Five Ways to Make Your Hackathon Stand Out

This guest post comes from Brian Koles, Business Development Manager at ChallengePost. Brian is a startup junkie and frequent technology columnist.

This is the second installation of an ongoing “Developer Evangelist Playbook” series in partnership with ChallengePost. Part one covered the API Developer Outreach Checklist.

The popularity of hackathons shows no sign of slowing. As software makers increasingly seek opportunities for camaraderie and creative expression, all types of organizations are planning to host events that keep their cause or product at the forefront of innovation. We estimate that there were around 350 hackathons in the U.S. in 2012, and that there will be roughly twice as many in 2013. Given this proliferation, hackathon organizers are wise to understand that their event is likely competing for the attention of local software developers.

How can you make your hackathon stand out from the crowd and attract the most talented people in your area? Here are a few ideas:

1. Have a compelling goal or theme

Many hackers are attracted to the idea of applying their skills in a more meaningful way than is afforded by their day-to-day work. Clearly stating that “We’re gathering smart, positive people to solve X problem” will rally the hackathon community to participate and recruit team members. If the hackathon is focused around a cause (e.g. autism or world hunger), don’t assume your attendees will be subject matter experts. They’ll likely come to learn as much as to contribute, so provide resources (and ideally, experts) to help participants understand the issues. After all, you can only solve a problem that you understand.

2. Focus on “ User Experience

Reputation matters, so make sure that your event is known for delivering a fantastic experience, not just a Wi-Fi connection and sponsor swag. Think about how people will travel to and from the venue, check in, get comfortable, find teammates and access all the resources they’ll need to do their best work -- all while having fun. We’ve prepared a guide to Essential Hackathon Dos and Don’ts (PDF) to help with getting those important details right. (Bonus points for varied, delicious and fresh food -- remember, you’re better than cardboard pizza!)

3. Provide a web presence to showcase what happened

Software makers attend hackathons for a variety of reasons: some are looking to network or learn new skills, while others may be looking to create a new business. Others yet are just looking to use their talents in a fun environment. However, one thing that all attendees have in common is that they want recognition for their work. Maybe they’ll include it in a portfolio of their work, or somebody else will be attracted to a project and help it live on and grow. So providing teams with an easily accessible web presence frees them from having to build one from scratch in the midst of everything else they’re sprinting to accomplish, and creates a gallery of achievements for everyone to celebrate -- especially the host. Plus, the Platform can help with event registration, team formation, answering questions and communicating event updates.

4. Pick an exciting venue

As British Airways recently showed, having a unique venue (oh, say -- a trans-Atlantic flight!) can really make your hackathon stand out. StartupBus is another great example, and Spotify (with partners) is organizing a hackathon alongside a music festival in Sweden. Again, it’s all about the experience. While you may not have access to a jet or bus fleet, think hard about finding a venue that’ll make your hackathon unique. Let’s face it -- nobody gets excited about spending the weekend in some nondescript conference center, ballroom or cubicled office space.

5. Offer prizes that money can’t buy

Cash, licensing credits and gadgets are all nice, but they’re also pretty common. Think about what you can offer to software makers that they couldn’t (or likely wouldn’t) obtain on their own. Maybe it’s an exclusive experience, like the recent Publishing Hackathon that offered winners a breakfast meeting with Ari Emanuel, Co-CEO of global talent and literary agency, William Morris Endeavor. Or possibly a trip or custom-fitted purchase they’re unlikely to spring for, or even know about. If you have strings, pull them. Make people feel like a big deal.

Remember, the best hackathons enable good people to do great work together, and then really celebrate that work. Happy hacking!

Be sure to read the next Best Practices article: PW Interview : Brandon Wirtz CTO