Don’t let your corporate hackathon fail before it starts

Welcome to Part 2 of our series on corporate hackathons! In Part 1 we defined corporate hackathons and described their benefit to your company. In Part 2 we’ll tackle the most important step — planning.

So what could go wrong?

Actually, a lot. A colleague of ours attended a hackathon hosted in the basement of a building — no wifi or cell coverage. The participants left after the first hour. Yikes. Try explaining that to the sponsors…

While this is an extreme example, most corporate hackathons have preventable problems. Poor attendance. Teams without the right skills. Unfinished projects. Late starts. Not enough of coffee (gasp!). Network failures.

But the biggest preventable problem starts at the beginning.

How to guarantee your hackathon fails

“If you simply plan on seeing what happens you will always succeed at seeing what happens because something is guaranteed to happen.”
 Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

Eric’s quote applies to any new project and hackathons are no exception. Unfortunately most hackathons are failures because the organizers don’t have a metric for success. Too often we see corporate hackathons without a business goal -` inevitably “something happens”. Just not what anyone envisioned.

Before you do ANYTHING else … have a goal

Before asking colleagues to give up a weekend, ask yourself why you want to have a hackathon. What is your goal?

  • To associate your brand with innovation?
  • Attract talent to fill key technical roles?
  • Get your ecosystem using a new API?

These are the most common reasons. Our advice is to pick 1 reason and optimize your hackathon for it. Everything else is gravy.

Quantify your goal with a success metric

We understand — you’re hesitant to set specific goals because you don’t have enough information. You don’t want to be held accountable for something out of your control.

But having a specific goal gives everyone the necessary focus to work towards the same ends. We suggest making the goal a team sport so everyone buys into it.

Examples: Our goal is to …
 … get a positive story in the business section in our local paper
 … introduce hiring managers to 3 qualified candidates
 … get 2 new products built on the API …

Get leadership to buy into the goal so everyone has the same expectation.

The basics: planning and resources

Once you’ve got a goal and a success metric you’re on the right track. Next step is to have a high-level plan of the type of event you want to run. We’ll use these decisions for building our budget in the next post.


Most hackathons take place over a Saturday and Sunday. You can also start Friday evening. Fridays are great for informal mixers to get everyone excited about the weekend.

Participant count

We suggest planning for a minimum of 50 and a maximum of 100 participants organized into 10–20 teams. Roughly 20% of confirmed attendees will not show and only 50% will complete the event. With attrition you’ll finish with 5–12 teams.

Coaches and judges

You’ll need coaches to keep teams on track, ask hard questions and interface to your company. 1 coach for every 10 participants is a good ratio. Ask coaches for at least ½ day of commitment. Coaches eat and drink coffee too, so budget for them.

You will also want 3–5 judges. Coaches, organizers, or executive sponsors can be judges.

Technical support

Murphy’s law: your network will fail. Corporate guest networks are not always built to handle a large volume of traffic. Make sure you have someone on call to fix it and/or a backup solution. 100 hackers won’t be able to share your iPhone hotspot.


The ideal space has both open tables, a few private meeting rooms and a place for a presenter. Teams need move tables and chairs to accommodate presentations and collaborations. A venue which can host a large workshop is usually a good choice. Obviously … casual is the best setting for a hackathon.


We don’t suggest having cash prizes for awards. Instead, have categories for prizes align with the collaborative spirit of the event. For instance:

  • Most technically challenging
  • Best team spirit
  • Best design
  • Most useful solution
  • Most creative use of data

A broad set of categories like this allows anyone to win.


Order more food and coffee than you need. Food trucks are often a great option because teams can self-serve and you don’t have the mess.


The remaiing items are what you would expect from planning any similar event.

  • A/V equipment
  • T-shirts
  • Office supplies
  • Additional furniture
  • Photographer/videograper
  • Cleaning crew
  • Security

NDAs, IP & licensing

How to ensure nobody shows up to your hackathon

Some hackathons ask participants to sign NDAs or relinquish all IP rights. This is a wonderful idea if you want to ensure serious people don’t show up.

You want top talent at your hackathon. Great developers, designers and data scientists are bombarded with events competing for their time — including other hackathons. Asking participants to sign an NDA or relinquish IP rights can crush a hackathon’s community spirit and hurt your company’s image.

Just don’t disclose anything you don’t want shared with the world. Have your hackathon in a venue where participants can’t access labs or desks.

IP rights? Let’s get real. True innovation takes years of hard work — a team of 3 people won’t create valuable Intellectual Property in 48 hours. If you want to keep an option open consider an arrangement where participants keep what they build and you have the first right of refusal to enter into a licensing or procurement agreement.

Have flexible, post-event services contracts

More valuable than licensing agreements are plans for continuing to work with a promising team. A team may complete a prototype which would be useful after additional work. Consider allocating a small budget and preparing a standard short-term software services agreement. The agreement would specify the general scope of work and have typical terms of confidentiality, indemnification, IP ownership, etc.

This flexibility makes it easy for both sides to consider an arrangement and decline if it isn’t interesting.

Code of conduct

As you may have witnessed during the 2016 presidential election people have widely different definitions of “acceptable” public conduct. Can a team use nudity on its landing page? Why not?

Have a clear code of conduct for participants and you will be in a position to settle any disputes.

A good example is Eric Ries’s Lean Startup conference code of conduct. For example, Participants should not use sexualized images or activities…

You can also generate and customize your own with the Hack Code of Conduct.

These are the basic issues you need to confront when planning a hackathon. Once you get general agreement on them you’re ready to put together your budget. We’ll cover budget details in Part 3.

Get the corporate hackathon quickstart kit

We’re creating a quickstart kit based on what we’ve learned running hackathons at the world’s most innovative companies. You can sign up for the free guide here and get notified when it is ready.


Need help sooner? Just contact us. We’ll help you plan your corporate hackathon and turn it into a world-class event.

Photo credit: Eric Huybrechts

Originally published at Your Ideas Are Terrible.