What do you picture when you think 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 heaps of general information – but very little in the way of tactics you can use to plan your own successful event.
Over the next 5 blog posts we’re going to share our best practices for getting the most value from a hackathon.
About corporate hackathons
Corporate hackathons are typically a 24-72 hour event in which 50-100 internal and/or external participants organize into teams of 3-5 to develop and present solutions to a known business problem. Teams compete for prizes based on judging criteria like design, functionality, teamwork and general awesomeness. Depending on the objective of the host corporation, teams may have opportunities to continue working on their solutions 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 it’s important to separate the two in your mind. Hackathons assume that the problem against which teams are building solutions is known and validated. These constraints help focus team efforts and force creativity.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.
The more specific the problem, the better. Many hackathons use a broad theme: “We just launched a technology – come build something with it!” or “The Future of FinTech Hackathon 2017 – anything goes!” While these events are fun and can garner good PR, they produce lower quality results.
Choosing a specific, real-world business challenge will attract participants who see the constraints as a gift. In our experience, your participants will be more experienced, they’ll approach the event with a deeper level of intentness, the solutions will be more creative, and the path to turning a hackathon project into something you can launch to create actual business value test is more visible.
Here are examples of pre-validated/constrained problem statements that would work well for a hackathon:
“We need a way to automatically sense an out-of-stock occurrence in a beverage cooler” (source)
“Use our energy API to build an application which helps customers reduce their electric bill”
“Nationally more than 20% of all potable water produced is lost and wasted during distribution – we need help to reduce the cost of detection and resolution.” (source)
An event for technical people
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.
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.
What you get from hosting a hackathon
New faces bring a fresh look at existing problems. Hackathons can demonstrate the value of working with external partners, freelancers, agencies, and vendors.
If your goal is to think differently about a problem your company has struggled to build with traditional approaches, try a hackathon.
If your goal is to change the “we build everything internally” culture at your organization and demonstrate to leadership the value of working with external partners, try a hackathon.
Hackathons are the ultimate interview. 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.
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.
Forge new (unexpected) internal teams
It can be hard to predict how well teams will work together. During a hackathon, internal teams that participate get a chance to discover new effective teams.
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:
- Running the event
In part 2 of this series, 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
Also published on Medium.