How to hack a Hackathon: Organizers and Sponsors

(The main article and links to the other posts on Hackathon 101 and How to Win are linked here)

In the last two posts we’ve seen what participants can do to win and maximise their own experiences at a hackathon. Similarly, it is critical that organisers and sponsors are clear on what they want from the event so as to host a productive event for all.

Creating value for participants

Hackathon the new buzz word in the tech scene. No, anything that is a portmanteau of a tech word + marathon is a new buzz word on the scene. Designathon, Startathon, Creatathon,…,Hackathon. And all these words do little to describe the event besides the long slog that it champions and some process-based outcome (design, hacking, creation). Everyone and their mother is organizing a hackathon or some variation of it now.

Cool, still reasonable enough. But why should a participant join your event in particular, besides the swag and prizes on offer? Here are some things I have observed that work —

  1. Provide interesting problems to solve/themes to address. Yes, this will require your organising team to wrack your brains and do some pre-hackathon gruntwork but it is worth it. If you, as an organiser, are looking to attract a healthy mix of designers, developers and product people then you want to offer challenges that involve all groups equally. If you’re looking to get a room full of technical talent then frame problems that will be challenging and interesting for them. I love hackathons which don’t leave it so open ended that everyone is building a portal/Uber for X/Tinder for cats etc, rather having me build something that forces my group to think.
  2. What kind of an event is this? Is it a pitch contest with PowerPoint decks or is it technical in nature or is it a mix of both? Lots of technical talent skip hackathons now because undue credit is given to submissions which hypothesise about solutions on PowerPoint slides without building anything. What was being touted as a “hackathon” had no element of hacking/building at all! Don’t lie to your participants; they will not stick around or return to your event! Similarly, is the event meant for beginners or for people in certain industries? Craft learning journeys (more on this later) and explicitly state what a participant stands to learn from being at the event.
  3. Quality of Industry Experts/Mentors. Firstly, events that don’t see much mentorship don’t go well in terms of products pitched and general learning for participants. Why? For many, their attempt at making something to solve for X is a shot in the dark. I mentioned in the Pitch Perfect article that there is much value in Empathising, Defining and Ideating. Having Industry experts/mentors who can expatiate on problems and ground truths is a major help to the participants. It also helps to have a healthy mix of these experts; it can’t be everyone from an industry or everyone from the software world. A balance of different experts ensures that there is something for everyone. My team usually needs industry mentors to bounce off ideas but there are enough teams who struggle with technical niggles or execution issues and there is no one to help them.
  4. What’s the takeaway for participants? Does the work end with the hackathon or is there some follow up? I‘ll discuss this further but a quick mention would be to make participants feel there’s something to gain from being there.

Creating sustainability for sponsors

Firstly, thank you for allowing hackathons to happen. No good events can happen without funding or material support and sponsors make it happen.

That said, sponsors, please note that hackathons are not excuses for you to not hire an agency to create concepts/ideas for you, nor is it a way to get work done on the cheap AND HOLD ALL THE IP. (Accenture, AirAsia…I’m looking at you.) This irks me so much. I have, on principle, refused to attend hackathons that were taking IP away from participants or holding first refusal on submissions if they ever went to market. (AirAsia went as far to write to me to suggest that they’ve amended the rules on IP and yet held this first refusal!) That is sneaky and the lowest one can go. (I was still happy that my friends won their event, though.)

Having got that out of the way, let’s discuss how to create sustainability for sponsors. There are many things sponsors can get out of events like these —

  1. Opportunity for participants to use their tools or solve a problem for them. The easiest examples would be companies like IBM and AWS which provide free credits for participants to use their platform. It creates awareness and product adoption amongst the developer community and companies can sponsor prizes for teams that do this well/use some obscure features that the platform provides. Similarly, Wacom provided us an opportunity to use their new WILL SDK and see if we could build something that utilised digital ink and their platform, in return for a prize that involved speaking at the Connected Ink summit that focused on innovation in the digital ink sphere. That was so cool! It was fun working with the SDK and mighty fun being at the summit. 
    Companies/sponsors can also offer certain tasks that their industry focuses on. Ab inBev/Budweiser focused on Beer Consumption experience and a safe drinking experience as a couple of themes. These are actual problems the industry faces and the associable nature of it all means that participants find it interesting to work on. But…
  2. Follow up. This is what I meant by sponsors getting work done on the cheap. Lots of sponsors are guilty of taking ideas/prototypes and then developing them with their in-house teams. Some, like Accenture, just collect ideas and get the top 3 to present while holding IP to all submissions. Please, don’t. If someone has spent time and effort to work on your problem the least you can do is to offer them an opportunity to collaborate with you and finish what they started. Ab inBev/Budweiser came close when they offered to fly us down to Shanghai but it never came to fruition. BNP Paribas is doing that with their finance hackathon now, sending winning teams to Paris to complete their ideas alongside industry mentors. You will create an engaging brand and participants will like you too.
  3. Come back often. The core of any relationship lies in engagement. Be a part of the scene, be visible and you will form a good working relationship with your participants. Some other ways sponsors do this is by organising events outside hackathons and inviting the hackathon attendees. This is awesome. It sustains a relationship beyond the 24–48 hours.

Ensuring ideas last beyond the hackathon

Hehe 😅

I’ve been guilty of this far too many times. I remember being asked by @gwendolynregina why we never follow up on what we build, in terms of actual startups or industry collaborations. Truth is, besides my own inertia to make something bigger of our hack, the avenues disappear once the event ends. There’s no continued contact with the organizers or mentors once the event ends because they think that their task ended with the successful execution of the hackathon and we, as participants, think our task ended with the award ceremony.

There are ways around this. Event organizers should aim to get winning teams to further engage with industry specialists post-hackathon or help establish initial contact for partnerships — something that participants like myself aren’t able to do right off the bat. These could be collaborations, funding opportunities, companies in the space or government agencies. The intention should always be to not let ideas and prototypes die in the aftermath of a hackathon. Some events like the SGEnable hackathon by UP Singapore provided hackathon winners the opportunity to pitch for a S$20,000 grant to develop their winning ideas further at a separate event. This model is excellent because it evolves the hackathon idea and tests whether, in terms of execution at scale and business logic, it is as sound as it seems.

For our own team we repurposed our hackathons to be an avenue for quick validation with VCs and panel members to ultimately decide whether we’d like to offer what we built as a service. An example of this would be a beer recommendation engine we built for Ab inBev’s hackathon that worked off emotion recognition, the core technology of which (emotion-based triggers) is now being offered as a service by us.

Repurposing hackathons for the social sector/public service

There’s so much talk about hackathons and their potential all over the internet — even I have been waxing lyrical about how cool the events are and how everyone should be attending them. The big question then is this — can hackathons be used for good?

The short answer is, yes, they can! Enough organizers try to centre hackathons around themes like healthcare, ageism, environment etc.; problems that are usually handled by the government. Of course, this would be better served if, instead of working for the government agency, one was working with the government agency in question. The merits of hackathons in terms of moving swiftly from problem definition to an idea to a prototype makes them the easiest tool for innovation in the government toolbox. But it is a collaborative effort.

Solutions are well-informed if they leverage data or access to it that can be provided by the government, especially if it is not usually public. In Singapore, I’ve had enough opportunities to work on interesting problems leveraging datasets from or unreleased datasets that were offered during the event. During our second hackathon where we tried to predict dengue outbreaks in Singapore I was given access to unreleased data on public cleanliness besides access to public data sets on dengue clusters, rain, temperature that we could model for our predictions. Similarly, the Energy Market Authority provided access to unreleased data from a pilot test on Smart Meters that could provide an aggregated value on energy consumption in a house every 30 minutes.

Solutions are further well informed if government officials/agency representatives can shed light on why certain solutions have been prioritised in light of other concerns like logistical matters etc. It is easy to criticise the public sector for not making certain seemingly easy policy/technological decisions but as hackathon participants we often miss the larger ambit within which the agencies operate. Optimisation within constraints is a wonderful exercise in itself, especially for programmers, and solutions derived are firmly rooted in reality. The “hackathon approach” towards generating ideas and creating prototypes remains the same; the design thinking process dictates how we define these problems and solve for them, only that now the problem definition also flags out notable concerns.

Organising the “perfect” hackathon

tl;dr there is no perfect.

So you’ve read everything so far and want to organise an event. Great, I love it! Here are a few things you should ask yourself while organising one —

  1. What do you wish to achieve from this hackathon as organizers? Is it an avenue to make cool projects, is it a way to solve pressing problems around us, is it a glorified brainstorming session? Each event here should attract a different audience, a different judging pool and carry with it varying expectations on outcomes and deliverables.
  2. What’s the length and format of the hackathon? As discussed in creating value for participants, it makes sense as organisers to be clear on this from the start. Would you rather have a 24 hour code sprint culminating with a demo or would you rather have this spread out over a week with regular check-ins/presentations and a polished product demo and business pitch at the end of it? If you’re trying to build/partner up with an industry then what kind of an event will create value for them?
  3. What are the kinds of participants you wish to attract? Technical or non-technical? Domain experts or college students? Maybe a bit of both? You need the right participants (type and quality) to execute your vision in (1). Facebook often mixes this up for their hackathons wherein their focus on technical talent (shortlisted through an online coding test) means that there are no designers/product people at their event, and yet presentations are expected to have some product polish.
  4. What do you expect participants to have as a learning journey? Would it be pre-hackathon activities that allow them to learn/empathise with themes/topics offered? Would it be a set of masterclasses that will equip participants to build better and present better? It is an important question to ask when planning the hackathon and structuring it in (2).
  5. What kind of help do you need to pull this off? Will it be industry partners or tech companies? Do you need VCs or the strong developer community to support this event? What kind of buy in do the industry partners willing to support the event need and what could they offer in return? Your choice of partners will dictate how much latitude you have in terms of giving life to your event and what you wish to accomplish with it in (1).

Your decisions across 1–5 will make for your “perfect” hackathon. My perfect hackathon will probably be an episode of Survivor — the air-conditioning breaks down, water supplies get replaced by vodka or some alcohol, the internet goes down in the middle of night etc.; bunch of challenges alongside the hackathon which will actively try to hamper your abilities to build something (but could possibly gain you advantage if you can fix/get around them). I don’t know, this is unlikely. The hackathon I most want to take part in? Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon. The name explains itself!


This last post was an attempt to answer questions for organisers and sponsors from a participant’s standpoint — what we expect, what we would like more of, and how hackathons can be made more useful. I hope these posts have been useful!

Please let me know if you have any feedback on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you!

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