How to Use Hackathons to Stand Out

By Eyal Worthalter for Beyond The Blocks - Friday, February 10, 2017

Turn a hackathon participation into an opportunity to show your skills

Many people get the chance to participate in a hackathon, but only few of these opportunities turn out to have a significant impact on their lives. In my case though, a particular hackathon experience changed the course of my career.

I first saw a poster with the words ‘Reduxio’ and ‘Hackathon’ posted on the wall of the Hult International Business School in February of 2016 while I was studying for my MBA back in Boston. I had no clue what it was, but seeing the word ‘hackathon’ in a business school is not a usual thing. That piqued my interest, and well, I could certainly use a break at that time.

If you’ve ever been in Boston during winter, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, then picture this: you’ve got a beautiful city completely covered in snow but with not much to do outside. On top of this, if you are going through an intense one-year MBA program with classes every single day, cross-cultural team meetings in the afternoon, and a ton of case studies to read late in the evening, any change from the usual routine is very much welcome.

And that’s why I showed up for the Hackathon.

I was greeted by Mike Grandinetti, Global Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Hult, who introduced Reduxio, the company which he had just joined as CMO. Chip Ernst, North East Sales Manager, was also there and he gave a detailed explanation of the technology that powered this SF-based early-stage startup with deep technical roots in Israel. The hackathon challenges were then posted, and we split into breakout sessions.

What followed was a series of intense discussions between international MBAs, Masters students and members of Reduxio teams including Mike and Chip, Itay and Emi, our Product/UX designers and Andrey, one of our top engineers, as well as other coaches. We noticed that while they had only recently began shipping products into the US, 9 out of 10 people  who evaluated the product turned into customers. As we have learned in traditional marketing classes, this incredible conversion rate is a sure sign that you have a great product on your hands.

As for the challenges, my team and I were chosen as one of the winners, thanks to a few ideas we put out. Among our suggestions was the ‘CorruptMyDatabase’ idea that we presented as a way to build up trust through combining product demo and notions of gamification.

This is where the actual journey began.

From Hackathon Participant to Intern

When I learned a few weeks later that our ideas were actually acted upon immediately, and turned into real projects that were put in the market, I was in awe of Reduxio. I know that very few companies have the ability to churn out products rapidly. Great strategy is one thing, but 90% of success is in the execution. And Reduxio could execute.

I was impressed and interested. I approached Mike with the proposal of continuing to deliver ideas and trying to turn them into actual projects. That’s how the first Reduxio internship got started.

Thirty-five interns actively worked on several projects for over 10 weeks. Not a single one had experience in the data storage and management industry. That is not what Mike was looking for. He wanted digital natives, well - schooled  in the use of digital and social technologies to help disrupt the industry. It felt like barely-controlled chaos, but it was a truly unique experience as it allowed me to learn more about the company, work on real live projects, and have fun along the way.

A year after the first Hackathon, I’m now responsible for creating and distributing content that helps drive Inbound Leads to the sales team. It dawned on me that I’m doing content marketing without actually writing much. So I decided to take a stab at this article to teach future hackathon participants how to turn their participation into great opportunities. If you stumbled on this post while trying to learn how to leverage hackathons for your own organization, then read our guide on using hackathons to boost innovation within your organization.


How to Stand Out in Hackathons

As I’ve mentioned earlier, hackathons can turn into opportune moments to show others–in particular, company executives and/or startup founders–what you can do. Here are some tips on how you can get yourself recognized in a hackathon:

  • Spot the opportunity. In my case, it was a combination of the people I met at the hackathon whom I later worked with as an intern, what customers were saying about Reduxio, and the degree of autonomy I was able to enjoy. Not many places let you drive the car on the first day. In Reduxio, you are expected to do so. This can be scary and overwhelming, or it can be an opportunity for growth.
  • Be in a constant state of becoming. I’m taking this tip from one of my MBA Leadership coaches, and it works not only for hackathons but hopefully, throughout your life as well. Start with an open mind, explore different activities, and see what works and what doesn’t. Learn and improve. Actively working with an open mind will enable you to spot the opportunities that come your way.
  • Offer value without expecting anything in return. I approach marketing the same way I approached sales–I add value to my customers. This means 3 things: You either help them save money, you save them time, or you educate them. So use the hackathon opportunity to deliver as much value as you possibly can.

This last advice might make some people cringe. You may have been told often enough to never work for free. But my advice is to do the complete opposite, especially early in your career. Any opportunity to work in real projects will give you experience, which can be even more valuable than monetary compensation.

The more value you deliver, the more possible it will be for an organization to recognize that you can be a great fit for them. I know because that’s what happened to me. This is by far the most important takeaway in this post. If you can figure out how to add value to an organization, you’ll stand out for sure.

I have to admit though that luck may have had something to do with it too–I was in the right place at the right time. But I also have to believe that adding value to companies, customers, and colleagues is what has helped shape my luck. So go out and deliver value.

From Intern to Employee

As with any startup, there’s always a high degree of uncertainty, and there is no predetermined way of doing things. I had no formal interview, but we had a series of discussions on what my role would be. So this transition can be rocky if you aren’t prepared.

But those conversations last summer seem so distant now, since what I’m currently doing barely has anything to do with what we originally talked about. And I’m positive that six months from now I will also be doing something different. The startup world dictates not only that you do 2 or 3 (sometimes more!) functions at the same time, but that you be flexible enough to adapt to this changing environment. The Muse suggests you should be ready to abandon your concept of ‘work’ and embrace constant change.

This degree of uncertainty is not for everyone, and I understand that it can be burdensome. While it can also be the opportunity that comes once or twice in a lifetime, it can also go nowhere. It’s really up to you how you respond.

So with that in mind, I hope the following tips can help:

  • Be flexible. Embrace change, period. Many people say this for different circumstances, but in a startup culture this is a must. Be prepared not only to do many things at once, but to change what you are doing multiple times if needed. Stretch yourself to the limit and do things you’ve never done before. The best thing about this is that you’ll get to explore, learn, and grow. The tradeoff is that you might have to do things you weren’t expecting to do.
  • Deal with uncertainty: Lack of structure and process can be painful. Lack of certainty can be disheartening. But we live in uncertain times and the beginning of this year is an understatement. In the immortal words of Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Deal with it; change will only come at a faster rate.

If you can handle the above then get ready for:

The Opportunity to join a place full of Work Geeks

I became an engineer because of my love for sci-fi. My wife hates it when I start quoting Dune or Star Wars. I landed up in Sales by mere chance, and I switched to Marketing by choice. In all cases, I’ve always had a passion for technology and how it solves problems. This passion translates into a high degree of ‘nerdiness’ that I put into my work. I call this being a Work Geek: someone who is highly passionate about what he does and enjoys doing it for the sake of doing it.

The first day I arrived at the R&D center of Reduxio in Israel, I felt right at home. It wasn’t only the excitement of “visiting headquarters.” It was the ambiance, and the people here that are truly unique and remarkable. Everyone devotes an enormous amount of effort and soul into what they are doing. You can sense it in the air. It’s no surprise that the resulting product has had tremendous success with stories of a 72-hour sales cycle or 90% conversion rate. The passion just translates into the product.

Beyond the intense energy you feel working with fellow Reduxio colleagues, there’s also the great feeling of working with a diverse group of remarkable individuals. Our marketing team has people from many corners of the world, with different backgrounds and experiences in other industries. Diversity leads to Innovation, which is what we are trying to achieve.

Preparing to do it all over again

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen in our next Hackathon on February 17. This time i’ll be mentor and not participant. I have high hopes for the talented people competing this year and I’m even more excited about the possible outcome.

We decided to add an ‘extra’ technical track to the traditional growth hacking challenges. This time we’ll ask teams to generate ideas about using chatbot and VR technologies for growth. This ‘cutting-edge’ approach to marketing is rarely seen. There's no playbook for what we are doing, so our team will have to be the ones that writes it. 

As for all the eagerness I have about the Hackathon, I’m even more excited to see where this time-defying space ship called Reduxio is going. And I’m definitely in for the ride.

Eyal Worthalter

Written by Eyal Worthalter

Eyal enjoys discovering, learning and sharing how technology can improve our world. He currently leads content marketing efforts at Reduxio as Head of Sales Enablement. Eyal holds a BSc in Electronics & Communications Engineering and earned his MBA from Hult International Business School in Boston.

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