10 Steps to Organize a Hackathon!

Follow along this step-by-step guide with Microsoft to learn 10 quick tips to organize a hackathon!

1. Assemble a team

The first step in organizing a hackathon may just be the most important. All great events cannot happen without a stellar leadership team. Consider the following roles, adapted from the typical corporate C-suite, for your hackathon leadership team.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO): 1–2 people in charge of overseeing the entire operation; basically the founders and main organizers of the hackathon.

Chief Marketing Officer (CMO): in charge of marketing and promoting the event. Manages website, social, campaigns, and promotional materials.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO): in charge of securing sponsorships, managing budget and cash flow, and anything else relating to money.

Chief Operating Officer (COO): in charge of behind-the-scenes operations such as booking the venue, developing the schedule, ordering catering, managing transportation and registration, etc.

2. Decide the details

With a top-notch team formed, these individuals can now get started in planning the actual hackathon. Decide the details together! Here’s what you need to nail down:

  • Name — think of something creative and relevant. Many hackathons choose to 1) incorporate the word Hack, Hacks, or Hackathon into the name and 2) make the name one word by eliminating spaces. For example, Stanford University’s annual hackathon is called TreeHacks.
  • Location — find a venue. This can be a tricky step. Read through the Major League Hacking guide on how to ‘Lock Down a Venue’
  • Date — decide when you want to have the hackathon. Take into account vacations, mid-term / final seasons, and other potential conflicts. The date may also be informed by when your desired venue is available.
  • Target audience and expected number of attendees — try to determine who you want to attend the hack. Is it only for local students? Is it open to people outside the university age range? How inclusive can you be? Use the target audience and the location to inform your estimate for the expected number of attendees. It’s good to set a goal for the number of people you want to attend the hackathon. See if you can reach this goal!
  • Budget — work with your school and among the leadership team to identify your budget for the hackathon. Have the CFO start to map out what amounts are needed from sponsors.

3. Choose a theme

This step is one that often gets overlooked by organizers; however, it can be immensely powerful in ensuring your hackathon has relevance and resonance! A theme takes the event to the next level and gives both attendees and sponsors a clearer way to frame their participation. A theme will help attendees dream up their project idea and will help sponsors determine their prizes.

At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, which is why we believe a hackathon dedicated to social good is the most promising. Some theme examples:

  • Sustainability and Clean Energy
  • Health and Well-Being
  • Equality (Gender, Race, Sexual Orientation)
  • Education
  • Environmentalism
  • Diversity & Inclusion
  • Climate Change
  • Peace and Justice
  • Accessibility
  • Artificial Intelligence for Good
  • Economic Reform

4. Create a Code of Conduct

A Code of Conduct is essentially required for every hackathon. It’s a document and contract that enables a safe environment and positive experience for attendees.

[coming soon] See How to Write a Code of Conduct for help.

Here’s an example of a Code of Conduct from Technight 2019.

5. Spin up social

With most of the details in place, it’s time to create a website for your hackathon — or at the very least — social handles. Think about creating accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Use the platforms you know will reach the most students and sponsors.

For the website, you can easily create a website for your hackathon using WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, etc. but you can also create and host your website on Azure!

Follow along the learning modules to learn how to deploy a website to Azure with Azure App Service.

6. Secure sponsors

Securing sponsors is another absolutely crucial step, as this is how you will compile enough money to actually put on your event! Securing sponsors is more than just fundraising though; it’s relationship building.

Keeping your estimated budget in mind, identify potential sponsors and draft a sponsorship prospectus. The prospectus explains the what and why of your sponsorship ask; it is a document that potential sponsors will use to determine whether they want to and whether they are able to sponsor.

Now you can use the prospectus and begin reaching out to companies and individuals! Get in touch with these people via email or an exploratory phone call. After explaining your hackathon and gauging interest, attach the prospectus to an email with your proposal. You may need to negotiate and continuously follow up with people. Once a proposal for sponsorship is accepted, make sure the CFO is tracking funds and invoices.

7. Source speakers, mentors, and judges

Speakers, mentors, and judges for your hackathon are key in aiding attendees with their projects. Many of these people can come from the companies who are sponsoring your hack, so consider adding these opportunities to sponsorship packages.

In addition to sponsors, try targeting:

  • Experts from your school such as professors, teaching assistants, and alumni
  • Representatives from local companies
  • Previous hackathon organizers or winners
  • Local community leaders and celebrities

8. Find food

Since your hackathon will likely be at least 24 hours, attendees will require a few meals and snacks. Be sure to include these costs in your budget!

To make your event shine, source local cuisine that offers a variety of options for dietary restrictions. Junk food is easy, but consider choosing a healthier option that can be vegan, kosher, gluten-free, etc.

Ideas to get started:

  • For breakfast, consider asking the local bagel shop for bagels, cream cheese, fruit, and coffee. This is usually a cheaper, popular option, but make sure to find gluten-free / vegan bagels!
  • For lunch, cater with a salad company. Keeping things healthy and bright will ensure high energy levels.
  • For snacks, try contacting a brand-name protein bar company to ask if they will sponsor your hackathon.
  • For dinner, reach out to local restaurants! Pizza can always be a backup option.

Finally, make a plan to donate leftovers to a homeless shelter.

9. Promote the event

Now that you have the event planning completed, it’s time to promote your hack! Promotion is important in order to get a good turnout. Major League Hacking shares a great guide on how to promote your hackathon. The Chief Marketing Officer should lead the efforts here, promoting the event in-person and online.

10. Tie up loose ends

You’re almost to the finish line! All you need to do is tie up loose ends. Some final steps to accomplish:

  • Update website and social media
  • Confirm registrants and sponsors
  • Organize transportation
  • Triple check catering
  • Set up the venue (check the wifi speed! check accessibility of the building!)
  • Decorate
  • Start hacking!

I hope this 10-step guide helps you organize your own hackathon!

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