Tips on how to organise a great Hackathon

Dima Boulad
Nov 27, 2017 · 6 min read

Why do people choose to attend Hackathons? To learn new methodologies, to meet people, to create change in the world by working on real projects, to disrupt a current work routine, to share interesting ideas with like minded individuals, and most importantly: to have a good time. How do you organise a successful Hackathon and give your participants all of that and create a memorable experience?

Constructing a memorable experience is made out of three parts: How you prepare and hype your event beforehand (pre-Hackathon), how you meet expectations during (The Hackathon), and what participants take with them (post-Hackathon)

In May 2017, I co-organised a Design Thinking Hackathon OFF THE GROUND during Beirut Design Week. It brought together 30 creatives from various disciplines to work on 5 social initiatives in their early stages for two days. While this Hackathon could have been improved in many ways, here are some tips that can elevate your event from good to great, and a few lessons I learned the hard way!

Pre-Hackathon

Choose a practical and inspiring space

The choice of space can make or break your event. Choose an easily accessible location with good lighting (nothing more horrifying than white neon), that’s technically equipped (microphones, projectors), that will open 24/7 so participants can work overnight, and most importantly a space that offers a fast and reliable internet connection and lots of power chords. Make sure the it looks nice: Brand the space, hang posters, make “idea parking lots” corners. We were very lucky to be hosted by one of the best co-working spaces in town, Antwork, that exceeded our expectations with their continuous support.

The main meeting area where we reviewed ideas and exchanged feedback ©Martin Dudek

Name it, Brand it, Spread it

One of the best moves we did was to name the Hackathon and brand it very early on. The sooner you create a mini site and put it out there, the more likely people will engage and attend, and tell other people about it.

Prep-up a good team

Choose your local partners wisely, and have a good strategy for outreach. Get in touch with universities, hubs, hacker spaces, accelerators, design schools so they would relay the message and invite people to come. In our case, it was organisations like Make Sense who made sure to bring people on board from their network. Make sure you also choose an organising team that will help you with sponsorships, catering, designing and putting everything together. Once you have that in place, pick a few volunteers for D-day. Volunteers make Hackathons go round!

Make it valuable

Give your participants more reasons to attend by adding value to your event. We opened our Hackathon with an introductory talk and a panel discussion to get everyone in the mood. We asked for skilled mentors to be available for feedback, but made sure not to impose any session. It’s important not to oversell your Hackathon by stating intentions clearly in your communication beforehand, and making sure people are aware of the schedule so they know what they’re signing up for. Wether you’re giving away valuable prizes or the chance to pitch in front of a jury, it’s always a good idea to add incentives to stimulate motivation.

Pitches ©Martin Dudek

Diversify

Go the extra mile to make sure your participants are coming from different backgrounds. It’s priceless to have people add complimentary views to the table. The outcomes and the projects will be much richer! Try to get people to fly in for the Hackathon, and this is where the magic happens!

Play “social-cupid”

Make sure you set up a happy hour the night before to let everyone meet up and get comfortable with one another. That’s the best ice-breaker activity you can plan!

For a step-by-step guide on how to prepare your event, make sure you check out this online resource.

The Hackathon

Inject positivity

The “Yes” mentality should be present in all aspects of your event! If you’re excited and passionate, then everyone will be.

Document everything

A good photographer and videographer will capture the best memories that will last. We got inspired by Impact Hub Vienna to rent a polaroid camera and take pictures on the go for everyone to keep.

Make everyone comfortable

Participants are here to have a good time, so make it your number one mission to make everyone comfortable and happy to be there. Provide them with good fuel: Food, coffee and drinks! Buy loads of material to give them chances to prototype their ideas creatively. Have resting areas: we asked the studio Waste to lend us with comfortable bean bags.

©Martin Dudek

Post-Hackathon

Anticipate the end

Once it’s all over, all you want to do is crawl back on your couch and disappear for a week. But it’s not over yet! You have to follow up to get pictures, send them to everyone, wrap-up emails, send evaluations, update sponsors and pay suppliers. Anticipate all this and leave some energy in you to take care of the last tasks.

Leave participants with something

It could be a nice project, a new friend, a hell of a good time, or a big monetary prize, but make sure participants get something at the end. Make sure to set up a platform where everyone can exchange contacts easily, this is one of the most valuable takeaways from a Hackathon: new friends! We opted for a nice touch, an idea replicated from Istanbul 1001’s Hackathon where everyone left notes to the others in envelops as souvenirs.

Notes and souvenirs ©Martin Dudek

4 lessons learned the hard way

Multiply by 3

Never would I have imagined that Hackathons take that much time to organise. Count all the hours you think it would take you, then multiply that number by three and account for it.

Delegate early

Choose a task management app from day 1, and work from there. We made the mistake of keeping communication by emails, which was ok in the beginning, but in times of stress, it got messy. Make sure you delegate systems very early on (we eventually turned to Trello) , and maintain communication on a Slack channel with other organisers/interns/volunteers.

Let go

You can’t always do everything you were planning on doing. Divide your wish list for the Hackathon into 3 priority levels: 1 being what absolutely needs to happen, 3 being a nice touch to add that isn’t essential. Letting go of some items in category 3, when you just have no more resources or time, will guarantee your mental sanity!

Don’t burnout

I believe one of the most valuable lessons learned from organising OFF THE GROUND was how I simply forgot to keep my best energy for D-day. I was so caught up with making sure everything runs smoothly, that I burned out the night before the event. Hackathons require facilitation in high level energy, so make sure all gets done 2 days before, so you can enjoy some rest before the big day.

— — —

No matter how hard you plan, some things will inevitably go wrong. Make sure you know the difference between minor mishaps, or real issues that went wrong, but most importantly know that mistakes will occur. Learn from them and enjoy it!

Have you ever organised a similar event, and learned from it? What would be some other valuable tips to add to this blogpost? I really like Arman Anaturk list on how to nail your Hackathon and make it great, make sure you check it out!

MENA Design Research Center

MENA Design Research Center is a non-profit organization based in Beirut, Lebanon. Founded in 2010, it became one the region’s few institutions that focus on Design as a multidisciplinary tool for development and research.

Dima Boulad

Written by

Designer and Problem Solver moved by positive impact.

MENA Design Research Center

MENA Design Research Center is a non-profit organization based in Beirut, Lebanon. Founded in 2010, it became one the region’s few institutions that focus on Design as a multidisciplinary tool for development and research.

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