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

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

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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

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