Hacking the Hackathon: From sleepless weekends to long events

By Tarmo Virki | hackathon | January 30, 2017

For outsiders, the hackathon is something rather mysterious. A very common understanding goes something like this: a bunch of developers meet in a large, dark room, watch their screens for three days, drink energy drinks, listen to some weird music, then they pack up and leave and everyone seems happy afterwards.

There are events like this and many questions come to mind: Is it really only for coders? How do you get the most from these events? How do you win? Are there any secret tricks?

The longer the hack, the more ambitious the ideas that can be pursued. In seven months one can build a successful startup, raise money and even sell it. It does not make sense to go after a very ambitious idea over a weekend.

You can change the solution – especially during a 7-month hackathon some teams almost certainly have to pivot. Maybe more than once.

In general, a long hackathon should be taken as more like incubating your idea – you work on your startup and the competition is only a bonus if it goes well.

In the following article we have compiled experiences and advice from participants and organisers, and ourselves, from both sides.

 

Business case

INCREASINGLY, HACKATHONS ARE ABOUT EARLY-stage startup-building, like a Startup Weekend series, not just code-writing. Moreover, if we are talking about startups, the business case has to make sense. I have met many teams during those weekends, each trying to change anything in the world without any idea about for whom they are building the service or who could eventually be the buyer.

 

HQ of Garage48 hackathon on e-residency, Sept 2015

The holy grail is clearly a paying customer. If in one weekend you get dozens of buyers for your product on Indiegogo, or if you have created your first sales, it is hard for judges to ignore you and your team. Even if the technology fails, you might still get an honorary mention.

The easiest solution for such a business case is to take a lean startup canvas and get out of the venue to speak with potential customers. Get their feedback, reform the idea, and then put the team to work while the business guys are heading back to the street to test the new version of the idea.

Marketing

THE MARKETING PERSON IN THE TEAM IS USUALLY responsible for creating the first-ever marketing strategy for your startup. A marketing person can have many goals and tasks, starting from Excel tables with many different abbreviations like CPM, CTR, CPA, CPC etc. and ending with creative work. However, one of the main tasks for the marketing person is to help you with crucial information in the idea-validation stage: to figure out if there is a need for your product. If there is, then who are those in need? What are their needs exactly? Who are your competitors? What are the competitors’ weaknesses? All of this gives you crucial insight that you can use when creating a marketing and communication strategy for your startup. You can use this information for different marketing activities, starting from simply defining a tone of voice and creating a core message through to creating marketing pillars for successful marketing and a customer journey.

Testing your marketing strategy and drawing conclusions is crucial. The plan might look good on paper, but is it working in real life? That’s why testing is almost as important as the strategy itself. Just some simple A/B test to see how your audience reacts. Do they like your tone of voice? Do they like how your approach them? Do they like your visuals? How they react to all of this?

Team

JUST LIKE ACTUAL STARTUPS, THE HACKATHON IT is all about teams – it should not be too large; it should not be too small. It should cover all the crucial skills and the team members should be able to play together like a good band.

Easier said than done – the band is all about the people. When Yoko Ono showed up, the Beatles broke apart. During a short hackathon, you often have only a few minutes to see whether you can work with someone. When I suggested to one of my friends to take his idea to the hackathon to build something out of it, he said, “I cannot trust them enough at this point.” This is clearly an obstacle to some people, but not for many in the community. You have to take some risks, and you have to assume good of the people you do not know.

It’s almost all about luck. If you apply with a team, you have a less of a problem.

The optimum is to have at least three members – classically the hacker, hustler and designer. You might get some hangaround members who are there just to learn, but anything north of 10 will kill you in shorter hackathons. It means you have to spend time during the hackathon on managing and creating internal processes, and there’s simply no time for that.

 

 

I attended a weekend hackathon with a team of 14 people. We formed internal teams quickly: management, marketing, specialists, developers. At the next level, we had management board meetings, and all hands meetings, etc. In the first 24 hours we were able to agree on the name for the project. We failed to win because the judges had no idea what we were creating. To be fair, neither did we.

A good team can be formed accidentally, but there is nothing wrong with trying to force such accidents. If there is some kind of pre-event for participants or a Facebook discussion group, do share your plans and see whether others are interested in it too. For example, Sitra’s Ratikaisu 100 has pre-events in many towns across Finland.

Think through your plans. Do you need developers for web, for app, and/or backend? Do you need marketing and business development guys? If anyone you would like to work with is attending, do poach them early.

Play

GOOD TEAMS CAN TAKE A BREAK AND FLY A DRONE or sleep – that will lead to better results eventually.

Sometimes a hackathon is an experience on its own. A scene from 3am on Saturday morning on the small island of Vormsi: “The last ray of light has gone. I am in the middle of a weekend hackathon, in complete darkness. There are no lights on in any of the houses in this village in the middle of nowhere. In a classroom at a local schoolhouse, I have stared at a computer screen all day. I can barely see shadows of trees on the side of the street.  I have to find a bed. The only way is to keep on moving. I can feel asphalt under my shoes. I put my hands in front of me, so I will not hit anything.”

 

Immeasurable

WHAT YOU CANNOT MEASURE IS THE ADRENALINE kick you get on Sunday. After working for 48 hours, after compiling teams over weeks before the show, and after digesting the idea for months with some members of the team, everything is ready when we are on stage on Sunday evening.

We made a working prototype over the weekend. Tape holds it together. I cannot be sure the demo works, not 100%, but I know my job on stage is to give the pitch and take any questions, not to get distracted by the details of the demo. While speaking, I can hear everything working fine in the background. I get all the details later. We are flying high. People come to congratulate us and then we share the second prize.

You gotta enjoy the ride – Sightseeing while hacking

The best moments of these weekends are certainly the craziest ones – when somebody gets the idea to do everything completely differently, and it works, or the moment when the team member who did nothing for 24 hours suddenly makes everything happen in an hour, or when you nail it on stage.

And, after your first weekend, things are never the same again.

If it worked well for your team, you have a glimpse of the startup world at its best. You understand that your corporate job is only there for numbered days – you cannot spend hours and days of your life on something so meaningless. My next hackathon will be early next year; I have to start preparing.

Photos: Maido Parv/G48; Tarmo Virki

Additional reporting by Rene Rumberg