Stop (bicycle) thief! Inside an ex-Microsoft wunderkind’s Canadian crusade to save your bike | Financial Post

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tOM Trottier

Nov 11, 2019, 10:44:43 PM11/11/19
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Stop (bicycle) thief! Inside an ex-Microsoft wunderkind’s Canadian crusade to save your bike | Financial Post


as of Mon Nov 11 2019 22:30:59 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)

Stop (bicycle) thief! Inside an ex-Microsoft wunderkind's Canadian crusade to save your bike
  Bike theft is a crime that impacts an estimated two million North American cyclists annually to the tune of $650 million.
  J Allard, tech guru, former Microsoft mega-star and creator of the Xbox, wants your bike. Not to steal it, but to protect it from thieves
  Rob Brunt was having a hard time picking an outfit. He had a meeting to get to and, as a Vancouver police officer, he was often in uniform, which did not seem like a good fit, not for a face-to-face with J (James) Allard, a former mega-star at Microsoft Corp. and the so-called father of the Xbox gaming console.
  A suit and tie didn’t seem right either, so Brunt struck what he viewed as a compromise between being too dressy, and not dressy enough, and arrived five minutes early at The Rocky Bottom Brewery in Bellevue, Wash., in a collared shirt, fancy jeans and polished dress shoes.
  “I made sure I got there first,” he said, “and then I see J walking in, and he is wearing a hoodie, torn-up shorts, skater shoes and a ball cap. He was the answer to my prayers.”
  Allard is a beer-drinking, pizza-eating, bicycle-loving genius, and the ultimate anti-tech bro, whose nascent post-Microsoft mission, isn’t birthing the next Silicon Valley unicorn, but declaring all-out digital war on bike theft.
  Brunt, known around Vancouver policing circles as “the bike detective,” saw Allard as a winning ticket, exactly the kind of tech-savvy sidekick he had been seeking for months.
      Nobody has ever been promoted to captain of the police force because of the work they’ve done on bike theft
      J Allard
  But for Allard, known around tech circles — and even by his mom — merely as J, the Canadian city the cop hailed from was the perfect laboratory to further test drive 529 Garage: a free, smartphone app/online bike registry intended to unite cyclists, bike-shop owners and police in a multi-pillared community effort to reduce a crime that impacts an estimated two million North American cyclists annually to the tune of $650 million.
  “We weren’t planning on Canada,” Allard said. “But then Rob called me.”
  It is a good thing he did, too: in the four years since Allard and Brunt’s beer-and-pizza summit in Bellevue, the number of reported bike thefts in Vancouver is down nearly 40 per cent, to about 1,800 from 3,068, according to police statistics, while the app itself has caught fire among B.C. cyclists, and now boasts 100,000 users province-wide while also migrating east, with Red Deer, Alta., Brandon, Man., Regina, Guelph, Ont. and Ottawa all signing on in recent months.
  To register a bike, users input its model, colour, make and serial number and upload several photos showing them with the bike. If the bike gets stolen, the victim issues an alert and an electronic all-points, bike-theft bulletin is then sent to any app user within a 15-kilometre radius of the crime — plus bike shops and the police.
  If police then seize or recover a bike, they can check it against the registry and the photos, and if there is a match, bingo, the bike gets returned to its rightful owner, a joyous reunion that almost never occurs in other major cities such as Toronto these days.
  Vancouver Police Detective Rob Brunt, left, and Project 529 founder J. Allard in Vancouver. Allard built a an app to help combat bicycle theft after his own bike was stolen. Darryl Dyck for National Post
  The Toronto Police Service’s Property and Video Management Unit building in the city’s northeast corner is among the saddest addresses in town for a bike lover. Picture a big-box store, only with shelf after shelf after shelf of stolen and recovered or seized goods. Beer, booze, blackjack tables, a dentist’s chair, video-lottery gaming terminals, mattresses, boxes marked bio-hazard and, at one end of the facility, near several plastic barrels crammed with old rifles, thousands of bikes in orderly rows.
  Some of the bikes are dusty with rusted chains and warped tires. Most are brand names in good condition: there are Treks, Norcos, Giants, Schwinns, Cervelos, racing bikes, mountain bikes, fat bikes, even bikes with baby carriers.
  Abel DaSilva, acting police supervisor in charge of the bike collection, grew up in west end Toronto where his first bike was a blue BMX. Someone stole it from his backyard.
  “I learned to ride on that bike,” he said, wistfully. “I loved that bike.”
  DaSilva never saw that bike again, and most of the bikes he oversees today go unclaimed.
Bike Theft by the Numbers
    2 million    North American cyclists impacted by bike theft
    $650 million    Value of bike theft in North America
    Five    Number of bikes J Allard has had stolen of the 30 bicycles he has owned
  After 37 days (in theory), they get shipped to Police Auctions Canada, a police charity, and sold to the highest bidder. In other words, if you are in Toronto and looking for your stolen bike, it is possible the police are the middlemen, at present, between the bike being found and the bike being sold to someone else.
  “When all your officers are tied up on scenes for homicides, for shootings, for stuff like that, it kind of takes your resources away from doing bike-theft investigations,” said Scott Mills, social media officer with Toronto police.
  Bike theft simply can’t compete with gangs, guns, murders, robberies and assaults, even though stolen bikes are a key spoke in the urban crime web.
  Thieves, said Rob Brunt, the bike detective who was a beat cop on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for more than two decades, don’t drive cars; they steal bikes, using them as getaway rides from break-ins. Stolen bikes are also street currency and easily traded for drugs. An organized dealer can have a lucrative side business selling hot bikes on Craigslist. Arrests are rare.
  “Nobody has ever been promoted to captain of the police force because of the work they’ve done on bike theft,” Allard points out.
  Project 529 founder J. Allard displays the app on his phone. Darryl Dyck for National Post
  But maybe change is coming, with an unlikely crusader leading the charge.
  Allard wasn’t thinking about bike crime when he left Microsoft in 2010, at least not until his yellow, custom downhill mountain bike got swiped from a secure parking garage in Seattle.
  “I’ve owned at least 30 bikes in my lifetime and had about five stolen,” he said. “But it was really the last one that got me fired up enough to do something.”
  Allard reported the theft of that bike to Seattle police. His friends circulated the news (and images of the stolen bike) on social media. He waited 30 days until he got a call from a friend telling him his bike was on eBay. The police told him they don’t investigate “eBay crimes,” while encouraging him to bid on the bike, which he did, noting, during the process, that the seller was also auctioning several laptops, Home Depot gift cards, a high-end camera lens and a bunch of iPods.
  For reasons unknown, the bike was abruptly pulled from the auction site, so Allard bought a laptop from the seller instead. Using his tech smarts, he sifted through the hard drive and found its rightful owner’s name.
      I’ve owned at least 30 bikes in my lifetime and had about five stolen. But it was really the last one that got me fired up enough to do something
      J Allard
  After Allard turned several more somersaults, the police finally went to the seller’s home and seized his yellow bike, but they wouldn’t return it to him unless he provided a serial number, which he didn’t have. Ultimately, he found it, because he knew everybody with a similar custom downhill mountain bike since they all rode together.
  In the end, the mother-of-all-bike-recovery missions had planted a seed: here was a problem Allard wanted to fix.
  “Anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of your cycling friends will have a bike theft story,” he said. “I hated that it became normalized in the cycling culture, but more so, that theft is a meaningful deterrent from getting new riders to adopt the mode. We need less congestion. We need less obesity. We need better mental health. We need more moments to slow down. We need sparks of joy from our childhood.”
  In short, Allard’s view is that we need more bikes on city streets, especially bikes that don’t get stolen.
  The 50-year-old has attacked that issue with the same missionary zeal that was the stuff of legend during his 19-year run at Microsoft. Scott Henson, a senior executive who overlapped 15 of those years, was witness, as he describes it, “to the comet streak across the sky.”
  J Allard playing an Xbox Live racing game at Microsoft offices in Redmond, Wash. back in 2004. Anne Marie Musselman/The New York Times files
  It was Allard who, as a young gun in the early 1990s, recognized the internet as a game-changer and urged his superiors, by way of an eloquent, internally circulated 16-page memo, to get with the program. It was a similar story with the Xbox. Allard and Bill Gates, meanwhile, became like “two peas in a pod,” Henson said.
  After Xbox launched in 2001, Allard shut himself in his office, handwriting thank you notes to a team of 300-plus. Each note included details specific to the individual it was addressed to.
  “Most executives wouldn’t do that,” Henson said. “I still have my note.”
  One common thread through Allard’s time with the company was his passion: when he bit into something, he bit right through. That passion has continued with Project 529 (the corporate name for the 529 Garage app). That passion also drives Henson, now a partner at Carbon Innovations, a Seattle company tackling carbon emissions in the building industry, bananas.
  “I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make J wake up to what probably could be the most impactful thing he could do with whatever time he has left and to go tackle climate change,” Henson said. “But J is his own guy. What he gets behind, he gets behind.”
More Bike Theft by the Numbers
    30-50%    Estimated per cent of J Allard's friends who have a bike theft story
    1.5 million    Number of users registered on the 529 Garage bike recovery app
    $7,000    What J Allard charges the Vancouver Police to access his 529 Garage app
  The difference in getting behind a niche industry such as bike theft, however, is that Allard isn’t some big shot at a trillion-dollar company with troops to muster and all the necessary resources to spend. He is co-founder of a small startup, with a partner, Lara Ferroni, in Washington, D.C., an employee in Chicago and a cop buddy named Rob in B.C.
  Allard, a hockey nut, is originally from Glens Falls, N.Y., about three hours south of Montreal. As a kid, he worshipped Guy Lafleur, and saw him play twice at the old Montreal Forum with his dad. As an adult, Allard bought a ski cabin, since sold, in Whistler, B.C., using it as a snowboarding base during winter and a mountain bike hub come spring.
  Home now is Bellingham, Wash., where he does all the graphics for the 529 Garage app and web pages, resets user passwords, blogs, provides tech support to client cities, does outreach at public events and responds to about 350 emails daily. The app now has 1.5 million registered users, and is rooted in several U.S. cities, including Portland, Ore., as well as several Canadian cities.
  “I don’t know if he still writes all in lower case but, oh my god, that guy can type fast,” Henson said. “You got to wonder how fast his brain is going.”
  Abel DaSilva, Toronto Police Services Acting Supervisor, Property and Video evidence Management Unit stands among stolen, seized and prisoner bicycles in Scarborough, Ont. Peter J. Thompson/National Post
  Alas, even brilliant, rapid-typing Microsoft legends have weaknesses, and Allard’s involves money.
  “J is horrible at asking for money,” Brunt said. “I budgeted over $20,000 a year to pay for his program. But it took him three years to invoice anybody, and he has set it so cheap — he charges the Vancouver Police Department $7,000 a year. I keep telling him he has to start asking people for more money.”
  A curious thing about Allard is that he may have earned boatloads of cash at Microsoft, but he isn’t remotely motivated by it. He sold that chalet in Whistler, partially to underwrite Project 529, but mostly because he felt like he wasn’t using it enough. He only buys used cars. He takes public transit, wears his shoes and socks until they have holes in them and claims concert tickets as his biggest monthly expense. (He has seen Kiss 28 times).
  “There is nothing wrong with being a boot-strapping CEO,” Allard said. “But it’s been six years now.”
  Part of the problem is the potential client base. It took Brunt three months to get 529 Garage up and running in Vancouver, and that was with the chief’s blessing and the bureaucracy onboard.
    Anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of your cycling friends will have a bike theft story. I hated that it became normalized in the cycling culture
    J Allard
  In Toronto, conversations are years in, and the would-be bike detective in charge of the Project 529 file is a one-man band. According to police corporate communications, he is bullish on the program, but currently on leave.
  But Allard hasn’t lost heart, at least not yet. It is just a matter of time until more cities embrace his low-cost, almost no-cost, fix for bike theft. Meantime, he will always have Vancouver, and stories like the one Manuelle Chanoine shares to keep him motivated.
  Chanoine’s blue Norco Valence had all the bells and whistles, lights, a kickstand and a rack.
  “It’s my bike,” she said. “I love my bike.”
  The Vancouver resident used it to commute, shop and generally get around. Then, last February, she got a call from her boyfriend. Her bike was gone, stolen from the shed outside their building near Granville Street and West Broadway. Her initial reaction was disbelief, followed by sadness, followed by a grim sense that her bike was gone and wasn’t coming back.
  Recovered stolen bicycles at the Vancouver Police Department Property Office. Darryl Dyck for National Post
  Instead of surrendering completely, she issued an alert on 529 Garage. Two days later, she spoke with Brunt.
  “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Who gets their bike back?”
  Allard smiles at the story; reunions happen, sometimes the good guys win.
  “You know, we get some pretty nice emails every day saying we are doing good stuff, and that’s probably our primary source of revenue,” Allard said, chuckling. “Honestly, at the end of the day, I just want to help people.”
Financial Post • Email: | Twitter: oconnorwrites
Published on November 8, 2019. Last updated on November 8, 2019

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