The Hackathon Budget

Last year I organized HackMIT, one of the biggest hackathons in the world and the first ever hackathon of its scale at MIT. HackMIT had 20 organizers, 1,050 attendees and a $250,000 budget raised from over 70 sponsors. This post is based on my experience organizing HackMIT and input from other hackathon organizers.

To first-time hackathon organizers: Hackathons cost a lot of money. It’s important to make a budget in order to know how much money you’ll need to raise and to prevent going into a deficit. To that end, here’s a list of things you should include in your hackathon budget. It’s also a good (though by no means exhaustive) general checklist of things to take care of when organizing a hackathon.

To everyone else: Hackathons have gotten bigger and more expensive than ever, and it’s easy to think they’re wasteful and extravagant. To an extent, they are. In the interest of transparency and open conversation, here’s a breakdown of where the money in a typical hackathon goes.

At the time I’m writing this, 500-person hackathons tend to cost between $50,000 and $100,000, and 1,000-person hackathons cost around $250,000. (You’d expect smaller hackathons to cost more per person, but this isn’t the case because big hackathons have higher average per-person travel costs and smaller venues are often free.)

Travel: We reimbursed a flat rate of $200 per attendee in travel because it was easier for us logistically, but the tradeoff was that we spent a lot more than we needed to, reimbursing flights where cheaper bus tickets would have sufficed. About 500 people ended up requesting reimbursements, and almost all of them requested the full $200. A tiered approach with different maximum amounts based on location probably makes more sense. We also chartered three buses for $5000 each. Each bus transported about 40 students, so we spent about $125 on each of the bus people. Grand total spent on travel: $120,000.

Food: $7 per person per meal is about average. Keep in mind that if people are going to be hacking all night, they need food! Not having a meal between dinner and breakfast is *not okay*. You also need to order food for 1.5 times as many people as you have, since some people will take multiple meals, or outsiders will crash and steal food, etc. Finally, not all meals are equal: it’s okay to skimp a little on breakfast and allocate more money toward lunch and dinner. Total for us: $35,000 (and we still ran out— see “emergency fund” below).

Prizes: Please don’t go overboard with cash prizes; they detract from the spirit of the event. We hired a sculptor to make really cool custom trophies though; they were awesome. We spent $10,000 on cash prizes and another $2,000 on trophies.

Security and facilities: We paid around $20,000 in total for HackMIT, but this could vary wildly based on your venue. You’ll need to pay for table and chair rental, setup and teardown labor, post-event cleanup, A/V support, a custom networking setup, etc.

T-shirts: We spent $8 per attendee t-shirt and $20 per volunteer t-shirt (lower quantity and we ordered last minute). Total cost was around $10,000.

Air mattresses: This one is probably unique to HackMIT, but legal issues with the City of Cambridge forced us to cut our event short by a night, leaving 500 attendees who had already booked flights with nowhere to stay on Friday night. We bought 500 air mattresses to incentivize 500 MIT students to host 500 hackers. We spent about $10,000, the hackers had a great experience, and one in every ten MIT students now owns an air mattress.

Hardware: If you have budget, manpower, and mentors for it, a hardware hacking room is a lot of fun. Buy a bunch of Raspberry Pis, Arduinos, sensors, LEDs, etc. to loan out to first-time hardware hackers. We spent $2,000.

Drinks and snacks: We spent $5,000 on a shopping spree at Costco and another $5,000 on fresh fruit. Definitely worth it.

Facebook ads: They’re an incredibly effective way to generate hype and get attendees. We spent $5,000, but if all you need to do is fill out your attendance quota, you can probably do it for a lot less.

Storage and movers: Companies will ship massive amounts of swag to you beforehand, so find a shipping services company that can accept and store packages for you for a fee. Then, pay movers to move them to your venue and set them up on the day-of. Do not try doing this yourself! You’ll be way, way too busy with other stuff and moving heavy boxes will take hours and exhaust you. We spent $1000.

Miscellaneous: A small sample of random stuff we spent money on: nametags, lanyards, disposable toothbrushes, caution tape, a UHaul (for the Costco shopping spree), flyers, banners, a MailChimp account, web hosting, photographers, extension cords, tea kettles, two-way radios and headsets, ethylene gas absorbers, megaphones, stickers. Total spent was about $15,000.

Emergency fund: No matter how well you plan, you will inevitably run into emergencies on the day of the event, and having money to burn on emergencies is a tremendous help. We spent around $3,000 on emergency networking equipment and $10,000 on emergency pizza and burritos (protip: no matter how much food you order in advance, you *will* run short). Allocate 5-10% of your total budget for a day-of emergency fund. Also keep in mind that you’ll need to be able to have access to this money at the last minute, so make sure you have a credit or debit card (or multiple) with enough spending power to actually use your emergency fund and get reimbursed later.