The first step in planning a successful hackathon

Assembling the team

Dave Fontenot
Hackathons Anonymous
6 min readApr 28, 2014


People come to me all the time expressing interest in throwing their own hackathon. It’s nearly always a great idea to throw a hackathon. The hard part is actually doing it right.

The first and most important step in planning a successful hackathon:

The Team, The Team, The Team

You’ll need to do a ton of things to throw a good hackathon: book a venue, drum up interest from attendees and sponsors, make a last minute costco run for snacks and caffeine, negotiate with catering companies, and more.

Most importantly, you’ll need to build a team.

HackMIT/TechX Team being silly

The team will define what your hackathon will look like in a few months.

They will be on the ground with you for an entire weekend as you try to keep the event from falling apart on close to zero sleep.

Your team will have your back when that sponsor falls through or when you find out that the airbeds you ordered aren’t going to come in until Monday.

The team is everything.

Want to throw a hackathon?

The first question you need to ask yourself: “why am I doing this?”

In my experience, what really separates a good hackathon from a great one is the vision of the team. Are they just throwing an EPIC one-off event or are they changing people’s lives?

When Adam and I decided to bring on Tom Erdmann and Dan Friedman to start MHacks with us, we immediately sent them both a text that read something like:

“Want to do something HUGE with your life for the next few months?

Come to 600 E Washington St. We are going to change Michigan forever.

It’s easy to forget how powerful hackathons are. Going to my first hackathon completely altered the course of my life.

Establish a vision for why you are throwing a hackathon. If people don’t think you are absolutely nuts after hearing why you’re throwing this hackathon, your vision probably isn’t radical enough.

Always be selling the vision

Building up to the first MHacks, a 500 person hackathon was unheard of. To reach that goal, I knew that I needed to sell just about every single person I came across. So, I did.

There is no secret trick to getting 1000 signups — we simply brute-forced our way to doing so. Similarly, the non-secret to building the best hackathon team is to simply sell EVERYONE on the vision. By the end of just about any conversation I have about MHacks, I want to have converted the person I’m speaking with into an evangelist for the cause. To go big, you’re going to need as many people vested in the success of the event as possible.

Just a few days into the team coming together, Dan sent us all this video that explained the mindset perfectly:

Show, don’t tell.

The easiest way to sell people on the vision is to bring them to a hackathon to experience it for themselves.

When we heard about the Fall 2012 PennApps, it blew our minds. Not only were tickets to the event free but they were also completely subsidizing travel to Penn for the weekend. We had to go.

It didn’t stop there though. After calling up close to 50 friends, we had a group of 25 Michigan students rolling out of Ann Arbor to Philly only a few days later. When we came back to Michigan, everyone was on fire. It was as if we had just come back from a church retreat or something. You couldn’t get anyone from the trip to stop talking about hackathons.

Want someone to help you throw a hackathon? Bring her to one.

Michigan Hackers first trip to PennApps. We found out about the only a few days earlier and ended up rallying 25 Michigan Hackers to attend. This trip inspired us to come home and immediately begin planning the inaugural MHacks.

Talent is everything. Experience is overrated.

A talented and inspired team is the bottleneck of any great hackathon. With the right team, you can figure out how to surmount just about any obstacle.

One of the more common problems I find with hackathon teams is a lack of diversity. At first glance, it might make sense that top hackers would also be the best hackathon organizers when, in fact, I consistently find that the someone’s technical abilities have almost zero bearing on their ability to plan a hackathon.

Mackenzie Burnett from Bitcamp puts it way better than I do:

Organizing a hackathon and attending a hackathon are two very different things: the former requires excellent time-management skills, oral and written skills, persistence, follow-through and organizational skills; the latter requires (at least basic) programming or design knowledge, extreme endurance, and pitching skills. It is not always necessary to have a crossover between the two skill sets for every member of your organizing team. And, there are some important skill sets, like writing, negotiation strategy, and financial planning, that non-technical majors typically have a lot of experience in from internships, interests, and courses.

When we started planning MHacks, Tom and I had just switched to CS, and Dan had just started coding for the first time. At one point, people even gave our team flak for not being technically qualified enough to run a hackathon.

Diversity is the Secret Weapon

Having a diverse team is crucial. Within a couple years, just about every university will have its own hackathon. To make it the top, you have to constantly be changing the game. Simply looking at what other hackathons are doing won’t cut it anymore. You need to look for people who can completely reimagine the hackathon experience from the bottom up.

Enter Michelle Lu

Michelle Lu directed UX for the first MHacks. Her approach to the user experience of the event was more like that of a five-star hotel than any hackathon I had ever been to up until that point.

I’m still not sure how we convinced Michelle to join as Director of UX only a few weeks before the event, but she brought an entirely new perspective to the table that completely changed the way we thought about the event.

MHacks Secret Weapon: Michelle Lu

Next thing you know, we had walkie-talkies with the secret service ear thingymabobs, a base of operations, and a full team of awesome volunteers who were on a mission to make that first MHacks a hackathon like no one had ever seen before.

At MHacks, all you had to worry about was building something awesome — food, drinks, mentorship, and anything else you could think of came to you.

Without any single member of the original MHacks team, the event would have fallen to pieces. The team is everything.

Establish your vision.

Share it with everyone.

Make sure there’s always room on the team for anyone who wants to help.

I’ll write a follow on post about team formats and why recruiting freshman gives you a huge competitive advantage, but I need to think about the topics a bit more before saying anything definitive.