Hackathons are great learning environments for aspiring entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, marketers and corporate change agents - essentially anyone and everyone involved in the creative process of innovating. This post explores how both participants and companies can benefit significantly from a hackathon, and explains how you can start organizing hackathons within your company.
What is a hackathon? Why is this important for those interested in careers in entrepreneurship or innovation?
The word “hackathon” is a mashup of the terms “hack” and “marathon.” A “hack” is a quick, creative and maybe even inelegant but effective solution to a problem or limitation. Of course, we all know "marathons” were the world’s first endurance events. They originated in Greece during the very first Olympic Games.
Hackathons have quickly emerged as key places for innovation, networking, recruiting, pitching and, in some cases, winning cash for your startup. For example, the legendary Kleiner Perkins, the prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firm, sends partners to about 20 hackathons a year.
Corporate recruiters, innovators, and startup leaders use hackathons to see who thrive in a chaotic environment that models the dynamic of a startup. For participating individuals, hackathons offer a “test drive” –the chance to experience the intensity of working for a startup or on a new product idea before committing to a job.
In 2014, the world’s largest organizer of hackathons, UP Global, delivered 1,248 Startup Weekend hackathons in 568 cities across 112 countries worldwide, with 105,000 attendees. This year, they figure the number will rise to 2,400 hackathons. University-specific hackathons are also now a big part of the tech startup scene. According to Major League Hacking, the “NCAA of Hackathons”, over 150 intercollegiate hackathons were held in US college campuses in 2015.
These hackathons typically run from Friday night through Sunday night. They are designed around small teams who gulp large doses of caffeine in the form of Red Bull energy drinks and Starbucks coffee while working together to find quick solutions, often by writing software applications. At the end of the weekend, judges circulate and review each team’s “hacks” to pick winners.
For those who don’t have technical backgrounds or have not yet attracted technical co-founders, non-coding hackathons offer a more relevant experience.
Fostering true motivation and innovation by promoting autonomy and mastery
On behalf of my startup, Reduxio, I recently ran a 12-hour Growth Hack event that included 60 of my MBA and Masters in Marketing students. We gave them 4 specific real world challenges and intensive mentorship, as well as food and caffeine throughout the day.
It was an ideal blend of autonomy - ultimately the teams were responsible for their own solutions to the challenge -, and mastery - experts in website design, UX, social marketing, paid adwords, SEO, email marketing, and startup marketing were on hand to share their experiences with the participants.
The Growth Hack approach allowed teams to develop rapid solutions in the form of storyboards and digital prototypes, without writing computer code. Instead, they used “drag-and-drop” editors, mock-up tools, and wireframes to approximate the rapid prototyping common to more traditional hackathons.
The results were nothing short of astonishing. You can view some of the action in the video below:
While we initially planned on only allowing 4 teams - the individual track winners - to advance, the projects were so strong that we advanced 6 teams. Several of these team’s ideas have already wound their way into the market, including a highly viral social campaign, and a new approach to showcasing our product’s capabilities in the form of a “challenge”. Others, including a mobile game, are now in development.
How you can do this within your own organization - 8 Core Principles
There is no single way to manage a hackathon, but there are some core principles to keep in mind.
The goals and expected outcomes should be made clear to all involved. For example, do you want the participants to focus on a specific challenge or set of challenges that are of vital interest to the executive team? If so, define those particular challenges and outline them in a clear and easy-to-understand write-up. In our Reduxio Growth Hack Challenge for instance, we posed four highly specific challenges to our participants as they were strategic to us.
Alternatively, you can also give the participants the freedom to work on what they want to, as long as it is relevant to your company’s interests.
2. Team Formation
There are some key considerations here:
A. Less is More. Teams of more than 3 to 4 people are simply less effective than smaller teams. This follows the classic “Law of the Mythical Man-Month.” Smaller, focused teams work best–anything above 5 actually detracts from collaboration and productivity
B. Diversity is Key. You absolutely do NOT want four of the same people –gender, nationality, functional expertise, etc. A set of different perspectives lend themselves to far better outcomes. Groupthink is far too common without a diverse team.
For example, our Reduxio Growth Hack included participants from many countries, from Austria to China to Colombia to Mexico to Germany to India to Nigeria to Russia to Venezuela as well as the US, including Puerto Rico. These individuals also came with a wide range of industry experiences –from high tech to CPG to retail to travel, and functional expertise –from messaging and branding to advertising to sales to digital marketing to operations to project management.
C. “Yes AND” –not “Yes BUT.”
It is vital to provide mentorship to challenge the participants to think bigger, as well as to serve as a sounding board and provide technical and functional expertise.
For instance, our mentors included specialists in User Experience Design, Web Design, SEO, Digital Marketing, Technical Sales, and Strategic Marketing. They were from countries as diverse as Israel, Mexico, Ukraine, the USA, Vietnam, and Venezuela. They rotated so that each team had access to each mentor‘s insights over the course of the hackathon.
Typical hackathons last from a single day to 72 hours in duration. In corporate environments, 72 hour hackathons are rare.
At our Reduxio Growth Hack, we chose a full-day (12 hour) intensive event. In our judgement, we felt this gave the teams enough time to break through the challenge with an innovative outcome.
Hackathons are super-intense events. Big thinking over a sustained period of time requires calories to sustain the participants. In addition, people hit the wall at different times throughout the day.
During our hackathon, we made sure that participants had access to lots of healthy food all day long. Snacks were available at a buffet table throughout the day, as well as complete breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food was served in a common area so that participants could share their experiences with one another. Of course, we also provided all the caffeine, water, and soft drinks they could handle.
6. Picking Winning Teams
Each challenge should have 1 winner, and perhaps a runner up. The criteria for winning should be clearly stated upfront. For us, highly innovative and immediately actionable ideas were a key criteria. We wanted to stand out from industry conventions and create memorable and unique campaigns.
At Reduxio, we had the mentors also serve as judges. They had the entire day to interact with the team and challenge their ideas, so they had a deep understanding of the participants’ work, including the assumptions and challenges required to successfully execute. This allowed for a far better outcome than bringing in a separate judging panel, which is quite common.
The most valuable “prize” was the decision to take the winning idea and fund it, so that it could be launched in the market. As humans, we all love to create and to see our creations affect the world in some positive way. The winning participants got to take out their raw ideas, and with funding and on-going mentorship and support, mature and evolve these ideas until ready for market launch.
One idea was rapidly matured and placed “in market” within 30 days after the completion of the hackathon. Another idea, a very innovative and sophisticated but complex campaign, was gestated over 120 days and has been launched very effectively over the past 30 days to superb early results. A third idea, a mobile game, is in development and the MVP is nearing completion.
The rewards of my Hackathon experiences
I have mentored, judged in, and run many hackathons over the past five years in the US, Canada, Europe and Israel. This has been on behalf of many organizations including OpenIDEO, Startup Weekend, Major League Hacking, MIT Hacking Medicine, ProtoHack, and Reduxio, amongst others.
The Reduxio hackathon was the most meaningful because the ideas that were born out of the hackathon have been methodically followed up on and are in various stages of implementation. This was NOT an academic exercise - it was as practical as anything I have ever seen in the Hackathon sphere.