How to Prepare for a Hackathon and Nail it!

We all know that feeling when we’re thinking about a new startup idea for a day, week or even a whole month. Debating ourselves on whether we should do something about it or not. 
This becomes frustrating, right?

What happens next is that in 95% of the cases we simply forget about our new idea.
How can you break this bad habit?


If you’re stuck in the idea stage of your new startup, Hackathon is a fantastic tool to force yourself to finally go and pitch your idea in front of a real audience.
Essentially, Hackathon is an event where individuals or teams come with their new ideas to pitch them on stage, and then make the most of the next 48 hours to develop minimum versions of their new products and present them to the audience and real users.

If you’re new to the Hackathon format or haven’t participated in one ever before, it’s important to understand that a solid preparation is one of the keys to a successful Hackathon.
The earlier the better, but if you only have an idea and nothing else, the most optimal time to start preparing for the event is 2–4 weeks.

Hackathon goals.

First of all, which goal do you think you can set and accomplish during your upcoming Hackathon?
It’s shouldn’t really be all about winning the competition, although without the hustle mode turned on other teams will definitely make more progress than you during these 2 days.

Most importantly, during the Hackathon, you’ll gain a lot of knowledge on how to rapidly build prototypes from scratch, get initial user feedback and quickly iterate.

Depending on your existing skills and experience with product development, amongst other things you may also learn how to:

  • Do market research
  • Validate your idea
  • Gather and motivate your own team
  • Pitch your idea and solution
  • Find a problem-solution fit
  • Find a product-market fit
  • Conduct customer interviews and user testing
  • Build a clickable prototype or MVP in just 48 hours

To be prepared is to be well-informed.

Let’s quickly get you acquainted with the overall Hackathon format.
In short, it may look something like this:

  1. First Pitch of your idea (~90s)
  2. Gather a team
  3. Plan and Work hard: Develop a Prototype/MVP
  4. Get advice from Mentors
  5. Polish your Prototype/MVP
  6. Final Pitch of your Solution (~180s)
Alright, now when you understand what to expect during the event, you need to properly prepare for it. 
Otherwise, you’ll likely just come with a raw idea, only yourself on the team and quickly fall behind once mentors start asking hard-ish questions.

5 steps to smart Hackathon preparation:

1. Research your market.

Let’s get this straight. This is the #1 mistake startups make — not doing proper market research.
They waste months on building something they think will make the world a better place and millions of people will use.
Don’t just go blindly into building a prototype/MVP or worse — full product.

You need to do a lot of googling. Look for similar to your ideas which were already implemented (both locally and worldwide).

If there are some competitors on the market, try to think of a killing business model/functionality that could:

  • make your product 10X better or 10X cheaper than your competition
  • shake up an existing state of things/habits in your industry 
    (e.g., how people commute and use a taxi: Uber).

2. Validate a problem by interviewing first users

Taking the idea a step further and talking to potential users is a natural next move.
There is nothing else that you should care more about than your potential customers.
Also, focusing on users early on will likely give you an edge over the competition as this is one of the most overlooked things by startups.

Here is a quick set of activities you’d want to undertake here:

  • Find potential users

If your product is pretty niche, find niche communities on the Internet.
In case of the B2C mass market, a safe bet would be to search for Facebook groups that are likely to unite people that discuss problems that you’re going to solve.

  • Create a questionnaire that will help you quickly get quantitative user data.

This will help you to understand whether people would be interested in your future solution at all.
Be careful though, don’t create questions like “If there would be a solution like Y for your problem X, do you think you’ll use it?” 
People don’t know the answer until they try your solution out.

What works best in early questionnaires like this is asking retrospective questions.
Go for something like:
- How often do you solve your problem X? 
- What was the last time you used any online solution to solve problem X? 
- Which solution did you try: Y, Z or else? 
- Why did you choose solution Y and not Z?
Structuring your questions in this way will help you get honest answers (not conjectures) based on past experiences and understand people’s usage and buying patterns.

  • Ask most engaged people for a quick interview call to get qualitative user data.

People who often face the problem will be happy to help you do your thorough research. 
But do not fool yourself and make the interview go the “please like my idea” route.
In fact, you should not tell people anything about your idea.
Once you start talking about it at this stage, the conversation will take a false path.

Instead, focus on the users you’re talking to and their past experiences with solving the problem. Take their answers from the questionnaire and try to get more context.

It’s all about creating a story.

Let your users walk you through their buying journeys: from the moment they realize they have a problem all the way through looking for various solutions, and finally, choosing one.
You’ll be amazed by the things people tend to take into account when choosing a solution for their problems.
Be sure to repeatedly ask “Why” at least 3–5 times at each stage of the buying cycle.
Here’s a great book to learn more about nailing customer development and user interviews: The Mom Test.

User interviews are super valuable at any stage of your product development.

Let’s take Instagram as an example.
At the early stage of its development when the app (called Burbn at that time) was not yet a social photo sharing platform we know it today, the company founders were not really sure why people were using their app at all.
Then they made a smart move — they asked their most engaged users:
“Why do you even like our app?”
People told them that they used it mostly because “it had cool filters.” 
90% of the app functionality didn’t matter to them. 
They just wanted to share their photos and make them look better with different filters applied.
Immediately, the founders decided to throw all the additional functionality out of the app away, except for the photos and related features.
Instagram has quickly become the #1 photo app and has been growing exponentially ever since.

Back to your case — at the end of the first interview, the users may seem enthusiastic that someone can help solve their problem in a new better way. 
Invite them to try out your prototype once it’s out.

Also, ask if they’re willing to pay for it now, right away.
Put some price tag and see what happens! It doesn’t work with every kind of product, but it’s a great hack to understand if the user’s pain is so huge they’re ok with paying for the solution that doesn’t even exist yet.

Great, you have now validated the user need.
Hopefully, there are also 10 to 1000 more potential users waiting in line to test your proof of concept.

3. Gather an MVT

If you’ve completed the first 2 points before moving forward, you’re already ahead of 70% of the people who will come to the Hackathon.

The next thing to do is to gather a strong core team for the event. 
Depending on your skills, look for talents that will complement your abilities.

Trust me, you’ll be desperately running around looking for that lacking front-end developer on the event, but most likely everyone will be taken. 
Anyways, having a team of people you’ve already had a beer with at least once, will give your whole team an edge.

The minimum set of skills you’ll need in your software product team:
(sometimes one team member can be a master of 2 trades)

  • Business (marketing, sales)
  • UX/UI Design
  • Front-end development
  • Back-end development

Think about each role and what everyone can bring to the table besides their core role. This will help you to plan your product roadmap for the upcoming Hackathon.

4. Create a landing page

Your focus during the Hackathon should be on creating a prototype and getting first feedback from early users.
Don’t spend your precious time during the event designing and coding an entire landing page. Also, it’s crucial to capture leads and install Google Analytics right away.

There are many free or pretty low-priced solutions that let you create a beautiful landing page in 1–2 hours (no coding skills required).

Best landing page creation tools:

Carrd — super simple one-page creator. Free or $19 a year.

Launchaco — easy-to-use and quite powerful website builder. Free or $49 a year.

Paid versions let you create many sites, add custom domains, integrate Google Analytics and more.

5. Practice your first pitch 50x

The first Hackathon pitch is like coming for the first day at your new job.
Imagine being asked by your boss to introduce yourself to everyone at once: 
you’ll talk about what you do, what’s your experience and how you will help the company reach new heights.
Your new colleagues will immediately judge you on multiple criteria: starting with appearance and presentation skills to the depth of expertise in a particular topic.

Hackathon pitch is not that different.
You will be pitching your experience, hard & soft skills, and much more.
Do your best to sell yourself, and not only your idea.

How to nail your first idea pitch?

The single best advice would be to just focus on telling a story that everyone in the audience can understand and hopefully relate to. 
Talk about the problem you want to solve and illustrate it by providing an example of an average person. 
Walk the audience through the pain this person is experiencing first-hand and explain how your solution can help him or her.

Remember that practice makes perfect.
Practice your pitch at least 50 times. Ask your friends or, even better, someone you barely know to listen to your pitch, time you and give you a piece of feedback on how you can improve your speech.

My First Hackathon Pitch

Key things you’d want to include in your pitch:

  • Remember to mention who you are and what’s the name of your idea
  • Describe in 1 sentence what your idea is all about and how it may help people. 
    If not sure, go for this simple framework: “My solution” helps “Target audience” to do “Certain activity” by “Uniqueness of your idea/feature.”
    e.g., Apple helps people who think differently to get their best work done by using innovative computer software and hardware.
  • Describe your user persona (or target audience)
  • Explain what’s the problem and how do you plan to solve it.
  • Describe what kind of solution you want to build during the next 48 hours: web / mobile app prototype, hardware device or else.
  • Mention your existing team and which skills you’re still missing. 
    Remember that you’re pitching to potential team members too. 
    If guys and gals in the audience like your idea, they’ll likely join your team!

Properly preparing for your first/next Hackathon will give you a really good boost and help your team make considerable progress during the event than coming to it unarmed.

Good luck with your upcoming Hackathon!
And remember that failing is 100% better than not trying.