In case you’re not familiar with the term, a hackathon is basically an event dedicated to creative problem solving. Although the name would suggest that hackathon events involve technology, and many times they do, they aren’t limited to it. Essentially, a hackathon is an event in which people join together to solve problems. (Sometimes, these are complex issues affecting their community or society at large; other times they’re simply “life hacks” to relatable problems most of us face). Since a hackathon is a learning and teaching experience for everyone involved, they are usually accompanied by workshops dedicated to the subject matter.
It’s not only a fun learning experience, but it’s also an innovative way for everyday people to take initiative and solve problems independently. It’s no secret that many young people- and much of society in general- no longer feels they can or should rely on authorities, government agencies, and corporations to solve the problems we face as a community. Granted, not every hackathon event is about making major changes to the world we live in; some are related to professional breakthroughs, creativity, and everyday life.
How Does a Hackathon Work?
You may already get the general concept of hackathon events, but let’s talk a little bit more about how it works and what it entails. Generally, participants form groups of about 2-5 individuals, depending on the amount of people in attendance. These events get right down to the business of collaboration to solve the problem at hand. But there are usually training workshops for newcomers and all participants who want to learn more. Hackathons are open to people with all levels of knowledge and skills to contribute, including beginners. These events function on a principle of teamwork and integration- a mentality that hopefully translates more and more to the real world.
Hackathons are Valuable Business and Technology Tools
If you’re a business owner or event planner, you may be wondering how exactly hackathon events can be professionally useful to you. That’s a good question. If they’re executed well, these events can help your company take on a leadership role in your community and/or industry. Hackathon events are much more than training conferences that provide your employees with the knowledge and skills they need to stay on the cutting edge of your industry. Although there is much organized learning involved, these events are meant to utilize every member’s unique applications of talents, skills, and knowledge to come up with new, creative ways to get things done- or solve problems more effectively.
In order to host the most effective hackathon event for your business, you’ll want a solid attendance of local technical/expert talent.
How do hackathon events directly make money? Another good question. They don’t- but they do build stronger teams and goodwill across communities and industries, which has countless benefits that stretch far into the future.
The bottom line: The benefits reaped from your hackathons depends on the culture of them. We advise taking any sense of competition out of the framework- even friendly competition. Although contests can incentivize employees to perform at their best during business projects, event promotions, and the like, a competitive mentality hinders learning in a hackathon setting. If there competition among attendees, their focus will be personal gain, not teamwork. As a business hosting a hackathon event, your goal is to inspire your team and community members to tap into each other’s strengths and skills, and learn from them. The idea is not to compete against one another; it’s for everyone to put their heads together to try out new, creative strategies and solutions.
Why is it Important to Attend Hackathons?
In just about any situation, strengthening the community means improving relationships, gaining new knowledge and skills that benefits individuals, and improving the ease and quality of life for everyone. If you’re an old pro at hackathon events, be welcoming to newcomers. We can’t stress the importance of this enough. We human beings are creatures of habit to an extent, and opening ourselves up to new people, ideas, and ways of doing things can be scary. But think about it. The worst that can happen is that you don’t like the ideas that evolve between your community and its new members- if that’s the case, then don’t adopt them personally.
You may be wondering: Yeah, but what if the people I’ve been working with over a long period of time agree with the newcomers about everything- and I don’t? What if letting new people and ideas in ruins old strategies that work?
If you’re thinking along those lines, you’re on exactly the right track, and halfway to understanding the personal and community value of hackathon events. Whether we fully acknowledge it or not, all areas of life are in a constant state of flux and evolution. (Stay with us- we’re not trying to go too far down a philosophical path here). But the saying, “The only thing that is constant is change” applies to all of us professionally and personally. It applies to every industry, hobby, and community out there.
The point is not necessarily to throw away the tried and true; most communities and industries have developed certain standards on solid foundations and want to work within those frameworks. However, it’s also important to integrate the new.
Creative industries take special note here. All industries are constantly evolving, leaving room for growth and advancement. But in creative industries, there are often many ways to do the same thing. Take event promotions, for example. Our last blog post was all about fresh, creative ways to put your own unique spin on the standard marketing strategies for events; yes, we all rely on social media, email marketing, and tech personalization to promote events. But the question is, how do we do that? Do we just include the names and photographs of keynote speakers on our website and social media, or do we create unique, interactive experiences that build relationships with attendees? Can we include signed book copies by speakers who’ve written popular books? Can we create Podcasts for free, or are sponsored ones better? How can we try out new technology before we create an event that is reliant on them?
The possibilities of hackathon events for event planners are endless. You can even use space at these events to demonstrate certain strategies, role play, or gauge the use of space for event themes.
Hackathon events have unique benefits for tech startups and other entrepreneurs as well: If you’re either a new startup or business owner or thinking of becoming one, hackathons give you direct exposure to your industry. Also, improving your API means exposing it to real life circumstances and observing how well it functions. Hackathons give your company the time and space it needs to do the kind of hands-on troubleshooting you need, with the help of a room full of developers. The feedback you get is direct and functional; it’s not just a group of professionals brainstorming over coffee.
Key Goals to Keep in Mind When Hosting (or Participating In) a Hackathon
This may sound simple, but it applies universally to companies and participants: The structure of a hackathon should always provide practical means by which participants to learn something new about the subject. Include workshops for training purposes, but always provide ample space and time for participants to work together to solve problems they’re interested in.
Keep your expectations realistic. Although it’s a good idea to keep general goals in mind, try not to specify them too narrowly. It’s perfectly natural and okay if no problems have actually been solved by the end of the hackathon. Most problems explored during hackathon events don’t have simple solutions and take time to solve. Sometimes there may be no definitive answers to the questions you’re asking, and that’s okay, too- as long as you learn something along the way and apply that information in real life. The real take-home value is knowledge and experience.
Also, remember that welcoming newcomers is about more than being positive and open-minded (although that’s probably the most important thing). However, it’s also essential that you provide newcomers with the kind of guidance they need to begin. Imagine walking into a large room where groups are huddled together in conversation, and you feel like one of the only ones standing alone. (This may or not be the case, but everyone feels like this the first time they enter a hackathon or any similar learning environment).
Even if you do happen to already have a lot of knowledge (and at least some degree of confidence in the unique skills you have to offer), you don’t know where to go or how to begin. That’s why it’s important to have some system that integrates new arrivals upon their entrance. You can start by asking them one general question: What do you hope to learn today/tonight? Based on their response, guide them (or appoint some of your own team members to guide them) to a project. Then help them figure out how they can get started helping.
Remember, if individuals don’t feel they have a solid, concrete task to do, they’ll feel lost in the crowd and leave. When hackathon events function well, they present opportunities for brand visibility and exposure to target audiences. That’s what makes them such a strong asset to experiential marketers, including event planners. Hackathons provide interactive experiences in real time. They’re a great chance for your customer base to get to know you and each other. The industry and community-building possibilities are infinite.
Give Yourself Adequate Planning Time
Typically, you’ll need anywhere between a month to two months to plan your hackathon. When you sit down to develop your subject matter, consider the materials you’ll need, and the amount of time setup will take. Our advice? Take the safe road and overestimate the amount of time it will take- don’t underestimate.
Choose Your Theme Wisely
Choosing a theme isn’t rocket science, but you do want to pick a specific one for your event. For example, is yours a corporate hackathon dedicated to testing the use of a new technology in the context of various applications? If you’re a company, it’s generally a good rule of thumb to avoid relating your theme specifically to your company. In other words, don’t name the hackathon after your company, and don’t make the content specific to your company, either. You want broader horizons than that, so keep the focus on benefiting your community or industry. This is not a time to advertise or leverage your products and services, although you can certainly use them to help problem-solve.
Secure a Venue and Sponsorships
Okay, we understand you may not be able to swing sponsorship, but for the obvious purposes of gaining more exposure and expertise at your event, you should at least try. Try using a tiered approach in which you provide the biggest rewards to sponsors who help the most. If you can’t afford to pay sponsors the kind of money that will get them flocking to you in droves, don’t worry. You can offer free products, services, promotions, experiences, networking opportunities, or just about anything of considerable value to sponsors. Again, the recurring theme here is teamwork and community building.
As for a venue, you’ve likely got several options in the surrounding cities near you. In New York, General Assembly is a common hackathon venue, but Microsoft, Google, Spotify, and other major corporations also have ideal locations.
Market Your Event to the Fullest
Don’t hesitate to reach out the local press when promoting your hackathon event, but social media is also one of the most powerful tools at your disposal- often even more powerful and far-reaching than the press, especially if you have moderate to large followings on Twitter and Instagram. Keep your eye out for influencers who can put the word out about your hackathon event and reach thousands more potential attendees than you could on your own. In return, offer to promote and leverage their networks. Even if you’re just starting out, don’t worry that you don’t have anything of value to offer. Influencers can always benefit from broadening their networks, and your followers/customer base is a unique audience with a lot to offer.
Now that we’ve covered the basics and most of the bases, hopefully you’ve got an idea of how to get started planning your own hackathon event- or what you can get out of participating in one. Not only are there countless personal and community benefits to these events, but they’re typically a lot of fun, too.