How we use hackathons to accelerate corporate innovation & attract talent

What do you picture when you hear about a “hackathon”? A conference room full of empty pizza boxes? A scene from the movie The Social Network? Black t-shirts and Macbook Airs?

Many of our corporate clients ask us for advice about planning and running hackathons.
 How much should we budget?
 How do we handle IP?
 How can I sell the opportunity to executive leadership?

Do a few Google searches on “hackathons” and you’ll discover general information or stories — nothing you can use to plan a successful corporate event.

Over the next 5 blog posts we’re going to share best practices for getting the most value from a hackathon.

About corporate hackathons

Time-constrained, open innovation events hosted by corporate sponsors

Hackathons are 1–3 day (usually weekend) innovation events hosted by 1 or more corporate sponsors. 50–100 internal and/or external participants organize into teams of 3–5 to develop and present projects. Teams compete for prizes based on design, functionality, teamwork and general awesomess. Depending on the objective of the host corporation, teams may have opportunities to continue working with the corporation after the event.

A hackathon assumes customer and problem are KNOWN

Corporate hackathons are not “startup” events. Don’t get me wrong — I’m the former COO of Startup Weekend and think startup events are awesome. But hackathons are based on a known assumption about a customer and a problem. These constraints help focus team efforts and force creativity.

So what’s and example of a constrained customer problem?

“Use our energy API to build an application which helps customers reduce their electric bill” is an example.

Startup events don’t have these constraints. At startup events, teams have the additional (and critical) burden of validating customer demand for their potential solution.

An event for technical people

Most participants need basic hands-on technical skills like programming, design, and data analytics. Although participants don’t need to be experts, basic technical proficiency is necessary to get anything done in a short timeframe.

“Management”, customer interviews, and research can all be done by people with technical skills.

Hackathons are not the best option if technical innovation isn’t your goal. If you want to achieve social impact or community building you have better options.

What you get from hosting a hackathon

Recruit talent

You don’t need to copy these GE commercials to fill key technical positions. Hackathons give you an opportunity to work directly with potential employees and see who is a good cultural fit.

New external ideas & partnership opportunities

Internal teams are busy solving specific problems and keeping up with operational demands. They often don’t have the opportunity to think about potential upside from new partnerships.

New faces can bring a fresh look at existing problems. Hackathons can demonstrate the value of working with external partners, freelancers, agencies and vendors.

Faster API adoption & feedback

New APIs are useless without 3rd-party developers and customers using them. Hackathons are a great way to educate the market about APIs.

Your API teams also get live feedback from developers using them — a great way to uncover problems or identify new features.

PR & Marketing

Hackathons are great PR and easy stories to tell.

Local team wins tech contest … corporation sponsoring innovation … community becoming a regional tech leader.

Everybody wins.

Startup partnerships

It can be hard to predict how well teams will work together. During a hackathon internal and external teams get a chance to feel for cultural fit.

Have realistic expectations

Real problems are hard

You’ll notice we didn’t list “innovative solutions” as part of the hackathon benefits. Real problems are hard and typically can’t be “solved” in a weekend. Most hackathon teams only finish ~25% of what they set out to accomplish.

Teams may generate potential ideas for new solutions but all will need more work.

Not just a weekend

Hackathons take planning and require input from different parts of your company. You’ll need a plan for promoting it, recruiting coaches, and getting internal agreement on issues like IP, NDAs, and follow-on contracts.

In the next few weeks we’ll walk you through everything you need to run a successful hackathon:

  • Planning
  • Promotion
  • Running the event
  • Follow-up

Next week we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of planning a hackathon including theme, budget, food, IP, supplies, tools, code of conduct and post-event licensing.

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: Sebastiaan ter Burg

Originally published at Your Ideas Are Terrible.

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