by Bryan Hance
We spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about bike marketplaces here at Bike Index.
This is because lots of stolen bikes wind up on the black and grey markets. And, honestly, because most marketplaces out there are terrible. Not a single day that goes by that we don’t find stolen bikes posted on Offerup and Facebook Marketplace - because neither one has any form of anti-theft controls built in. Even when you catch thieves selling stolen bikes on those sites, they usually continue to sell stolen bikes there. Nobody removes their accounts, and they continue to fence stolen bikes unimpeded.
Sadly neither of those platforms has showed any interest in doing anything to address the problems that let thieves & fences sell stolen bikes online - or deal with more absurd examples of abuse in their ads. These platforms simply aren't built to weed out the bad guys - all they want is your money.
Fortunately, we also encounter lot of people - usually cyclists! - who are looking to solve this problem by building their own markets. These are entirely new places to buy and sell bikes, but with safety, security, verification, and customer protections in mind. As tech-heavy, bikey startup folks ourselves, it’s always nice to meet kindred spirits working in the same space.
We’re firm believers that the only people who are really going to solve the ‘rampant black market’ problem are cyclists, developers and other people whose priorities lie with their community - and not just a drive to make as much money as they can selling other people’s stolen bikes.
Because of this, Bike Index is always on the lookout for smart entrepreneurs and other folks who have the bigger, better picture when it comes to building the marketplaces of the future. And, we’re not going to like, we give then bonus points if they also make their product videos while literally on a bike because that’s just frankly awesome.
Today we’re chatting with 7 of Retrographic LLC - the entrepreneur behind sprocket.bike billed as “the worlds first bike marketplace app”.
7’s background is both a cyclist and ‘an out-of-the-box thinker, multi-disciplinary software designer with more than 12 years of experience building mobile apps’. Furthermore, Sprocket has been using Bike Index for a while now to verify serials as part of Sprocket’s dedication to marketplace safety and legitimacy. Which we think is awesome.
But - as you can read below - there’s a lot more going on 'under the hood' that makes Sprocket special.
Bike Index: What’s your Origin story?
Answer: I immigrated to this country from the former USSR and grew up in Cupertino, CA in the shadow of Infinite Loop. Because of my fathers experience in advanced art and engineering I have always been keen to do something that would involve both sides of my brain. When I went to college to get my Digital Arts Degree for the video game industry, I ended up illustrating some of the first indie games for the iPhone. Landing an accidental hit, Blast Monkeys, that overtook Angry Birds ( for a short time ) led to a life-long career in what was at that time a new specialization of Mobile App Design.
In 2014 I spontaneously made my way out to Burning Man, where I got the opportunity to meet many beautiful human beings and experience what modern society should be like. The event forced me to realize some important questions; like how to bring Burning Man’s proto-culture to the default world and how I can play an active role in creating a sustainable and vibrant future for our world. It was at Burning Man, that someone misheard and misspelled my name on a coffee cup, giving me the name 'Seven'.
At first I worked on Sprocket on the side after work and on weekends. The first version was actually a database to store specifications on ~60k bikes to make compatibility, maintenance and repair easier. However this first version led dozens of people to approach me inquiring about a “good deal” on a “used bike” to start riding. This is why I pivoted into Sprocket as the worlds first mobile bicycle marketplace, which allows you to buy and sell bicycles and bike parts!
Bike Index: How many of you are working on Sprocket? How big is the team?
Seven/Sprocket: We were way ahead of the whole corona thing as a distributed company. I run the company and do so with the help of 5-10 UpWork contractors from all over the world. These contractors have represented as far and wide as Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Brazil, India, USA. Essentially were headquartered on the world-wide internet.
Bike Index: What other apps and projects have you worked on?
7: I started working on iPhone apps when Steve announced the App Store in college. Some of the most recognizable software I designed on was SoundHound music recognition app, Hound voice assistant app, OneSignal dev notif platform and Lyft rider/driver apps where I was responsible for authentication, referrals, coupons, growth and a whole bunch of other incredibly hard mission critical stuff.
Bike Index: What were you trying to solve with Sprocket? What made you sit down and say 'this is the thing I’m going to build' ?
7: I can talk at length about the common verbal and physical abuse on American roadways when I got on my bike in 2008, but it really goes back to reading books from the 70s about climate change. (Editor's note: Right there with you on this one - I think I read Harry Harrison's 'Make Room Make Room' about 20 times) Scientists realized that we were creating a destabilized world even back then! Its apparent that while the car saved us from the horse, it created an unholy alliance with mass-media advertising that is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Working backwards from us solving this ‘somehow’ it was clear that someone was going to have to create a change in societal behavior, that would make it easy, affordable and cool to give up the car. As a mobile app designer I was surprised that there were very few people who took climate change seriously back in ‘08-’14 and saw this as a tremendous business opportunity. This is especially lucrative when you consider the inevitable emissions regulations which are coming to a country near you very very soon.
Having already knocked around the idea in my head for 2 years at that point I decided to put the first pedal strokes down in 2014 after visiting Burning Man. Aside from climate change my goal was really to restore the commons to public spaces and public discourse, which have been nearly obliterated by the car. In traversing urban areas, human beings used to flint against one another creating sparks of public discourse necessary for society to function. Much of this has been lost as sole-profit-motive corporations packaged us away in steel coffins that make these spaces and conversations non-existent. Like the top-soil in a jungle that's washed away, we’ve lost the common ground which is needed for these ideas to flourish and grow! I know that people on bicycles are exposed to one another and the individuals they pass along the way. And that this to a large extent may fix what the automobile industry broke.
Right now what I'm creating is a platform for those 'n00bs' who are interested in cycling or in the idea of giving up their car but for one reason or another and can't get over the fence to do so. I am working out how to provide those new cyclists a resource they can download and walk away with their first used bike by connecting them to a local community member.
Bike Index: What is the Sprocket revenue model? How do you make money?
7: Virtually all of 2012-2021 I earned money from designing for Silicon Valley corporations and invested that into development and R&D while handling design myself. More recently I have sold all of my equity in Lyft and am using that to work on the app full time.
Its true that the first sale is FREE and so is every 1 sale when you refer a friend and they sign up. After that the app lets you buy a sale ad for a bicycle or a bicycle part for $1 ( in the US ). We are in the process of shipping the ability to buy a sale ad for bicycle part bounty or a bicycle bounty for $1 as well to assist people during these global shortages. Lastly we are working out subscriptions which will allow garage flippers and bike shops to pay $10 and get 20 ad listings for free. And this is all available on Android, ChromeOS, iOS, macOS and Web.
Where we go from here, who knows, but one thing is for sure, it is the people that roll a D20 throw themselves at the ground and aim to miss that change the world and soar! Downloading the app, rating, sharing and sending us feedback really helps more new riders to discover Sprocket.
Bike Index: Tell me about the thought process that went into designing Sprocket as a safer, more verified, more trusted marketplace. Did you start out with the marketplace first and then add in verification and security later, or were these things you thought about from the very start?
7: From day 1, I have been interested in figuring out how to do right by riders and the bicycle retail industry. Specifically I did not want to repeat obvious mistakes the likes of Airbnb in respect to the hotel industry but instead augment and symbiotically enhance the great stuff that is already happening in the space i.e. put community before money.
With the very limited funding we had most of the time it really took a lot of effort to get just the basic features expected from a bicycle marketplace off the ground.
The first security feature we built was adding the sale’s city, as some are safer than others ( we later expanded this to include tapping through to see it in Gmaps ) The very next two security features we built were actually to show the authentication provider and to show the image that the account was registered with. This gives you an insight into the flavor of the individual you might be dealing with, for example if they choose not to have a photo of their face.
When we discovered Bike Index had an API for serials to validate against, that made it a really easy decision! That was actually something one of our contractors could pick up and integrate into the application relatively easily. The other thing we added to our serial verification subsystem was the ability to add an un-validated serial number which can be checked against databases manually and visually inspected during the purchase. This is also frequently used internationally in countries like India where Bike Index is not yet widely used.
Bike Index: Tell us how you went about designing a marketplace that focused on bike legitimacy?
7: I think our biggest differentiator is that I think about it as a ‘gradient of security’. I kind of realized its not possible to force people to provide security information. Instead I anticipate organized chaos and give sellers choices about how fast and how well they want to sell. The more security signals they choose to give the better the platform will work for them. The less they want to give us … lets just say it helps fund future security developments on our end.
In this way definitely when you choose to provide an avatar that lets people be comfortable with you and know what to expect when they meet you, you will have an easier time. Your serial verification, should you choose to use it, will likewise show up on all lists and detail pages of your sales prominently and aid in directing offers to you.
Recently we started working on integrating Strava authentication so even with the provider you choose as your sign in, you will be able to show that you are not some rando but a member of the cycling community. Going further we plan to implement ride history lists you can pair with your sale to show that you've been riding the bike your selling for months or years - kind of like a used CarFax.
Bike Index: Tell me about your integration with Bike Index and how that keeps Sprocket users safe? What differentiates buying and selling on Sprocket from, say, Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp?
7 All general marketplaces are generally the same in that they're not ideal for the sale of bicycles. It is precisely because they are concerned with facilitating the buying and selling of everything from a couch, a TV, a PC and a bicycle that they will never be specialized enough to meet the needs of the bicyclists. Some of them like OfferUP and Mercari have shipping/payment protection systems but they are only valid for items that can fit into the back of a car trunk, so bikes don't qualify. The only platform where this works would be eBay.
The other thing you have to worry about with those starting in 2022 is that everything over $600 has to be reported by a ‘payment processor’ to the IRS. They then have to store and secure all of your highly-sensitive data against hacking ( which we do not ).
In terms of serial number verification we’re really the only one that is specialized enough to be in a position to do it. Is not really worth the time/value of someone like OfferUp or eBay to implement this because of the variety of stuff they're helping people move between each other that is not bicycles. On our platform not only is it clear which bicycles have serial numbers included/verified but you can run a filter for them!
Bike Index: Tell me about your use of bitcoin / cryptocurrency a little bit more. What problems does this solve and how does this make bike buying and selling easier?
7 Based on our understanding of Ethereum and Bitcoin we see them inevitably both becoming the first international currencies. This is evidenced by not just El Salvador but now also Ukraine and Russia adopting them among with many other countries. This trend will inevitably result in Earth reaching the status of a Type 1 civilization, on the The Kardashev scale, with a single non-sovereign monetary standard.
Having such a standard is long overdue because companies such as Retrographic which exist only on the internet and develop things like international community marketplaces have to on a daily basis deal with hundreds of currencies, tax laws and local regulations. As Jack Dorsey puts it: “There has to be an internet currency that allows an internet service to facilitate international buying and selling with one currency. It is inevitable” ( paraphrasing )
Currently any time someone wants to sell something in the world on a software client somewhere in the world we have to follow a fairly complex process: ask for permission to ascertain location through Google ( or offer to enter it manually through a more complex method, or not at all and default to something in the US ), Then we have to figure out what currencies are in use in that country. For this purpose we actually had to build entirely custom tables designating the symbol in each country. We then need to make some logic rules such as that having the geo-location of a country means they are unlikely to want/need to sell in a currency of a bordering country.
After all this we get a system where for the most part if you are selling items and give us your location in US, UK, India your currency symbol will be in USD, Pounds or Rupees. However now if you want to buy that bicycle and have it shipped in order to understand its true value you still need to manually convert it from the geographic fiat to your geographic fiat.
Not only is this cumbersome but it reduces your chances of making an offer or completing a purchase depending on your exchange rate. Also, let me remind you we pay Google for every time we make these inquiries to the Gmaps API to sort this out! 0.001 Satoshi in US is the same in the UK and its the same in India. This is internet money displayed neatly in an internet service. Furthermore you know its value relative to your country without having to do math to calculate its difference in value across borders.
The most fantastic property of Ethereum and Bitcoin transactions is that they are decentralized and non-reverseable. We have found an innumerable amount of scams on these online marketplaces with everything from fake cash, to cashiers checks, to PayPal/Venmo and so on and so forth! Crypto fixes this as it is unfakeable, immediately verifiable and can not be rolled back by a scammer through an exploit of a centralized authority. In essence not only do you have to worry about buying a fake bike but the seller has to worry about getting his money for selling a real bike. And by allowing sellers to list in ETH/BTC we have closed that security issue for those who are willing.
Bike Index: What question haven I not asked you that I should?
7 Not only has there been work done on Sprocket App but daily, since 2014, I’ve also been running @SprocketBlog on Instagram. And the question to ask is from all that blogging where do I think that biking is going in general?
The simple answer is eBikes.
Back when @SprocketBlog started there were barely any eBikes in public spaces or available for sale. In the last 8 years monumental progress has been made in battery size and energy capacity. This has really changed the possible utility for bicycles. Two of the most exciting areas, which were simply not available before, are bicycles for seniors who practically haven't been able to bike otherwise at all, and bicycles for people looking to switch from a car to something just as fast.
Bike Index editor Bryan Hance chimes in here - I absolutely agree with this, it has been real interesting to be around for 'the ebike wave'. If you would have told me five years ago that three out of four of my immediate family members would all own ebikes - myself included - I wouldn't have believed it. And now they're simply everywhere, and empowering a whole new demographic to enjoy cycling mobility again. They're fantastic. To see my parents zipping around on ebikes (and driving less!) it absolutely brings a huge smile to my face. (And our e-bike stolen bike recoveries, too.)
In this future where bicycles have batteries they will also have more embedded software. We have seen some experimental shifting systems which are able to sort out drive train load shift for you without shifter levers. We will equally start to see bicycles that track you with an embedded version of Strava. Where this gets really exciting is when these bicycles start to include a way to identify the verified serial number in software through Bike Index… and perhaps use that as some sort of digital ride unlock key like on Lyft bikeshare!
Bike Index: What’s next for Sprocket? What kind of additions, features, and new bits do you want to roll out this year?
7 Aside from the previously mentioned Strava security stuff and Sprocket subscriptions were primarily focusing our runway funding on SEO for the rest of the year. I feel we’ve build a very robust and capable marketplace that riders are actually paying us to support as opposed to free alternatives. However modern ‘mobile’ applications still inexplicably as it turns out require a ‘website’ for Google to index in order to send traffic to. I absolutely agree with you, it boggles the mind that owning 75% of mobile Google does not index Android applications for Google search. So figuring out how to do Search Engine Optimization really well is the killer feature we see helping us take off in 2022!
Bike Index: What would you like the future of cycling and bikes in general to look like? How would we all get there?
7 A really exciting future for me would be where in the next decade we’ve solved the climate emergency in the nick of time by switching to bicycles for 80% of the trips globally which take ~20 miles or less to complete. And in this future where we have also eliminated bicycle theft in such a way that bicycles can be left unlocked. Just like what I saw at Burning Man, or at RABRAI or San Jose Bike Party - 1000s of bikes are strewn everywhere! Nobody cares and nobody has an incentive to care. In part because bicycles are cheap and accessible - but also impart because stealing and reselling one has been made by software too prohibitively difficult to even make it worth a while.
That's the future we all want. That's the future we need. And with your support and sharing of my app that's the future I hope we all get a little closer to.
Bike Index: Fantastic. Thank you Seven for your time and thoughts - for all our readers be sure to check out sprocket.bike both on the web and on Instagram at @SprocketBlog - and also on Youtube