a meeting with my associate. Wouldn't waste your guys time. I love this community. And boy would I love to earn that Massdrop T-Shirt instead of just buying it. Sorry for the unconventional approach but after reading how much Massdrop begeinnings had to do with good old fashioned forums? I had to! -Ken Hamblin (Happy 5th Annoversary brothas)
dr0wzyy
Lord that was hard to read, line breaks are a great tool to use. If you want to send me some info I can pass it along to the relevant parties, will@massdrop.com
A heartwarming story about friendship, perseverance, and the Massdrop endgame --
bankruptcy. (read the story)
*BA DUM TISS*
I really like how Massdrop brings a̶d̶d̶i̶c̶t̶s enthusiasts from all corners of the world, all walks of life, and all obscure hobbies together in a little white, black and blue nook.
Kudos to all your efforts over the years, and may Massdrop be even more vibrant and wallet-draining when its tenth anniversary comes around.

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P.S. I'm sure you folks are limited by legislation, but can giveaways be available to users worldwide. It sucks to live in Hong Kong and see that the anniversary givaways are US only.
Cool story! Congrats on 5 years
It's quite inspirational how you guys handled the initial hiccups and hurdles. That's what makes MassDrop a strong team, and a stronger community! MassDrop has some of the most hand-picked & unique products I've ever seen.
Kudos & rock on!