Organizing my First Hackathon

Plot twist: it wasn’t easy.

About a year ago I was catching up with a close friend of mine from when I lived in Sweden. Life is busy, he said. Lots of exciting things happening, meeting new people all the time, no time to get bored. He was working for AngelHack, a global company based in San Francisco, organizing hackathons all over the world, and was responsible for the SEA region. Interesting, I thought — I wanted to put my city on the map too. How do I make this happen?

He introduced me to the core team in San Francisco and soon enough I was involved in the planning and coordination of the first AngelHack hackathon in Sofia, part of their 9th global series. It was both exciting and frightening. I’ve never organized an event before, let alone an event that might have a global impact. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time the enormous help I would get from the AngelHack team.

The first step was to secure a venue for the event. The AH hackathons rely on volunteers for help with the events and sponsors, both for venue, catering and prizes. I went through several options — conference halls, hotel auditoriums, IT schools. A co-working space! The place should have the necessary startup vibe to inspire people to come up with meaningful, feasible products.

My first bet was to contact betahaus Sofia, the most popular co-working space in the region. Surprisingly, they answered within the day, very excited about the opportunity to host the hackathon. Easy! I thought. Now I just need to find a company to provide food for two days and we’re all set.

No. Finding a catering sponsor took more time than expected, finding judges proved more difficult than anticipated and attracting attendees for the event was probably the most complex part. Going by the immortal “Field of dreams” quote, “if you build it, they will come” is probably the biggest mistake one can make when organizing a hackathon.

I was convinced that once we secured influential judges, described the awesome prizes from sponsors and created a Facebook event, the information will spread like wildfire and we’ll have to eventually tell people tickets are sold out.

Not exactly true. It’s never too early to start popularizing the event in every channel possible. Make use of relevant Facebook groups and leverage on existing contacts. Partner up with other events, if you must. In our case, the hackathon was drawing near, but the registered participants so far could hardly form one team. Now, there are some geographical peculiarities that need to be taken into account. For example, in Bulgaria it’s not uncommon for people to sign up for a happening in the very last minute or show up without a prior registration. There was hope.

Here’s where the AH regional manager, responsible for the Sofia hackathon, gave everything in her mental and physical power to make the event happen. There were thirty sign ups. Four people showed up at 10 am. By noon, there were enough people for four teams.

That’s not a lot of people. In the very beginning, I wanted to feel like I could provide and expose the local community to an opportunity. A chance to enter the hyped startup world, if you will. Seeing how an event like that comes together with the whole program set up and not enough people here to take advantage of it was really sad. People assured me that this is normal for a first time event and that next year it’ll really kick off. But the disappointment was huge.

Then another thing happened. I closely observed the four teams formed at the hackathon. They were all gradually becoming more and more enthusiastic about their ideas. They were discussing, arguing, planning, coding. They were all passionate about what they were doing. And then I felt like it was all worth it.

Even if it was just one team creating something from scratch with that kind of passion, it would’ve been worth it. There was a 15-year-old kid who formed a team with a senior developer to create a handwriting practice app. Organizing the whole thing just to see that happen would’ve been worth it.

I’m even more excited for next year.


Originally posted by me on LinkedIn. If you liked my post, feel free to click on the 💚 below so others may find it too. Thanks!