We Built a Kick-Ass Hackathon and You Can Too
Here’s How — in 6 Totally Doable Steps:
Last week our company ran a Hackathon — and it was awesome. 95% of our 300 employees from across 17 departments — from developers to sales, finance and legal — came up with 150 new and innovative ideas. After 48 hours of work, 55 Pizzas, 160 Krembos and 439 Cups of Coffee, we chose the top 10 initiatives to be implemented at Natural Intelligence.
Why the top 10? Here at NI, we empower consumer decision making with curated top 10 lists — tailored to the consumer — so each person finds the right product for their needs.
As a result of the Hackathon, we now have an idea for a new data tracking platform, created by a team made up of a developer, business operations team lead, sales manager and marketing analyst. Want to peruse deals based on your shopping interests? Well, a team of developers joined forces with a designer, content manager, product manager and the director of finance to create an app for that. But before we jump to the winning ideas that made the podium, let’s rewind and see how we got there.
We planned our Hackathon from start to finish like a military operation, complete with strategy, training and inventory lists. Here’s how we did it — in 6 totally doable steps.
Step #1 — Put Your Support Systems in Place
Pulling off a 300-participant Hackathon is no simple feat. If you’re going to plan one, you won’t want to go at it alone. You’ll need support from management and a steering committee made up of employee representatives.
At NI, innovation is at the very core of our organization. We have a dedicated Innovation team focused on cross-departmental initiatives, and “dare to challenge” is part of our company’s DNA — or DNI as we call it. The success of our Hackathon relied on the support of management. We needed our leaders to get excited about it, encourage their employees to take an active part, and agree to put day-to-day work aside for 48 hours.
So, find your partners in the management and harness their support. A unified Hackathon, especially one that involves the participation of many different departments — including many non tech ones — needs it.
We also initiated a steering committee made up of employees from various departments. Together we brainstormed, made decisions, and helped guide each other through the planning stages.
Choose representatives from different departments for your steering committee. They’ll serve as your ambassadors within the organization, and are important for the planning as well as spreading excitement about the Hackathon.
ACTION ITEM: Engage top management and find your Hackathon ambassadors in each department.
Step #2 — Pick a Theme
One of the major goals of our company-wide Hackathon was to come up with innovative ideas that can contribute to business growth. To ensure that the Hackathon ideas and projects would serve this goal, we chose a theme, “Consumer Decision Making.” Within the framework of our theme were 2 paths hackers could take: user value (whether inside or outside the company) and bling bling (increasing revenue).
Our judging criteria, presented to the company in the first stages of planning the Hackathon, relied heavily on the event’s theme. Half of every team’s score was based on business value — how much value does this idea bring the business? The other half was based on adherence to our company values: win together, dare to challenge, put people first, own it end-to-end, and be a pro.
Choose a theme that works for your needs. The theme will help guide participants when thinking of ideas and choosing a project to work on. It will also help guide the judging criteria and the judges themselves as they make decisions in the final stages of the Hackathon.
ACTION ITEM: Choose a theme that supports your business goals and needs.
Step #3 — Hype It up
The key to a kick-ass Hackathon is a kick-ass marketing campaign. Yes, you should invest time and resources to market the Hackathon within your organization.
We set the look and feel of our Hackathon from the very beginning. Everything was branded — from the emails sent out, to the posters hung in the halls and bathroom, and the swag given out. Hackathon laptop stickers waited on everyone’s desks on the morning of the Hackathon, shirts were handed out, and massage balls waited on the chairs on the first night of pitches.
We made announcements in every company meeting leading up to the Hackathon, and sent out regular emails introducing the teams throughout the buildup. By the time we were 3 weeks from the Hackathon, 95% of our 300 employees were signed up and ready to hack.
We made sure to celebrate our Hackathon both during and after the event itself. We broadcast live to Facebook and Instagram, while professionals shot stills and video footage.
Decide how much time and resources you can direct towards the effort. Start hyping the event at least 3 months before to ensure maximum participation and excitement.
ACTION ITEM: Invest time and resources in marketing the Hackathon within your organization. Plan your internal marketing campaign, use Gantt to stay on top of things, and set KPIs.
Step #4 — Let the Ideas Come Pouring In
We collected a total of 150 innovative ideas for our Hackathon.
How did we do it? We opened an ideation spreadsheet to the whole company. We launched it at a company meeting, sent branded emails about it, and joined departmental meetings to hype it further.
After a long process — a month and a half — of repetition and asking for more ideas and encouraging managers to motivate employees to put down more ideas, we had 150 innovative ideas on our crazy spreadsheet.
Reaching such a huge number of ideas allowed us to evaluate and cut out ideas that weren’t realistic or in line with the theme. We were left with 130 Hackathon-ready ideas.
ACTION ITEM: Collect as many ideas as possible. Have managers help by motivating their employees to come up with more ideas.
Step #5 — Squad Up
With the list of ideas closed, the next step was making sure each idea had a group of people ready to work on it together. We gave about a month for the signup period. That left plenty of time to encourage people to join groups, close groups at the max number we set (8), and get in touch with people who didn’t pick a team.
All of the buzz around the Hackathon really brought the entrepreneurial spirit to work. People were excited about particular projects and joined groups to work on ideas they were passionate about.
Our Hackathon grouped together so many people with different professional backgrounds, many being non-tech backgrounds, so lots of people needed help or explanations in understanding where their talents would be most useful. We helped connect people to the groups that needed them and guided people with ideas to those who could help.
The groups mixed together people from different departments across the company — building new relationships among people who may not have known each other before.
ACTION ITEM: Get to know the initiatives, the people and the squads — then help connect people from different departments.
Step #6 — Get Your S%!t in Order
Like a marathon, when the race begins, you shouldn’t have to stop to tie your laces or pin your number to your shirt. We made sure to have everything in place so that when the Hackathon horn sounded, everyone would start running.
Nobody had to worry about what they’d eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. There were no work-related emails. Not from coworkers. Not from management. Just pure Hackathon.
To make this possible, we made sure there were no loose ends, long before the day of the Hackathon arrived. Budget and logistics planning ran in parallel to our marketing campaign, ideation stage and grouping stage.
Here’s all of the s%!t we took care of behind the scenes:
- Getting the groups ready: It was key that every group knew when it was time to pitch. We prepared the groups in individual, 15-minute meetings to explain how the Hackathon would run and set expectations. During the event, we were focused on sticking to the pitch lineup and keeping the energy level high.
- Making sure the groups are fully equipped: We checked in with every group to see if they needed some sort of software, hardware, subscription or anything else to make their idea a reality. One group’s idea was centered on voice search, so we bought Amazon’s Alexa device. Another group that needed to analyze big data required stronger servers — so we bought those too.
- Getting the judges ready: We set a meeting with the Hackathon judges to go over the judging criteria and explain how they’d be scoring each group. We used an electronic form so the judges could score in real time. By the time the last pitch was done, all of the scores had been aggregated and winners were announced.
- Creating and sending an agenda: We sent an agenda to the company so everyone knew what to expect from the 2 days.
- Implementing communication methods: In order to make sure we could update all participants quickly and effectively, we opened a Whatsapp group, and limited communication to messages from Hackathon leaders only.
- Ordering food: We made sure our hackers would feel full on pizza, falafel and hummus, sandwiches, and sweet snacks.
- Choosing prizes: In addition to the marketing swag given out to all participants, we selected an awesome prize for teams that made the podium.
Our Hackathon was an intense, 2-day innovative success. Its success was hugely reliant on the logistics running smoothly.
ACTION ITEM: Make a checklist and include: prepping the groups, getting the judges ready, sending an agenda, ordering food and choosing prizes.
Enjoy the show, be present and lead the event to success.
Our hackathon was a huge success. Our entire company — all 300 employees — stopped working for 48 hours. But what we gained in that time, was worth far more. We became a company united by our entrepreneurial spirit.
People who don’t work together on a daily basis — some who didn’t even know each other before — joined forces over a common goal. The effect was similar to what basic training does to a fresh military squad. New, strong bonds were forged.
We came together to brainstorm and to work hard, and we left with 10 initiatives that will be implemented this year, and countless more in the pipeline.
Our Founder and CEO, Nir Greenberg, said it best when he said that the Hackathon was “the 2 days I most enjoyed coming to work. And I love coming to work.”
Try running your own Hackathon. It’s definitely worth it!