40+ Ways to Hack a Hackathon

Jose Huitron
Nov 9, 2018 · 7 min read
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In just a few more hours, I’ll have embarked on another mission to help spark community, ideas, and impact by attending Startup Weekend Santa Barbara as a mentor and co-facilitator. If you’re not familiar with Techstars Startup Weekend, here’s a primer. We’re talking 54 hours of blazing entrepreneurial thinking, team-building, and the ultimate playground to push your own limits. Startup Weekend is just one of many variations of a hackathon to push you beyond your comfort zone.

Just What Is A Hackathon?

They come in all shapes and flavors from two-day sprints to week long marathons. A hackathon is a platform for doers looking to stoke the fires of possibility.

The formula is quite simple, really.

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.[1]

The goal of a hackathon is to create usable software or hardware with the goal of creating a functioning product by the end of the event.[2] Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the programming language used, the operating system, an application, an API, or the subject and the demographic group of the programmers. In other cases, there is no restriction on the type of software being created. (Wikipedia)

Bottomline, a hackathon is a launchpad for what’s next. But let’s take a deeper dive into the possibilities or “hackabilities.” *Wink*

Let’s reboot the previous definition.

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is a design sprint-like event in which [insert your community] involved in [your personal and professional pursuits/passion of choice] and friends, often including subject-matter-experts [and newbies, lots of them!], collaborate intensively on said pursuit.

The goal of a hackathon is to create a usable prototype (better known as an MVP) by the end of the event. Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the [tools] used, the [industry], an [industry challenge], or the subject and the demographic group of the [participants]. In other cases, there is no restriction on the [possibilities]. The delivery vehicle can even be a point of distinction. Hackathons can happen on a bus or take to the skies via efforts like Hack Horizon.

Would you believe that there are hackathons for things like architecture, engineering, and construction, blockchain, and kittens? No, really! Check this out. The University of Illinois and its College of Vet Medicine just hosted a hackathon to convene “divergent viewpoints to “hack” the intransigent problem of cats going outside the box.” And yes, there’s some cash prize money involved. $2500 to be exact. Sign me up Sparky!

Should You Attend?

Absolutely! You’d don’t have to be a technology buff to capture value as a participant in a hackathon. Just bring your ideas, tools, and white board markers. Lots of them. Come prepared to do something amazing.

Elevate Your Hackathon Experience

Here’s a few of my favorite tips to help you make the most of your experience:

Let’s get real about motivation for a moment. Why are you attending? If you’ve been thinking about going solo and launching your own startup, it’s important to inspect your core motivations and belief system around your launch genesis. This is critically important as this will be the source of renewal and fresh focus should you be in it for the long haul. John Greathouse, Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm has a nice piece on this very topic of reasons people want to be an entrepreneur, which you should definitely read.

Here’s a few extra goodies to help you and your team ace the hackathon:

The Business Model Canvas

If there is one tool you should absolutely have at your disposal, it’s the Business Model Canvas.

CO.STARTERS uses a version of the “Business Model Canvas” developed by Alexander Osterwalder to help starters develop workable business models. This intuitive visual map helps program participants understand, test, and refine their ideas. Check out the CO.STARTERS Canvas here.

Customer Validation

“Most startups fail from a lack of customers than from a failure of product development.” — Steve Blank

This is one of the most overlooked areas that will prove vital to your final pitch. If you’re the only one you’ve spoken to about your idea that’s a huge problem. It’s amazing how many folks crush on their own ideas without talking to another person for their opinion and feedback. Here’s a few more tools that should make this key component a bit easier:

“The most common unscalable thing founders have to do at the start is to recruit users manually. Nearly all startups have to. You can’t wait for users to come to you. You have to go out and get them.” — Paul Graham — Doing Things That Don’t Scale

Did you notice something? I stopped counting the number of ways to hack a hackathon tips shared thus far. It was just way easier to keep sharing some of my favorite tips given the section breaks. I hope you don’t mind.

The Pitch

No matter the length and format, most hackathons give founders an awesome opportunity to pitch as part of the gran finale. There are numerous schools of thought on the art of pitching well but here are a few observations:

Well folks, that’s all for now. Feel free to ping me with your favorite tools and tips.

Oh, before I forget, check out this pretty cool startup stash of tools and resources. And another — The Ultimate Startup Toolkit.

Finally, here’s a handy guide for those looking to host their own hackathon of sorts. Need help? Feel free to ping me. I’d love to do coffee and meet some new friends on a mission to disrupt the status quo and maybe even build a better litter box.

Have fun hacking away!

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