Ten Questions with: Alberta Bike Swap

One of the most fun things about working at Bike Index is meeting people doing cool things in the bikes space - people like Chris and Laura of Alberta Bike Swap

We first met Alberta Bike Swap when they reached out to us to chat about integrating Bike Index search and registration into their software. They wanted to both a) make sure the bikes they were taking in weren't stolen, and b) to also register the bikes they were sending out the door. It has been interesting to learn about their events and how they are crafting solutions to fit a huuuuge need in the bikes space - a place to buy and sell (and donate!) bikes, at scale and in person, in a safe and secure manner.

This is the kind of effort we love to support, since we see the effects of rampant black/grey market bike fencing on Offerup, Facebook, Craigslist etc. pretty much every day here at Bike Index - and because their passion for this work is clear.

We wanted to do a little Q&A with Chris and Laura here to help them spread the word:

Q: So, pretend I know nothing about your org or your software - what's is your 'elevator pitch'?

Both Chris and I had bad experiences buying and selling bikes online. Chris had been buying bikes from police auctions, repairing them, then giving them to friends or selling them for the price of parts to keep his bike tech skills active. He tried to sell a couple of these bikes out of our garage, but the person looked at everything else in our garage and we were robbed. In the same week I was looking at a full carbon road bike with a girlfriend in an unfurnished basement and the person wanted cash. Chris and I were cycle commuting home and saw someone cycle through a stop sign and we went home home and sketched out the processes to create the bike swaps - and fund safe cycling.

Our pitch - We didn’t feel safe to buy or sell bikes online so we came up with a way to create a safe place to buy, sell, and donate bikes. Our processes and software prevent stolen bikes from being in our event. Our events are a small part of what we do, we also use the proceeds to support safe cycling education, built (designed & patented) bike racks for community use, pledge people in charity rides if they bring in a bike to sell, collect & distribute bike donations, also help fund the repair of donated bikes.

Q: What was the origin or genesis of this software? What are your respective backgrounds?

We started recording serial numbers and the seller’s contact information on paper at our first event in 2011 and moved to POS software within a year, we then used consignment software, then an Access database that we’d product managed.

A software developer came forward after a TV show about our impact and coded our software to cloud services in C++ and use Bike Index’s open API and we aren’t sure what took us so long to get our software to where it is now. IRL Chris is a mechanical engineer that can take anything apart and put it back together, and whatever he takes apart usually always works better, except maybe that two-way light switch. Laura was diagnosed with MS in third year pharmacy and figured she wouldn’t be healthy enough to work in that field, so got a math/comp sci degree as one of three women in the early 80s. Cycling kept Laura’s MS at bay for over 40 years.

Alberta Bike Swap

Q:Walk me through how this works - I go to a bike swap, and then what happens?

Our events are run by volunteers and all the background work is done by just the 2 of us. We have 50-80 volunteers per event and always have a wait list. We have a 12% rejection rate of bikes with issues and have seen bikes with cracked frames and glued on pedals go back for sale online after we’ve rejected them. We always have a local bike shop on site to repair the small issues so a bike can get into the event.

A bike seller will bring in bike – we’ll tech check it to make sure that the bike is immediately rideable, then run the bike serial number into our software to verify that the bike hasn’t been reported as stolen through Bike Index’s real-time stolen bike database. The seller sets the price they want for the bike. We have something called a rack fee, which is the fee to get the bike into the event so if a bike doesn’t sell it still covers some of the expenses. We also charge a 15% commission fee when the bike sells. That 15% covers most of our expenses (but) … we won’t retire any time soon.

We have dream fulfillment volunteers to make sure no one goes home on an ill-fitting bike. The most important thing is that there is always a chain of ownership of bike and seller to bike and buyer. The software messages the seller when their bike sells, and if it doesn’t sell, then messages them to pick it up or if they’ve chose to donate it, we thank them. It’s 'automagic' software.

Q:How many bikes do you tend to process per day or per event?

We intake bikes between 8am-2pm.
2pm – 2:30pm we let people in with stolen bike police reports
2:30-4:00pm we sell the bikes

The most bikes we’ve sold at an event is 620 and we had nearly 400 donated bikes as well. We will have to move it to a 2 day event – but cost and security are a concern.

Q:What do buyers and sellers so far have to say about your work? Do consumers understand the importance of checking bike serials?

Most people don’t know about serial numbers - and it’s a hard lesson if they get their bike stolen. We invite the police to our events and they attend and promote us for what we do – they even gave us a stack of Bike Index stickers last week.

Alberta Bike Swap

Q:Tell me about the upcoming University of Calgary swap? What will you be doing at this event? Is this an event for buyers, sellers or both? How large is this event?

We were asked by the University of Calgary to host a bike swap event to create a bursary for kinesiology students and to showcase what we do on June 17th. I don’t want to say that we fly by the seat of our pants, but we do fly by the seat of our pants for bike or attendee numbers. No matter how much we advertise it is always word of mouth and reputation that gets us notice. There will be two bike shops at the swap and we’ve had over 100 people tell us they’ll be bringing bikes – I’d guess 350 bikes at this inaugural event and at least 2500 attendees.

Q:How big is your organization? What's in the future for you as an organization?

Our organization is just Chris and me and the swaps are bigger than the both of us. We are working on a succession plan. We already work with over 70 groups as big as Bike Index and the Canadian Automobile Association and as small as a small town Cycle Guild.

Q: How has your software evolved, like what were some of the things you didn't expect when you first started out that you have honed as time has progressed?

The biggest issue we have is that the software is cloud-based so we have a problem when we have connectivity issues. We spend a lot of time ahead of an event checking connectivity between the printers, tablets, and laptops and we also choose venues where we can be hard- wired. We had working software so we used the waterfall method to complete the software improvements which seem to need a few tweaks to simplify a few things like reporting or messaging.

Q: You are a non profit, yes? Tell me about the philosophy behind this decision

We wanted to be transparent in all that we do so chose to be a non-profit. Being a non-profit has nothing to do with taxes or grants because we’ve never received any grant. We’ve been able to do what we do with our work salaries and keeping ~10K back every year to fund the events.

Q:Anything I've forgotten to ask? This is a FREE SPACE - tell me what I should have asked, but didn't, and answer that for me!

We spend millions on cycling infrastructure, but nothing on how to get to/from or use that infrastructure. Education and infrastructure should work together and that’s why we fund cycling education. A person isn’t going to take swimming or CPR lessons from someone that hangs up their shingle as an instructor, an instructor should have qualifications, not just enthusiasm. The only standardized and recognized cycling education program in Canada is CAN-BIKE. Chris is the only CAN-BIKE Master Instructor in Alberta and one of three in the province. Yes, he’s enthusiastic, but he’s also knowledgeable and a qualified instructor.

PS - Chris and Laura were interviewed a while back and it's a great overview of their work:

Want to know more? You can keep up with Alberta Bike Swap on their various socials:

Alberta Bike Swap Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/albertabikeswap

Alberta Bike Swap Twitter: https://twitter.com/albertabikeswap

Alberta Bike Swap Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7nsZlI0UdQUsEMHmBVpG0g

We can't wait to see where they take this idea and we love what they're doing!