How you can be successful at your next hackathon.

Last November, I had the opportunity to participate in a hackathon in Helsinki called Junction. I started my career by participating in hackathons where my passion for design and development started. I try to attend at least a couple of hackathons a year and I’ve been fortunate to have had some success in every hackathon I’ve participated in, including this one. Our project at Junction was able to make it to the top 5 out of 300 projects and we were able to pitch for the grand prize.

I attribute much of my success at hackathons to the tactics and strategies I have developed over the years for approaching these events. In this blog, I want to share these tactics with you and explain how I use design and communication to succeed at these intense and rewarding events.

For some of you who don’t know, What is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is an intensive event in which a group of people come together to collaborate on software and hardware projects over a short period of time. At a hackathon, participants work in teams to come up with and prototype new ideas, with the goal of creating a functional product or solution by the end of the event.

At a hackathon, participants typically have a limited amount of time to develop their projects, and they may be required to present their finished prototypes to a panel of judges at the end of the event. Prizes may be awarded to the best projects, and some hackathons may also provide mentorship and other resources to help participants turn their prototypes into viable products or businesses.

Here are the key things we kept in mind while developing our solution:

  1. What is your Solution?

When it comes to defining your concept, it’s important to keep your scope small and focus on creating a project that will appeal to the judges and audience. This means considering what is an interesting and user-focused project that the people in attendance care about. For our project, we choose to build a solution for crowd control during large events. We spent a lot of time brainstorming and sketching out different ideas until we landed on a concept that we felt would be both useful and engaging.

However, it’s easy to get stuck in the ideation phase and go back and forth between different ideas. To avoid getting stuck, set a time limit for coming up with your idea and focus on a solution the audience can identify with and that has a story. Think outside the box and don’t get too caught up in the challenge criteria. Consider a simpler solution that you can execute well instead of something technically advanced that’s half-built.

2. Don’t be quiet

Connect with your project sponsor or event organizer. Whether you receive a challenge beforehand or get to choose your own, take the time to get to know the company or organization you are building a solution for. We were lucky enough to have a great project sponsor who provided us with valuable feedback and insights as we were developing CROUD. Not only did this help us do better during the hackathon, but it also gave us a head start on building a relationship with a potential partner for the future.

The project sponsors and judges are there to connect and share info. Don’t disappear at the beginning of the event and show up at the last deadline. The judges will remember you if you engage with them and try to dig deeper into what they are looking for.

3. Plan and cut things off

At Junction, we only had 36 hours to build our solution and create a demo video. We quickly realized that, due to the early sunset in Helsinki, we would need to start filming our pitch on Saturday at noon in order to have enough daylight.

Staying focused on the main features of your prototype is crucial during a hackathon. It’s important to avoid trying to incorporate too many features or ideas and to be mindful of time constraints and plan accordingly. We made the decision to scrap some features for our demo early on, as it’s not worth spending too much time on a feature that might not even be noticed.

Sometimes you get stuck and you need to pivot, If you end up in that place I would always think about what work have I already done and can get done in the remaining time that would work best for my demo. It's okay to use spoof data or pretend to have some features to make sure you have actually a prototype to present.

4. Storytelling

Spend most of your time designing and crafting your pitch and story. While the technical aspects of your project are important, it’s also crucial to have a clear and compelling message that will resonate with the judges and audience. In addition to a strong pitch, we also paid close attention to the visual elements of our presentation, including a memorable tagline and logo. This helped us stand out and make a strong impression on the judges and audience.

When it comes to crafting your pitch and story, there are a few things I would do;

Keep it simple and focused. Don’t try to cram too much information into a short amount of time. Instead, focus on the key points that will make your project stand out.

Make it personal. Try to connect with your audience on a personal level by sharing a story or anecdote that they can relate to. This will help you create an emotional connection and make your project more memorable. We focused on the recent events in South Korea where the crowd control was underestimated and we were here to provide a solution for that situation is how we opened our pitch.

Time. Most of the time you have about 3/5 minutes to present, this means you might actually only show your prototype for 1/2 minutes in total. This is just enough time to click on maybe 3/4 pages and show some simple interactions. Keep this in mind.

5. Judges are not always technical people

When it comes to hackathons, it’s important to remember that you’re essentially building a company in a short amount of time. This means you should focus not just on the technical solution, but on the overall strategy and potential for your project to become a viable business. For example, when we developed CROUD at Junction, we made sure to consider the long-term potential of our solution, including how we could monetize it and what our next steps would be after the hackathon. Adding these elements to our pitch showed that we had thought about the future of our project and understood the market we were operating in. Trust me, judges love it when you’ve thought about this stuff! It may seem intimidating to consider these things on top of building a functional solution, but it’s worth it in the long run.

6. Team

For someone like me, it's somewhat easy to say I will create a quick, logo, edit a video, build some front end, and prepare a pitch. Since I believe that spending double the time on your front-end and deck design than a sophisticated back-end will get you much further. But you don’t always have those skills or even want to work on them. And that's why I would recommend being smart with the people you have on your team. We had two-frond end developers/designers, two people on business development/ storyline, and one person on the back end and data. It is a Hackathon, made for us nerds to build difficult technology and show off our skills, but it might be an opportunity to try some design and think about the user experience and everything that comes with that.

In the end, it all comes down to the presentation. While the other projects at Junction were very good, we felt that we were able to engage more with the audience and judges and explain our project in a simple, but effective way. This was especially important because it represented everything we had worked on before and needed to reflect that. Good and clear communication is essential for standing out among the competition.

One final piece of advice: don’t overcomplicate your solution and try to enjoy the event. Hackathons can be intense and stressful, but they are also a lot of fun. By focusing on what you can control and trying to have a good time, you’ll get the most out of the weekend — even if that means sacrificing a little bit of sleep.

CROUD

Now I have given you an insight into the tactics and ways of working we implemented let me share our output. We were participating in a challenge from McKinsey focused on geospatial data. We sat down and started brainstorming what all falls under geospatial data. My team had a past experience with 3D mapping platforms and we quickly thought of this cool idea on how we might be able to do 3D Geospatial mapping, something that has not been done much before.

We tried to find a storyline that would connect with our audience and someone shared the story about the tragic event that happened in South Korea where a big crowd got crushed during a Halloween event. We realized we could come up with a storyline to support these event organizers with live data feeds on the congestion levels at these places and map the into a dashboard.

We had a challenging but rewarding experience at the hackathon and were excited to see that our hard work had paid off when we were chosen as one of the top 5 projects for the entire event. As we were winding down and preparing to relax in the sauna, we received a notification that we had just one hour to prepare for our final presentation on the main stage. Despite the last-minute rush, we were able to deliver a strong pitch and were proud of all the hard work we had put in.

This experience taught us that you never know what to expect at a hackathon and that the journey is just as important as the end result — even if it means stepping out of the sauna for a surprise presentation.

Check out CROUD: https://croud.click/

I hope these tips and strategies have been helpful as you prepare for your next hackathon. And if you’re looking for some guidance on crafting the perfect pitch, feel free to reach out to me and share your hackathon experience.

Timo Wielink

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I am always looking for opportunities to design and build new products and I share my insights on the crucial role that design plays.

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Timo Wielink

I am always looking for opportunities to design and build new products and I share my insights on the crucial role that design plays.