What hackathons can teach us about running a startup

I first set foot in Silicon Valley during the summer of 2016. Having taken part in a couple of hackathons back in Singapore, I was pretty excited to explore the bay area hacker scene. I had heard stories of triumph through my fellow Singaporeans, and was on the look out for upcoming hackathons to get my hands dirty.

3 months later, I was on track to achieve what I had set out to do. I got to work with many different talented individuals, and had won 75% of the hackathons we had taken part in, with over $8,000 in winnings.

Our team for the Money 20/20 Fintech Hackathon, at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

I started to notice a trend. Each hackathon that we had taken part in, fell into one of three categories:

  1. The “Build whatever you want, as long as it’s cool.” hackathon
  2. The “We built some new tech, please use it?” hackathon
  3. The “Please solve my problem with tech!” hackathon

My first exposure to hackathons in Singapore were of the first category. It was mostly about a bunch of programmers getting together for 24 hours of code, caffeine, and pizza. I realized teams that win at these hackathons aren’t always the ones using the hottest new technology, but instead, are exceedingly creative in how they use existing technology for the craziest ideas. Check out this amazing hack by the recent grand prize winners of PennApps XIII, who were able to secretly transmit data out of your computer using basic hardware.

There are also those hackathons, where startups offer free pizza and company swag in exchange for you building applications with their technology and tweeting about it. If you’re lucky, you get laptop stickers and a nifty certificate too! While not particularly enriching, you cannot doubt their effectiveness as a growth hack.

The last category of hackathons, that I am starting to see increasingly more of, revolve around solving business problems with technical solutions. The winners aren’t necessarily the ones with the coolest hack. Rather, they win because they offer real solutions to a real problem that the organizers actually have. Hackathons attract large amounts of technical talent, and companies are starting to recognize them for the ability to generate interesting new perspectives with a working prototype.

Based on my personal experience, and through conversations I’ve had with other winners, I’ve distilled the winning process into pseudo-code.

prototype = None
while hackathon.in_progress():
requirements = ask_judges(prototype)
if is_fulfilled(requirements):
prototype = build(requirements)

The hackathon process is an iterative one. You come up with an initial idea, and check with the judges if they like it. If so, your chances of taking home some moolah are pretty high, and you just need to execute well. Chances are they won’t, in which case you’d have gathered some feedback to refine your idea. You build out a better prototype, and consult with the judges 2 hours later. You repeat this process as many times as necessary, until you satisfy the judges or run out of time. The result is a prototype that the judges will most probably like, considering how it’s as much their brainchild as it is yours.

Such hackathons aren’t always fair, in the sense that the strongest or most creative developers may not win if their hack does not adequately address the business problem. But that’s the reality, because if you’re a company that is forking out money to organize a hackathon, you’d want someone to solve your problems.

Now, what does any of this have to do with actually running a startup?

I spent the last 3 years exploring the startup space, learning about why startups succeed and fail. While I may not know enough to succeed at the startup game yet, I have learnt a lot about understanding customers through countless previous failed ventures. I believe that there are similarities between winning a hackathon and building a product that consumers love.

The hackathon process begins with figuring out what the judges want. You build a quick and dirty prototype, before checking back with the judges if this is what they had in mind. Rinse and repeat.


The startup process begins with figuring out what your customers want. You build a quick and dirty Minimum Viable Product, before checking back with your customers if this is what they had in mind. Rinse and repeat.

There is a lot that a hackathon can teach you about running a startup. You learn to work well with people under very stressful conditions. You learn about all the amazing ways technology can transform the world. And perhaps most importantly, you learn to listen to your customers.

This is the very first post for the “Everyone Can Write” Initiative by the NUS Entrepreneurs’ Association. Andre is an aspiring data scientist, and can be reached via LinkedIn or Github.

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