How to win any hackathon — and why they’re important

war games

UPDATE 2/2: Two great responses to this post worth checking out. First here, then here.

Hackathons serve five main purposes in the world:

  1. To get the host(s) some combination of recognition and/or money (i.e., from sponsors).*
  2. To get participants some combination of jobs, investors, friends and/or co-founders.
  3. To provide enjoyable challenges in a community setting that help people learn new skills — while having fun!
  4. To help sponsors (and hosts in some cases) lure developers into trying their awesome tools — and providing feedback on them through challenges/contests (think a Twilio award for the best use of their API).
  5. To help companies find developers to join their companies (think Google puts up a prize around wearable computing because they are looking to hire developers who are passionate about this space).

That’s why these events are thriving: they provide a massive amount of value for everyone involved.

[ * Important side note: We do not make any money from our events — we simply break even (or sometimes lose a bit). ]

On February 27th, 28th, and March 1st we will be hosting the 4th LAUNCH Hackathon — right before the LAUNCH Festival (which takes place on March 2-4th).

My goal for these events? Inspire folks to create startups that I can be the first investor in.  That’s my job: take the most risk on the youngest startups — but get the best valuation!

How to win any hackathon (including LAUNCH)

Having hosted hackathons a bunch of times I’ve seen a serious pattern: the wow-factor of the demo drives who wins — not who solved the hardest technical challenge or wrote the best code.

The best demo wins — almost always!

[ Click to Tweet: I’m reading @jason’s advice on how to win a hackathon! (can edit before sending): ]

Some teams spend 99% of their time on their product and 1% on their demo. You should stop work every six hours and stand up and do your demo. This way, by the end of the hackathon you’ve done at least five or six rehearsals.

What makes a great demo? Well, I actually spend a lot of time coaching companies to demo their products. In fact, I “coached” (I use that lightly) Mint, Dropbox, Yammer, Fitbit, TrueCar  and countless other startups that launched at the Festival. What works in their demos is what works at a hackathon, with one small caveat: at a hackathon you should use the latest, most buzzworthy technology.

So, if you were going to a hackathon in 2007 you might see a lot of facial recognition projects, and in 2009 everything would center around an iPhone. In 2010 the iPad, 2012 3D printers, and in 2013 Google Glass.

What’s hot today? Well, obviously things like drones/quadcopters, the iWatch/smart watches, VR (Oculus), AR, and artificial intelligence.

Most of those things are very physical, which translates into good for the stage and screen. They all have a massive wow factor but lack use cases.

You can take anything that has worked in the past couple of years and just layer the new technology onto them and think, “how could this be better?” Then do the best thing you can think of.

Now you’re in the running!

But to win you need to bundle two or three of these technologies together! So, if I were going to lead a team I would take the Apple Watch simulator, a quadcopter, and AR to figure out what to do.

Creatively, I would ask, “how can these fit together?” Well, the quadcopter could follow the Apple Watch wherever it goes. So now I’ve got a quadcopter following me. That’s doable for a developer in two days, I’m guessing.

Then I would have the quadcopter use facial recognition to put people’s names over their faces from a database. So on the VR or AR headset or glasses, you would have the video from the drone as it’s doing facial recognition of the crowd.

The crowd would go wild when they see a name pop up over some folks — even just one person. This project has that “dystopian policing but fighting terrorists with a slash of Terminator” in it — an insane mashup of the now.

Of course, I could see the business case for all this as well: “We are going to make software that makes quadcopters highly effective at policing. So, we might be able to find a person in a crowd, or look for packages that are being dropped in real time — and possibly avoid another Boston bombing.”

That’s one hell of a demo!

In my opinion the teams that crush it mash things up and they have a killer designer/UX person on their team to make the interface look slick (not too slick, just clean).

How hackathons work

  1. Around 200 teams, of typically four folks, start on Friday afternoon (Feb 27th) at 1:00 PM.
  2. These teams optimally consist of three developers and one UX/designer.
  3. At our hackathon we don’t let in “business people” — we only allow verified developers (by checking their code) and verified UX/designers.
  4. Why no business people? Because they have nothing to do at these events and wind up bothering folks. If you’re a business person, the “startup weekend” competitions are really the best for you.
  5. The goal of our hackathon is for the teams to build something cool in 48 hours.
  6. On Sunday March 1 folks finish their code at 1:00 PM and we do three hours of judging.
  7. Judging consists of two people (typically one product/design and one technical) hearing the pitch from the team leader, asking questions and taking notes. These visits take 10 minutes and judges will review a dozen teams.
  8. Judges give these projects scores. Some folks do a 1 to 10 score overall, others do a 1 to 10 score based on multiple criteria (technical achievement, product vision, design) and average it.
  9. The top 15 projects get to present on stage for 90 seconds each, take one question, and move on. So, we can do stage judging in under 90 minutes.
  10. The top five projects are determined by the final judges (including me). They get to go on the main stage at the LAUNCH Festival on March 4th in front of thousands of folks!
  11. We award 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, as well as a bunch of prizes from our partners.
  12. I will offer to invest $100k in those five — if they want to start a company (it’s not a cash prize, some members of the team must commit to building a company). It could be $25k each to 4 startups or $100k in one. Some might be invited into the LAUNCH Incubator spring class. This is all pending due diligence (i.e., you didn’t steal the code, you’re not a criminal, etc.).
  13. If folks don’t take the investment I will meet with other teams who want to do a startup or join the incubator. There is no cash prize — only an investment in a corporate entity that you would start after the event.
  14. There is no alcohol at the event, and it goes without saying that anyone doing drugs at the event will be quickly escorted out. This is a professional event, not a party!
  15. There will be food the entire time.
  16. We will be open 24 hours per day; it might get chilly since we’re on a pier.
  17. You can go home and come back.
  18. You cannot bring guests — sorry!
  19. There will be no press.
  20. If you make a product for developers, or you are there trying to hire folks, you cannot come as a team and use participation in the hackathon as a way to circumvent the sponsorships we desperately need to run the event. I know, I know, it sounds crazy that someone would do this — but they have! And we kicked them out!

If you want to bring a team to the hackathon, hurry up, because we have 500 of 800 already — and we will close applications this week.

UX/designers: apply here –

If you want to market at the event, email and we will have you put up a prize or host a meal. We run our events at a break-even, so sponsorships at the hackathon start at only $5,000.

I’m a huge fan of hackathons, and I’ve found a ton of team members, investments, and partners at them — I really can’t recommend them enough.

all the best, @jason