Hackathons, the Ultimate Experience

Looking for a creative way to engage millennials? Host a hackathon.

Wait, what's a hackathon?

Hack·a·thon - an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.
— Dictionary.com

A great example of a hackathon that engages business folks, developers and designers is Startup Weekend. Here are 10 lessons I learned during my first Startup Weekend (which just so happened to be the Women's Edition hosted by Chic Geek) back in November 2013. 

10 Lessons Learned from Startup Weekend

Originally written by Jenn Egroff for the Calgary Herald blog on November 12, 2013

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Startup Weekend brings together designers, developers, engineers, business managers, marketing gurus, startup enthusiasts and more to create startups. Anyone is welcome to pitch their startup idea and receive feedback from their peers on Friday evening. 

SWYYC Women's Edition

Teams organically form around the top ideas (as determined by popular vote) and then it’s a 54 hour frenzy of business model creation, coding, designing, and market validation. The teams show off their newly launched startups on Sunday evening and the top 3 receive some amazing prizes.

Here are 10 short and sweet lessons I learned over the weekend:


1. Designate a project manager from the get-go and define your methods of communication.

Luckily, we had a project manager who stepped up and started us off. We added everyone to a Google Drive folder and created a comprehensive Google Doc to keep track of everything. We used a communication tool that everyone was familiar with, and could get the job done quick and simple.


2. Work backwards.

30 minutes into our initial discussion, our project manager interrupted our noisy chatter and asked: what’s the end goal? We stopped talking over and around one another and actually listed out our personal goals/expectations as well as went over the judging criteria in as much detail as possible. We created a road map.


3. Divide and conquer.

The first 45 minutes were rough. I honestly thought to myself, “Oh boy. I’ve never lead a team this big. I have no idea what I’m doing.” It was a nightmare trying to collaborate as a team of 9, especially with very different thinking mentalities – engineering, design, development, marketing, and finance backgrounds.

We roughed our way through a hypothesis to the problem and then quickly divided the team based on skill set: Development/design; Business modelling and finance; and Customer validation/marketing.


4. Validate, validate, validate.

All of our features and pricing model were based on market research with our target audience. We knew it would be the key to our success so we focused our attention on it from the start. We created an online survey, approached strangers at a busy location where we knew our target audience would be and intimately interviewed 10 potential customers. It helped us paint a clearer picture of the problem we were trying to solve and how we were going to solve it (and make money doing so!).


5. Check in with your teammates.

Dividing and conquering and having a project manager to keep track of it all is great, but it’s so important to check in with your teammates. I constantly asked if they were still having fun (one of their personal goals for the weekend) and how they were feeling. Sure this is touchy-feely and didn’t contribute to hard development, but it helped us become a unified team.


6. Take advantage of free advice, but be specific in your ask.

We specifically requested 2 marketing coaches who were members of our target audience. We interviewed them and got testimonials, then dove into the business model. The development team requested a great coach near the end of Day 2, who showed them a Wordpress theme that would make development a whole lot easier. It wasn’t that easy to transition to, but it paid off in the end and our developers learned A LOT about customizing Wordpress themes.


7. Show your team you trust them. Don’t micromanage.

I caught myself doing it on the first night. (I literally started typing on someone else’s computer, then shamed myself). Take a leap of faith and let them take a stab at delivering. Then give them your feedback.


8. Laugh. Have fun.

When I walked by some of the groups to grab lunch, they looked so serious. We were a ‘punny’ group, and I highly encouraged any and all silliness. During crunch time, a teammate and I looked at a ‘Makes me Giggle’ Pinterest page for a minute, had a (really) good laugh, and then got back to work.

Shauna Casey, Startup Weekend facilitator from Seattle, (left) and Alice Reimer, CEO of Chaordix (right) discussing the pitches.

Shauna Casey, Startup Weekend facilitator from Seattle, (left) and Alice Reimer, CEO of Chaordix (right) discussing the pitches.

9. Be authentic.

Alice Reimer, Co-founder of Evoco, now CEO of Chaordix, gave an inspirational talk on pitching and one of her key points was to be authentic. You could tell she lived and breathed it, and she was truly inspiring. The final pitches that grabbed my attention (and stopped me from glancing at the #swyyc Twitter feed), were the ones where the founder was clearly passionate about the idea and it showed in their eyes.


10. Take care of your body: Hydrate.  Eat well. And sleep, somewhat.

Drinking lots of water = lots of bathroom breaks = getting out of your chair for a brief burst of exercise. #Winning.

Don’t just stock up on the sugary treats and salty snacks. Eat lots of fruit, veggies, and get your protein. Thankfully one of our team members brought a 2lb bag of apples everyday. My dentist will be happy with the results.

Sleep is also really important. However, I can’t say I did much of it. I was running on pure adrenaline when I finished my pitch on Sunday evening. Yes, I may have laughed more than usual, but I was ok for the most part.

Startup Weekends or hackathons in general are great ways to build community, learn new skills, and give folks an experience they'll never forget. 

Do you have experiences participating in hackathons that you'd like to share? What made them memorable for you?