Hacking the hackathon behavioural economics with Kickback

Mar 6, 2019 · 7 min read

TLDR: We discuss why there are significant portion of hackers who don’t hack during hackathon and present Kickback as one of potential remedies.


During ETHDenver, over 750 people have participated the hackathon with massive 120 submissions.

This is the first time for me to attend hackathon at such a scale and hats off to ETHDenver hackathon crew to pull it off. The pitching session was almost like speed dating where a massive number of teams sat across multiple floors where the team of judges tirelessly move around to spend 10 minutes on each team. On top of that, sponsor judges also spent even more time judging all the teams who applied for their bounties.

However I would like to uncover a little bit of under discussed topic, buidlers who don’t buidl.

Buidlres who don’t buidl

The ETHGlobal hackathons have a general rule of team size between 2 ~ 4. This means that the maximum number of builders was 480, meaning at least 36% of buidlers did not end up submitting their work (Disclaimer, I am not criticising ETHDenver at all. I am sure that the figure is more less same in any large scale hackathons).

The most expected answer will be that participants could not find interesting problem to tackle nor fail to find team mates. It is also possible that they did actually form the team but they ended up not submitting as they were not happy with their creation.

That’s totally acceptable cases. However there are certain number of people who ended up distracted by side events and drinks. To prevent the issue, ETHDenver delisted any side events which was held during hackathon from their “#BUIDL week” calendar. In addition, ETHDenver had similar staking mechanism as Kickback where non participants lose there stake if they don’t turn up (though it was optional). This means that other hackathon without could have even less completion rate.

The description of https://www.ethdenver.com/buidlweek

The worst of all are people purely came for networking purpose without the intention of participating the event despite the fact that they registered as buidlers. When I organised ENS hackathon there was one participant who “stopped by” for a few hours eating hackathon lunch , mingled with participants, grabbed all the hackathon swag and left (the more detail is here). That made me furious as a hackathon organiser.

Having said that, I initially went to ETHDenver with 50/50 chance of NOT hacking because my main motive was to network(networking itself is nothing wrong though). I had a couple of unofficial side events scheduled using Kickback (guilty!) and also gave Apprent.io workshop about ENS to teenagers on Saturday morning.

Knowing I have some unavailable time during hackathon I felt bad joining a team. In fact, I did ask my team members if they don’t mind me “disappearing” for a couple of hours on Saturday and thanks to Marek and Kyle (my team mates) for still letting me join the team. My backup plan if I wasn’t able to join a team was to work solo and borrow a name from someone who wasn’t hacking.

Speakers with agenda

Speakers are the interesting ones. Unless invited by the organiser, you need to apply as a hacker and you need to tick “apply as a speaker” slot. This makes majority of speakers as hackers as well. If you are selected as a speaker, then their travel expense may be covered by the company they represent. Once their travel cost is covered by their employers then the priority for networking becomes even higher and it is generally acceptable that speakers don’t hack. It’s a huge missed opportunity considering that they tend to have more experience and expertise to create something cool during hackathon.

Some speakers, like Georgios Konstantopoulos of Loom network, contributed to the hackathon in non buidling way with his unique talent.

Others ended up getting drunk and exposed a shame over internet, like me.

When I applied to ETHBerlin, I was accepted as a speaker hence I didn’t hack, and this is what happened.

Internet sensation gone wrong!!


Despite the crypto winter, Blockchain industry is way more financially funded than other tech industries hence have lucrative bounties and prize money.

From https://tronaccelerator.io

This leaves a sense of bitterness to teams without prizes. You may feel bitter especially if you believe your work is better than the ones selected, or if you are shortlisted (or on runner up list) but didn’t win which was my case at ETHDenver.

I am sure that I got so much more than prize money by being able to have 4 min of shilling time but I did have a bitter taste in my mouse until I later found out that we got some bounty prizes.

One way to solve the problem is not to have prize money at all. In fact ENS hackathon which I organised last summer had no financial reward.

billy rennekamp , one of the ETHDenver winners, is known for the seasoned hackaton bounty hunter and snatched 1st prize at ENS hackathon. Since we had no financial prizes, we used gold paper coated sparkling wine to pretend that our prize was gorgeous.

Another way which could solve this to a certain extent would be to use Kickback as “Self funding hackathon prizes” as well as “Proof of Completion” to motivate hacking.

Kickback as a self funding hackathon prizes

At GörliCon, MP hacked our Kickback system (of course after discussing with us and getting our backing), and used Kickback as a fund raising vehicle for the further development of the Görli testet. What she did uniquely which we found out later was that she didn’t mark people who were there but cleared to donate their ETH to the project. What if we apply something similar.

Imagine all the 750 hackers at ETHDenver stake $10 worth of ETH and the 480 people who submitted the hack share the pot. This means people can withdraw the extra $5 ($20 per team on average). The extra $4 is more than enough to buy a cup of coffee or buy them a pint of beer.

Is $20 too low as a hack prize? Then why don’t you encourage non participants to RSVP even if they don’t even go to the event. This will literally turn Kickback into crowd funding vehicle allowing everybody around the world to contribute small amount encouraging more awesome hacks.

In fact, one of the first “Kickback” reward of 0.4 ETH was made by contribution from the non participants of the conference back in 2017 when Kickback was still called “BlockParty” (and ETH price was around $10).

Inzhoop contributed his 1 ETH despite not being in Paris encouraging more users to join via his mobile app

Nikola Tchouparov is another “Patron” of my local Ethereum study group(aka CodeUp) where he occasionally RSVP but says in advance that he is not coming.

If this turns out to be useful , we will probably change our system allowing “sponsor/support tier” to distinguish supporters and actual participants.

Kickback as a Proof of Completion

To qualify for the prize, each team had to submit by documenting on Kauri. This actually gives us opportunities to link between Kauri and Kickback so that submission to Kauri is treated as a proof to mark attendance on Kickback.

Also, Kickback results can be linked to POAP (Proof of Attendance Protocol) , a protocol for issuing and displaying cool NFT crypto-badges which was built during the ETHDenver 2019 hackathon.

POAP with list of event badges

The original intention of the protocol is to mark all the attendees but they could issue tokens which praise people who actually completed the hack.

These tokens can be used as priority invitations to future ETHGlobal hackathons or could even cover some of their cost if budget allows and you want to invite some seasoned bounty hunters like billy rennekamp to increase the quality of the hack.

There are debates that transferrable tokens cannot represent reputations but I think it’s okay for these use cases. If someone lent their tokens to someone for their entry, you can treat that as vouching for their friends.

Fine tuning the rule to suit your need

By introducing such a staking mechanism, we hope to encourage people who are on the borderline submitting their project while discouraging (or at least penalising) people from coming to hackathon purely for networking and/or free food/swag.

Some people argue that it will even increase the “non completion” as some people feel that they are exempted from buidling duty by paying such penalty.

That’s fine in my opinion as long as the money goes to the people who completed.

Is the pot too low? Then increase the amount for initial staking but make staking optional as ETHDenver did with TaigaMarket (I am still wondering when I get my staked ETH back though). One of the disadvantages of making it optional is that it will no longer prevent non buidlers from coming.

If you rather worry about the overhead of increased submissions and extra judging time which Kickback may bring, the more radical approach could be to allow only short listed projects to share the pot (which Bryant Eisenbach suggested when I talked about the idea). Then it becomes $375 on average per team ($7000 / 20 teams) which now worths more than a small bounty.

If any Hackathon organisers are interested in experimenting this idea, please email us at hello@kickback.events to discuss more detail.