How to Host a Hackathon

If you’ve spent any time in the startup world, chances are you’re familiar with hackathons. Usually they have a predetermined goal or theme, as well as lots of developers, occasional all-nighters and plenty of food. Organizing a hackathon definitely requires work, but the results can be gratifying on many levels, from relationship-building to spurring product development.

After its first foray into hackathons, Cogo Labs held an internal team hackathon one quiet Friday afternoon. Thanks to the team’s thorough preparation and execution, several products were created, including a tweet analyzer that uses natural language processing to find tweets relevant to a specific topic, a slackbot that allows employees to anonymously request and save company-specific jargon definitions, and a boilerplate generator that allows for large coding projects’ starting structure and settings to be configured more easily.

Cogo also recently completed a month-long, inter-company “Cogoverse Hackathon.” Groups were assigned based on experience, availability and areas of interest, with participants made up of various Cogo team members and individuals from Cognius, Tenizen, Abovo 42 and other Cogo portfolio companies. “Cogoverse Hackathon” groups met weekly on Monday evenings to avoid disrupting daily productivity, and at the culmination of the event, projects were judged based on usefulness, technical difficulty, user experience, innovation and pitch quality. The team with the highest score was awarded dinner and Red Sox tickets, while the crowd favorite got 10 passes to rock climbing gym Brooklyn Boulders.

Some teams use hackathons to build new, “outside the box” products for their business, including Link Ventures portfolio company CareDash. In fact, the only rule CareDash implemented in its most recent hackathon was that projects had to relate to the business in some direct way. The winning project was the Daily Wellness Challenge, a product that boosts user well-being and engagement via daily notifications. Other resulting hackathon creations included a quantifiable measuring tool for physician/practice reviews, an all-inclusive SEO instance, and a real-time CareDash.com portal that displays current healthcare laws and patient rights, with an emphasis on how low-income communities are affected.

For Link Ventures portfolio company EverQuote, hackathons are recurring, 24-hour events called “Ship-It Days.” “Ship-It Days” prioritize total creativity and provide EverQuote team members a chance to collaborate with different people, learn new technologies, build product tools, and present to their CEO, board members and other C-level executives. Taking a high-input, high-output approach to hackathons has already benefitted EverQuote in terms of idea generation and community culture, and it’s perhaps partially responsible for the company’s recent placement on the Boston Business Journal’s 2017 list of the 50 fastest-growing private companies in Massachusetts.

If you’re looking to join the hackathon trend and host one of your own, here are four tips we found helpful:

1. Establish a clear goal. Successful hackathons are centered around specific questions, problems or skill acquisition. Clearly outline the objective of your hackathon in advance and include reasonably specific proposed solutions and/or outcomes. Also, establish attainable goals so participants can gain a sense of accomplishment at the end, instead of feeling cut off or defeated.

2. Assign a specific time limit. Whether your hackathon involves a two-hour project or a non-stop, three-day challenge, it’s important to set a time frame, as this helps drive actionable results rather than vague, visionary concepts.

3. Pick a project leader. Depending on the size of your hackathon, it can be helpful to select someone to lead the event. Project leaders can be in charge of coordinating the hackathon logistics, making a list of hackathon tasks ahead of time, and ensuring everyone has something to work on.

4. Get out of the way. Once participants have arrived and received any necessary instructions, let them hack! Interruptions are incredibly distracting, especially because everyone is so focused on solving a specific problem by a specific time. Keep any non-hackathon related conversation to a minimum, suggest that participants put away their phones, and refrain from enforcing any formal meal or discussion breaks.

More than 200,000 people participated in hackathons last year across more than 100 countries, with efforts resulting in the creation of over 13,000 new prototypes. One of the reasons hackathons have become so popular is that unlike most professional settings, hackathons offer a low cost of failure. All ideas are welcomed, taking risks is encouraged and creativity is prioritized.

To achieve hackathon success of your own, let your participants take ownership, encourage everyone to work together, and provide plenty of snacks! Finally, consider taking notes about what worked and what didn’t after the event. Odds are, you’ll want to hold another hackathon before long, so be sure to learn from your mistakes and incorporate feedback.