The city frequently touts its Big Apps competition as one of the highlights in its campaign to foster the local tech industry. Developers get access to all kinds of city data and the grand prize winner receives a $50,000 prize. Last year’s winner was Roadify, but as Fast Company pointed out today, the app doesn’t seem to be doing a great job fulfilling its mission.
The premise of Roadify is that users can find parking spots, avoid traffic jams and figure out which trains to catch. But to generate data on open parking spots and snarled traffic, its needs a critical mass of users. Betabeat downloaded the app today and fired it up. The app found zero parking spots in Manhattan and didn’t seem aware of the vehicular backup growing nearby our office.
In the VC world this is referred to as the “ghost town” or “cold start” problem. When you have a service that gets better the more users it has (the always valuable “network effect”), you conversely have a service that stinks when no one is on it.
Roadify does offer a few basic perks for users, like the location of parking garages, gas stations and subway entrances. This sort of functionality is already baked in to basic services like Google Maps, but it was enough to earn Roadify a number of 5 star ratings in the Apple store.
The moral of the Fast Company story is that NY City is throwing away $50,000 a year by awarding prizes to apps without figuring out if their is a user demand that needs to be met. But the winner from the first year of Big Apps, MyCityWay, scored a $5 million series A round this year and has racked up over 1 million downloads. When it comes to investing in early stage startups, batting .500 is considered a great average.