Hackathon Know How

With the high number of startuppers and entrepreneurs going through our publications and website, we thought it might be time to get you something directly relevant to you: Hackathon Tips!

What is a hackathon? A hackathon is a group of people coming together to build a product or service offering over a course of two days (or more like 24 hours).  More people wonder if they need coding experience to participate, and the short answer is NO.


Are you a Business Guy, a Hacker, a Designer, or other? Generally at these events, people are placed into one of these three buckets. A businessperson at a hackathon must contribute with a defined pitch deck, but as well as market research. Go around and ask people’s thoughts about the product offering and collect as much data as you can. Try to capture consumer insights about certain features or problems they would like you to solve. Also, get them signed up for a beta test. If you’re a hacker, find folks who you can learn from or who you can teach. For junior programmers, focus on a specific task, get it done, and have some more experience look over it—go ask around! Designers should focus on a variety of things depending on their skill sets. Anywhere from a digital mock up to converting it to HTML & CSS or building other crucial design elements for the application.

Team Vs. Solo 

“HACKERS” can come to these events either as an individual or with a team. There are pros and cons about coming with a pre-determined group or coming alone. The quick highlights of coming with a team: everyone has a consensus on idea; everyone knows their role; and a better team dynamic. The benefit of going without a team is the ability to meet new folks and join a random team where you can learn.

My team and I won the OnDeckCup regional hackathon in San Francisco and we are competing for the national finals.  Over a course of 24 hours, we successfully built a web application, SMS engine, and an iOS application. A team comprising of a senior engineer, a junior engineer (myself), a designer, and a lawyer.  You can learn more about us at PlayHatTrick.com or follow us on Twitter at: @winahat

A bit more about what we built over 24 hours (Sports focus Hackathon):

We built a Sports Trivia application for users to engage with their favorite sports players or teams and show their real sports knowledge. They have the opportunity to compete in daily tournaments to win a physical prize (a sports Hat with any team of the winner’s choosing). People can play via text message, web application, or iOS. (We’re currently working on android). Also, over the course of the weekend, we have built an engine that generates infinite sports trivia questions with both real-time questions or historical questions. Moreover, we are building a Trivia API to give developers the ability to build other applications or integrate Trivia into their current existing applications. Feel free to reach out to our team on Twitter @CallMeEd @AndrewCollup @CarloskCheung @IvyThuyLam

Tip 1: Brainstorm Early

A fun way to brainstorm if you do not already have an idea, and want to just come up with one is to sit down with your friends and play a game of telephone in a circle. 1) Each write down a couple ideas on your own sheet of paper. 2) Pass it to the person next to you and iterate over the idea to expand or come up with new ones. 3) Lastly, when you have done this for a little bit with a group of friends (recommend at least 4 people), list out all your ideas and talk about it. Figure out which ones fit the guidelines or the theme of your specific hackathon. The best way to come up with great ideas is thinking simple.


 Tip 2: Simple MVP, Iterate Fast

Focus on the main thing that solves a big problem, and make sure its functionality demonstrates its ability.  Hackathons care more about the functionality of your product more so then the look and feel, which is secondary. Make a timeline and deadline of when you can realistically complete a task and try to capture all the core components to demonstrate its potential value.  This means if one task is taking too long, move on to the next component and don’t waste time for perfection.

 Tip 3:  Presentation, Focus on Technology then Product

At a hackathon presentation, the judges want to know what you actually built. So explicitly tell the judges and audience what technologies you used and how you built it in a short paragraph. For example, you could say:  “We built XYZ application on the WEB/Phone over the weekend using XYZ API. Our technology does XYZ which in turn provides the consumer…(elaborate).” Walk through the application with your audience on how it would work in real life and demonstrate it’s potential capabilities.

 Tip 4: Resources for Beginners

Resources I recommend to be a successful hustler in each of these three realms. Business: Steve Blanks Crash Course on Getting out of the building; Hacker: (depending on language) One Month Rails or tutorials on Team Tree House; and Designer: General Assembly HTML/CSS course or Skillshare.

If you don’t fit into any of these categories then my best advice for you is to go to these events with an open mind to learn and do whatever you can to create value for the team.

I hope you’ll now have the knowledge and ability to go out and win a hackathon. Good luck and happy coding!