40+ Ways to Hack a Hackathon

In just a few more hours, I’ll have embarked on another mission to help spark community, ideas, and impact by attending Startup Weekend Santa Barbara as a mentor and co-facilitator. If you’re not familiar with Techstars Startup Weekend, here’s a primer. We’re talking 54 hours of blazing entrepreneurial thinking, team-building, and the ultimate playground to push your own limits. Startup Weekend is just one of many variations of a hackathon to push you beyond your comfort zone.

Just What Is A Hackathon?

They come in all shapes and flavors from two-day sprints to week long marathons. A hackathon is a platform for doers looking to stoke the fires of possibility.

The formula is quite simple, really.

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.[1]
The goal of a hackathon is to create usable software or hardware with the goal of creating a functioning product by the end of the event.[2] Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the programming language used, the operating system, an application, an API, or the subject and the demographic group of the programmers. In other cases, there is no restriction on the type of software being created. (Wikipedia)

Bottomline, a hackathon is a launchpad for what’s next. But let’s take a deeper dive into the possibilities or “hackabilities.” *Wink*

Let’s reboot the previous definition.

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a design sprint-like event in which [insert your community] involved in [your personal and professional pursuits/passion of choice] and friends, often including subject-matter-experts [and newbies, lots of them!], collaborate intensively on said pursuit.

The goal of a hackathon is to create a usable prototype (better known as an MVP) by the end of the event. Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the [tools] used, the [industry], an [industry challenge], or the subject and the demographic group of the [participants]. In other cases, there is no restriction on the [possibilities]. The delivery vehicle can even be a point of distinction. Hackathons can happen on a bus or take to the skies via efforts like Hack Horizon.

Would you believe that there are hackathons for things like architecture, engineering, and construction, blockchain, and kittens? No, really! Check this out. The University of Illinois and its College of Vet Medicine just hosted a hackathon to convene “divergent viewpoints to “hack” the intransigent problem of cats going outside the box.” And yes, there’s some cash prize money involved. $2500 to be exact. Sign me up Sparky!

Should You Attend?

Absolutely! You’d don’t have to be a technology buff to capture value as a participant in a hackathon. Just bring your ideas, tools, and white board markers. Lots of them. Come prepared to do something amazing.

Elevate Your Hackathon Experience

Here’s a few of my favorite tips to help you make the most of your experience:

  1. Keep it positive. Don’t be a jerk.
  2. Be a team-player. Come with the ‘give before you get’ mentality.
  3. Be prepared to make mistakes.
  4. Trust the process and embrace the journey as a unique learning opportunity.
  5. Bring lots of food, healthy snacks, and good fuel to keep you focused on maximizing your time and resources.
  6. Connect with the organizers and participants beforehand.
  7. Research the judges. (I have a story on this. It works!) Here’s how: When preparing your final pitch, know what buttons to push to stoke excitement in the judges. Do your homework!
  8. Think about team formation early. Be willing to link up with others. It’s a team sport.
  9. Be prepared to network like a champ. It’s amazing what can happen post-event.
  10. Practice your pitch. You’ve probably been thinking of an idea or two. Be prepared to share it in :60 or less. Get creative. Bring a piñata and have fun! The community will love you, trust me! Especially, if it’s filled with goodies.
  11. Just test baby! A hackathon is the perfect place to test your hypothesis and get some early customer validation even before you form a team.
  12. Keep the NDAs at home. It’s kind of hard to help you if I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement just to get a beginning sense of what you’re trying to accomplish. It really is true, my friend. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.
  13. Most hackathons have a pitch and presentation element as the final build up. Be sure you understand the format for final pitches. Is it 5 minutes? 3 minutes + 2 mins of Q&A? Have a plan and stick to it!
  14. Come prepared with a startup toolbox of your favorite apps, stacks, and tracks.
  15. Headphones and your favorite playlist come in handy. Bring chargers, lots of them.
  16. Be prepared to build an MVP. Focus on a prototype that demonstrates captured and created value.
  17. Make sure someone on your team gets started on customer validation, discovery, and creation right away. Who knows? You might learn something critically important to the future of your new venture.
  18. Get out of the building early and talk to potential partners, customers, and anyone willing to listen to your initial hypothesis. We’ll come back to this.
  19. Don’t underestimate the size of your team. Even a two person team can take home the top spot.
  20. On the same token, don’t bank on a big team. Group dynamics can get very sticky. The bigger they are the harder they can fall. Refer to #1 above.
  21. Embrace a pool of ideas. Be willing to listen to your teammates and compromise where needed. This is not a zero-sum game.
  22. Listen to the experts. Most of these events have a roster of amazing coaches and resources ready to help your ideas take flight.
  23. However, don’t fall into the trap of analysis paralysis. Know when it’s time to cut off the brainstorming and just focus on execution.
  24. Enjoy the learning journey. There will be something to learn when you bring a community together interested in entrepreneurship, growth, and impact.
  25. Have fun and know why you’re playing the game you’re playing.

Let’s get real about motivation for a moment. Why are you attending? If you’ve been thinking about going solo and launching your own startup, it’s important to inspect your core motivations and belief system around your launch genesis. This is critically important as this will be the source of renewal and fresh focus should you be in it for the long haul. John Greathouse, Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm has a nice piece on this very topic of reasons people want to be an entrepreneur, which you should definitely read.

Here’s a few extra goodies to help you and your team ace the hackathon:

The Business Model Canvas

If there is one tool you should absolutely have at your disposal, it’s the Business Model Canvas.

CO.STARTERS uses a version of the “Business Model Canvas” developed by Alexander Osterwalder to help starters develop workable business models. This intuitive visual map helps program participants understand, test, and refine their ideas. Check out the CO.STARTERS Canvas here.

Customer Validation

“Most startups fail from a lack of customers than from a failure of product development.” — Steve Blank

This is one of the most overlooked areas that will prove vital to your final pitch. If you’re the only one you’ve spoken to about your idea that’s a huge problem. It’s amazing how many folks crush on their own ideas without talking to another person for their opinion and feedback. Here’s a few more tools that should make this key component a bit easier:

  1. The Five Why’s by Eric Ries
  2. 26 Resources to Help You Master Customer Development Interviews by Neil Patel.
  3. Ultimate List of Customer Development Questions by Mike Fishbein.
  4. The Learning Card by Strategyzer.

“The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.” — Paul Graham — Doing Things That Don’t Scale

Did you notice something? I stopped counting the number of ways to hack a hackathon tips shared thus far. It was just way easier to keep sharing some of my favorite tips given the section breaks. I hope you don’t mind.

The Pitch

No matter the length and format, most hackathons give founders an awesome opportunity to pitch as part of the gran finale. There are numerous schools of thought on the art of pitching well but here are a few observations:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Practice makes perfect.
  3. Let one person do the talking.
  4. Watch the clock.
  5. Try not to stuff your pitch deck. Save a few less important slides for the Q&A.
  6. Respect the judges and their questions.
  7. Always always always check your tech. Imagine having the best MVP only to see your chance at showtime tick away without the opportunity to share with the world. Yes, this happens.
  8. Bring the energy!
  9. Nothing sells quite like an awesome demo. Did you build something awesome that works with the potential to capture real value? Share it!
  10. Remember that you don’t have all the answers and that’s okay.

Well folks, that’s all for now. Feel free to ping me with your favorite tools and tips.

Oh, before I forget, check out this pretty cool startup stash of tools and resources. And another — The Ultimate Startup Toolkit.

Finally, here’s a handy guide for those looking to host their own hackathon of sorts. Need help? Feel free to ping me. I’d love to do coffee and meet some new friends on a mission to disrupt the status quo and maybe even build a better litter box.

Have fun hacking away!