The Quick-Start Guide To Running A Hackathon

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Hackathons are a beautiful thing. Dozens (or hundreds) of people gather together for a short period of time and create product that may otherwise have taken weeks (or not been created at all).

I've been to more hackathons than I can count, and I've organized a few more on top of that. It's not hard for a hackathon to go awry: coders end up running on caffeine and gumption alone, and tension is high as competitive juices flow. Without proper event planning and preparation, you could have an army of ticked-off devs at your neck. Or worse: the hackathon could fall flat in the planning stage and never happen at all.

I've begun to have people ask me what makes a successful hackathon. So I've created a quick guide for checking off what it takes to throw a successful hackathon:

8 Hackathon Must-Haves
1. Venue

You need a venue with a big open space that can hold a minimum of 50 people. That venue needs to be able to provide chairs, tables, power outlets, and preferably a variety of seating. Couches, office chairs, dining chairs, bean bags, etc. That venue needs to also be able to be available throughout the entire hackathon. Hotels, schools, convention centres, etc are all great examples of the kinds of facilities that work as good hackathon venues. If possible, having staff whose sole job is to go around and collect empties, dishes, recycling, trash, etc is very helpful and contributes to a productive atmosphere.

2. INTERNET

This is critical. There has to be wireless available at the event, able to hold up to 2.5x the number of participants, in active connections. This accounts for phones, tablets, second laptops, etc. The Achilles Heel of every bad hackathon I have been part of has been poor internet. Plan ahead for this.

3. A Theme

There needs to be a unifying theme for your hackathon. Something that is going to provide a base level against which all projects will be weighed. This isn't a judging rubric, it's a theme that all participants are aware of, able to relate to, and can build towards. (Examples: Saving energy, hacking transportation, NASA dataset usage, API Mashup, social good, Worst App Ideas)

4. Prize

As much as I hate to say it, there needs to be an incentive to the participants to get involved. It CAN be the warm fuzzy feeling of doing a good job, but at the end of the day, it has to be something that overcomes the compromise of spending your time coding instead of sitting at home and watching Netflix.

5. Nourishment

There needs to be access to some kind of nourishment, whether it is meals (best), snacks (pretty good), and absolutely there has to be a steady stream of something to drink. Don't do alcohol. That's a bad idea. Never drink and hack.

6. Mentors

You're attracting smart people, but smart people get stuck. Fatigue sets in, tunnel vision kicks in, and you stop seeing obvious problems. Having a roving band of equally smart people who are willing to provide a voice of reason, a second set of eyes, or just listen to someone rant are necessary.

7. Judges

Get an odd number of odd people to be your judges. They don't have to be media luminaries, or industry titans. They have to be people who can evaluate the worthiness of a product. Ideally at least one of them is credibly associated with the theme. If you are doing environmental science, then get an environmental scientist. If you are doing social media, then get a community manager, etc. You always want an odd number so that you don't have a tie when judging.

8. Volunteers

You'll need people to help with all facets of the event. Someone to help answer questions, organize people, handle registration, answer the phone, answer e-mails, plan, design, all facets of the event planning and execution process. Your event will fail without these.

Planning the event

Sponsors

Secure sponsors. The less you have to pay for, the better it is. Sponsors love to be involved, and it's a great way to provide some extra tech and swag to the participants. A title sponsor, a technical sponsor, a food sponsor, a prize sponsor, a location/venue sponsor, an internet sponsor; all of these are ways to get companies involved. In order to have the best success in getting them involved, don't just cold call them. Leverage your networks whenever possible, and put together a promotional PDF that talks about:

a) What the event is (talk about the theme) b) What they get out of sponsoring. Sponsors need to see that they're going to get media, an opportunity to speak, an opportunity to build their customer base. Talk about social media mentions, media opportunities, and presentation opportunities.

Once you have sponsors lined up, be in constant communication with them. Weekly status updates, reminders about upcoming contract dates, and notifications of each milestone in the process of putting together the event are necessary to ensure that the sponsor feels involved in the event. Once they sign on and become a sponsor, it's their event too. Keep them in the loop.

Timeline

Start a minimum of three to four months out.

If you don't have a venue, don't plan anything else. The venue is critical. Having sponsors, theme, and participants is pointless if you can't hold the hackathon anywhere!

By 6-8 weeks before the event, you should have all sponsorships secured, contracts signed, and start collecting checks from them.

Send out e-mails to your participants two weeks, one week, and one day before the event, reminding them of logistics. You should include details such as times, locations, dates, parking info, if a buzzer code is needed, and always a contact if they need to ask a question or have a concern.

Promotion

No later than four weeks before the event, start advertising the event and open registration. If you need/expect more than 100 registrations/participants, then this should be at six weeks before the event.

Create a web presence for the event, so that you can link people to details about theme, location, judges, and sponsorships.

Use a service like Eventbrite(good) or Picatic(best) for handling signups. Yes, it may be easy for you to build it yourself, but why? Leverage a service that is already set up to do what you want it to do.

Ultimately, remember that hackathons work because people like to build. Give people an opportunity to build great things, quickly, with a sense that it's for a good cause (either via theme OR prize) and you will have a good turnout and amazing things produced.

Want to seen Don's hackathon prowess in action? Come check out the charity-based Code It Forward hackathon on July 25th!