How to prepare for Hackathon in Vietnam

Tips to make the most out of the event

I had the honor of being invited as a mentor and judge to the Formation8 Hackathon, a 24 hour hackathon taking place in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. The winner earned a round trip ticket to meet with the Formation8 investment team in Silicon Valley.

Why hackathon?

As an engineer, hackathons are a great opportunity to:

  1. Try something new
  2. Learn something new
  3. Have fun with your local tech community

Hackathons are all about innovation. By definition, innovation is something that’s new and original. By that definition, I believe that most teams at the Formation8 hackathon succeeded in the spirit of innovation. It was an inspirational event.

Hackathon are about breaking out of your daily routine and thinking outside the box. How do you do this? It all starts with picking an exiting project.

Pick an exciting project

In the following section, I highlight some of the projects from the Formation8 Hackathon.

One that solves a big problem

The M-Disease team tried to solve the following problem: a majority of Vietnamese people cannot afford access to healthcare. The team built a mobile health encyclopedia to give people who are sick access to basic health information.

One that integrates a hot technology

The Monitor team tried to solve the following problem: HVACs are costly machines to replace and are difficult to maintain. The team took the double challenge of combining machine learning and Nest programming to implement a very cool HVAC monitoring system.

Do not pick a technology just because it’s a buzzword. Pick one that you believe will dominate in the future. Examples for 2014 are:

  1. Wearable tech, Internet of Things
  2. Embedded hardware (Google Glass, Arduino, Nest, etc.)
  3. Natural Language Processing
  4. Machine learning or other forms of A.I.
  5. Big data
  6. Others: Docker, etc.

One that takes a new approach to an old problem

Learning English is a hot activity in Vietnam. Most of the current approaches falls under games (or gamification), social network or marketplace for tutors.

The Bear Corporation team stood out when they told me about their Text To Speech (TTS) approach. First, a user reads the lines from a well known movie. Then the app would give the user a score based on pronunciation. With more work, I could see how this could expand into a complete solution for learning English.

One that is inspired by your work or side project

If you are working on a side project, don’t waste your time making small improvements. You can do that any other time. Hackathons are about trying something new! It’s a good idea however, to use your side project as an inspiration for your hackathon idea:

  1. Rewrite your codebase in a new language
  2. Integrate a new technology to your project
  3. Take a different approach

The Dream Box team has been trying to create something useful for the boring lock screen of smartphones. The team had been working on an ad based idea for a while. For the hackathon however, they moved away from ads and tried a new approach: an app that delivers fun and interesting content to the lock screen.

Rock your demo

The demo is the fireworks of the event. During the demo, the goal is to have the judges and audience say “Wow!”

Tell us what you have learned

Not all teams are created equal. At the Formation8 hackathon, there were teams of students and there were teams of very experienced engineers. It’s important for the audience to know what you have learned during the event and how much you have progressed.

Show us the problem

Tapay (the winner of the HCMC event) acted out a scene everybody can relate to: buying something using bank bills in Vietnam. This is a problem that is very specific to Vietnam because all bank bills pretty much look the same: same size, same design and a lot of zeros. So when it comes to counting, it’s always confusing and painful.

Connect your product with the problem

Tapay then re-acted the same scene using their mobile payment solution instead. No more confusion. Payment was fast and efficient.

The hackathon-startup gap

A hackathon is often seen as a launchpad for the next hot tech startup. While there are synergies between a hackathon project and a startup product, the two may not always connect.

The common base

A good hackathon project and a successful startup product must have the following:

  1. A real problem in the market
  2. A new solution (a solution that doesn’t already exist)

If a startup simply copies an existing product in the market, it’s obviously a bad business. When a hackathon team copies an existing product, it’s equally as bad. Just because we are engineers, doesn’t mean we can’t do basic market research on Google.

A startup extends beyond the product

Having been on both hackathon pitches and startups pitches, I think that hackathons should limit itself to the product and not extend to the business side. Therefore the scope of hackathons should exclude:

  1. User acquisition strategy
  2. Business model
  3. Market size
  4. Team’s experience

From hackathon project to startup product

During a hackathon, you start with a blank project and build a product in 24 hours. Until you put the product into the hands of real users, there can only be guesses to the future success of the product. I don’t believe that someone can make a direct connection between hackathon success (or lack of success) and future startup success. The goals of hackathon project and a startup product are just too different.

Nevertheless where a hackathon ends, a startup journey may begin. So what if a team wants to continue working on their hackathon project after the event ends? What are the next steps? That will be the topic for my next post!