Yahoo just released a travel app called Radar. It has a basic conversational interface. You tap two buttons that recommend attractions or restaurants in selected cities using data from Yelp and TripAdvisor. Radar can, in theory, scan your email to personalize new trip reservations to the app and help you figure out how to get there.
Great idea, poor execution. The app wasn’t able to find my plane reservation to Europe after giving it access to my Yahoo email account. After sending a troubleshooting email as Radar suggested so “friends at Yahoo can add them manually,” it yielded results several hours later, but because Radar only covers the United States, it had no recommendations to offer. Users on Apple’s app store haven called it “pointless,” awarding two out of five stars.
It may fail as a travel app, but Radar may succeed as a recruiting tool. Doomed side projects are a way for some companies in Silicon Valley to get new talent through the door. While some may work, most are financial sink holes compared to the mundane task of rewriting old code or squeezing out a few more advertising dollars by optimizing websites.
“Yahoo keeps these around because it’s fantastic for recruiting,” wrote Garry Tan, a cofounder of the blogging platform Posthaven, and former partner at the Y Combinator accelerator. “Yahoo recruiters lure talented engineers, designers and PMs to work on this project, then gradually shift them off to real value-creating projects once they’re hired.”
Yahoo responded to questions on Friday afternoon saying that Yahoo’s work is enough of a draw on its own. “The scale at which Yahoo operates, combined by focus on mobile, and a number of exciting projects, make the company a very interesting place for top engineering talent,” wrote the spokesperson. “And we continue to attract and hire top class technical talent.”
Travel apps are a classic example where there’s an immediate and universal problem, but not much of a solution. Everyone relates to the frustration of juggling travel itineraries. Yet the travel planning sector has been devoid of any breakout hits for years. Thousands of apps have tackled the problem, and only, two, Tripit and TripCase, seem to have gained much traction. Those apps only have about 700,000 combined monthly users, less than 1% of mobile users, according to SurveyMonkey Intelligence.
That’s not to say side projects never work out. Google famously offered its employees 20% of their workweek to pursue side projects, a strategy which yielded Gmail and Google News, although the company has now reportedly abandoned in favor of a more focused strategy. But for companies that lack the magnetism of Facebook or Google, side projects are likely to remain a way to convince new talent that a big company is for them.
The image above was taken by Moyan Brenn and shared under a Creative Commons license on Flickr.