A Complete Step-by-Step Guide On How To Run A Corporate Hackathon With Actual Results

What is a hackathon?

As a broad definition, a hackathon is a creative problem-solving process which takes place within a well-organized event; people are elected into groups of 2-5 people and they start diving into the problem-solving process. Worth mentioning is the fact that some or most hackathons also run parallel workshops for beginners and other interested parties.

While hackathons thrive on competitiveness and might drive a wedge between participants, it’s important -as an organizer- to set healthy and realistic expectations which means having a solid competitive structure with set rules.

If you promote and keep in mind to develop a healthy attitude between participants, then you’ll most likely succeed at organizing a successful and productive hackathon. So, to instill a sense of community you might want to consider the following tips:

• Properly welcome newcomers into the community.
• Create an opportunity for everyone who is participating to learn something new.
• Provide the necessary space and time for them to solve the problems they are most interested in.

Last but not least, don’t make the mistake of having or instilling unrealistic expectations. While some issues can be solved during a hackathon, not every problem can be solved by the end of it. Therefore, don’t think of a hackathon as a terminal point, rather look at it as a temporary stop on a long and complex journey.

Why hackathons are great

While some people prefer to work on their own, having the ability to work harmoniously with others is considered an essential attribute of most successful entrepreneurs and employees. Even if it might not seem like an attractive idea to some, most of the time people prove great efficiency in working with other people, so teamwork is often seen as a success factor.

So naturally, hackathons are a great place for people from different educational backgrounds to come together and be creative. A granted exposure can benefit creative minds immensely and can often build lifetime friendships.

So, yes, hackathons do matter and are a great source of inspiration, cultivating and expanding the genius side of every participant.

The benefits of organizing internal hackathons:

Internal hackathons do have their advantages and they’re not insignificant:

• Crowdsourcing valuable ideas from your company’s talent pool.
• Instilling company values and cultures
• Getting to assess the company’s employee skills, teamwork, work ethic, creativity, certain abilities, etc.
• Keep everyone engaged by having them focus on dynamic learning.
• Develop a dynamic and flexible work environment.
• Recruit new people who have the right skills and professional attitude
Among the ones mentioned above we’d also like to point out the fact that an internal hackathon also:
• Promotes inspiration.
• Improves business.
• Fosters amazing team building.
• Will help you to build a great team of entrepreneurs.
What are the main principles of organizing a hackathon if any?
According to the Hackathon Guide, the following principles should be applied:
• Projects should have a clear scope and a reasonable solution for the stated challenges;
• It’s important to understand that most projects may accomplish only about 25% of what they think they can accomplish during a hackathon.
• There should be specific project tasks for newcomers who own a variety of skills and skill levels.
• The subject matter expert needs to guide the project to real-world relevance.
• For projects that have four or more members, especially if they have newcomers, the project leader will need to properly coordinate by ensuring each team member has something to work on and also help newcomers with certain tasks.

Tips and Tricks for organizing a hackathon or a company hackathon:

Setting goals and expectations

As you may have read earlier, the first thing that needs to be done is setting and pitching the challenge, so basically setting a clear/reasonable scope.
If you think that there’s isn’t a lot that could go wrong, we beg to differ. Because a lot can go wrong.

Just to give you an example, my cousin who attended a hackathon that was hosted in a location with a poor cell phone and wifi coverage ended up leaving along with most of the participants in the first hour. This is a horrific scenario for any company who thinks about organizing a hackathon.

Of course, there are also less extreme examples such as inexperienced teams, participants with poor skills, poor attendance, projects that are more or less relevant, delays, etc.

„Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” – Tony Robbins

The quote is pretty straightforward, right? And while it might sound painfully obvious, it’s true. One of the main goals of a hackathon is also to resolve some issues or dilemmas that your company might be facing, so acknowledging these issues and preparing a plan by setting goals will take you from the invisible to something visible and worthwhile.

What most hackathon organizers don’t understand is that you need a solid system if you want to succeed. So to avoid such a fiasco you need to ask yourself some pertinent questions.
These are powerful questions that might make or break your chance to organize a successful hackathon to help take your company to the next level:

• Are you looking for new innovations to associate your brand with?
• Are you looking for new talent to fill technical roles?
• Do you need someone to take care of an important business challenge?

Think about it, an innovation hackathon is a great prize for anyone participating and if your participants understand this, then you’re halfway through.

How much should a hackathon last?

While there isn’t a set standard on how much a hackathon should last, it’s important to remember that keeping people excited and productive is more important. So don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

If you’re tempted to organize a 24-hour event, especially for a corporate hackathon try to limit your time to an 8-10 hour event. You should especially consider this tip if you find it hard to gather a certain number of participants.

While longer hackathons are OK for students, most employees who have a lot of responsibility or personal issues might pass.

If you’re looking to make this a team-building event, make it shorter on a regular, paid workday which in turn will get a bigger participation rate.

Also, allow employees more time, so it isn’t a bad idea to do the event on a Friday and allowing people to work as much as they want without stressing that they have to. Employees who are truly excited about this hackathon won’t mind working from home for example, if there’s a deadline on Sunday.

In a nutshell, you get both motivated tech fans and 9-to-5 programmers to participate together and create something that can truly change the company’s core. A coding competition usually rises great interest and it’s very exciting.

So make sure the projects instill excitement and a challenge at the same time. We promise you that employees who are truly passionate about what they do won’t pass on this challenge to prove their worth to you and to themselves as professionals.

Promoting cognitive diversity between teams

Basically, cognitive diversity refers to the fact that people have different perspectives in the way they see and process information. So, when people harness different behaviors and thought processes great things emerge.

A study performed by the Harvard Business Review observed six different teams while solving a problem. Three teams were cognitively diverse, while the other three were less diverse.

The results suggested that the groups with cognitive diversity had the best performance when needing to solve a challenge.

In short, if you have a group of people where everyone has similar preferences, there will little space for a creativity war, so team members will likely to go down the same path and kill any creative spur.

Obviously, this is not what you want when you’re considering organizing a hackathon. What you actually want are constructive discussions, different perspectives, basically a genius idea!

While it can be a bit challenging to look for cognitive diversity in employees or other people who might be participating, it’s worth knowing this fact because you might have the resources to look into it and have an incredibly productive hackathon.

However, to help you further, you should check out Emergenetics, who developed a simple solution to help identify the pattern on how people think and behave. So, with this information at hand, it will be incredibly easy for you to create cognitively diverse teams if you’re considering it.

Who should or can participate?

In a nutshell, anyone can participate. However, if you’re thinking of expanding beyond your team and invite other people there are some things that are imperative to consider. So, one of the hardest things might be welcoming newcomers and helping them blend and get involved in the hackathon.

Helping newcomers feel like “they belong”

Not as surprising, most newcomers may also suffer from “imposter syndrome”, which means that may feel inadequate or not good enough to solve the problems at hand. But this is not true, it’s understanding they might feel like a fish out of water but until they feel like they belong it might be tougher on them than on most.

Also, bear in mind that it’s the organizer’s responsibility to help them come to the conclusion that they are indeed a valuable asset and they do have something to contribute.

Aside from this pressing issue, it’s important to note that first-time hackathon participants might feel stressed or overwhelmed about finding the right project to work on.

This may happen because they don’t know or understand their own skills well enough to help them relate to the right project. Understanding how to be of use is also an important skill.

Therefore, you might need to guide them to the right project for them to realize how they can contribute effectively.

Making sure everyone has “something” to do

With newcomers, it’s important to be very organized because if too many of them find themselves without a project or a purpose they might leave, so this is something that you should avoid entirely.

The organizer’s main responsibility is to make sure that each participant has a project to work on and they feel useful. An effective way to do this is to compile a list of project managers. They can be people you know so they can help each participant find something they enjoy doing and something they can use their skill on.

Also, make sure that the projects you’re developing for the hackathon are something that newcomers can handle well. However, you can also organize non-project activities such as workshops, which are definitely easier for newcomers to join.

Planning and budget

How much does organizing a hackathon cost? It could well go up to $30,000 or more. Here’s a self-explanatory expense sheet – courtesy of yourideasareterrible.com that you might find very useful.

But let’s take it step by step, shall we?

Venue

You have two major options: you can either use the space owned by your company or you can rent a venue – whichever is more feasible for you. You could find a free venue to host the hackathon, but we believe it’s always best to pay for one because then there are no hidden issues and you don’t want to risk anything that could compromise the entire event.

As long as you pay for something, you will be treated as a paying customer and what you get will be worth the money spent.

It’s important to note that most venues may not be able to offer everything you need to pull off a successful hackathon, so make sure to factor in the additional cost. Make sure the venue has everything you need to make everyone feel comfortable to work.

During the hackathon, all you want is for you and your team to spend time developing and generate great products and not worry about things like cleaning and maintenance. So, make sure the venue has liaisons available to properly manage an event.

The venue fee should also include any liaison or cleaning crew fees. Which means that normally, the cleaning team should clean and pick up everything after every meal, and add 3-5 bathroom refreshes per day, and also help with post-event cleaning.

Hiring professional security

While no one is expecting to witness unwanted altercations, sometimes things heat up and accidents happen. We’re sure we’ve mentioned this before but prevention is key. It’s always best to plan ahead in order to avoid unpleasant surprises.

A lot of things can happen during a hackathon, so be vigilant. Most likely you won’t need to apply „force” but you need a professional team to prevent the worst especially if the event takes place during the night.

Buying/renting audio and visual equipment

While most venues are able to offer visual/video equipment, it’s best to make sure from the start. If they don’t, don’t worry, you can simply buy or rent the needed equipment.

If you’re thinking of organizing multiple events a time, for example, a workshop, you should consider acquiring additional audio/video equipment in a separate room so it doesn’t distress other participants who are not attending the workshop and are only there for the hackathon.

It’s also a good idea to buy extra HDMI and VGA cables/adapters just to be safe. Last but not least, make sure you have enough wireless microphones for people who need to speak during the events. It will be less bothersome.

Order custom t-shirts

Having custom t-shirts at a hackathon is awesome and it makes everyone look and feel like they belong to an exclusive community. Remember what we said about beginners and how it’s difficult for hem to feel like they belong?

Anyway, make sure that you order good quality t-shirts, don’t go for the cheap stuff. You want people to feel good and proud of them. Every detail counts.

Giveaways

If you decide to follow our advice and not go for the cheaper t-shirts, then you clearly can’t offer cheap prizes. If you’re thinking of getting off easy and just offer cash prizes, we strongly advise you against it. Why? If you really think about it, cash prizes have no sentimental value and they don’t portray the theme of the hackathon. So, cash prizes are a no-no.

Speaking of themed prizes, depending on what your hackathon is about, consider offering cool gadgets like drones, 3D printers, VR sets, a high-tech laptop, anything that would excite the contestants. Offer the participants something they would truly enjoy winning. This will surely ignite a lot of motivation and excitement.

Hardware supplies

Hardware supplies are mostly needed for hardware hackathons, but we’ve decided to add them to this list either way. So if this is something you’re considering then we’d like to suggest asking the participants what they need exactly and then order everything online. Amazon and Mouser.com are a great place to start.

It’s also a good idea to tell the participants what they need to bring with them. It’s not unusual for hackathons to ask them to bring their own cables or monitors.
Double-check the Wifi

Nothing can ruin a hackathon than faulty wireless connections. After all, that’s where all the good stuff happens – online. Make sure the venue can offer an SLA of 60 MBs and don’t forget to test it yourself at fast.com. If the venue can’t commit make sure you buy pre-paid hotspots from companies like AT&T or Verizon.

Food for the soul

We’re here to bust the myth that hackers only survive on cold foods like burgers and pizzas and only drink caffeine or energy drinks. Sure, well all need a kick here and there, however, we suggest spending more on food and get healthier options for everyone to enjoy.

Another thing to consider is the fact that not everyone has the same dietary preferences, some might be vegetarians or vegans, so make sure that at least 15-25% of the food you’re ordering is vegan.

Promoting the hackathon

Of course, you need to spread the word and we all know that while promos are expensive, then don’t necessarily have to be. If you get a bit creative you can cut some corners and actually spend a decent amount on promotion without going overboard. We’ve made a small list with some great tips:

• Local people are gold. They know the community and promotion by word could still be the best one by far.
• Try contacting someone from the local community who runs meetups and ask them to give you a shout out.
• Be creative and create our own logo. It will save you a lot of back and forth.

Covering travel expenses for out of towners

If you have the means to cover or just partially cover travel expenses for participants who are coming in from out of town then that would be great. Some hackathons do this.

Budget again

This is just to remind you that it’s imperative to take note of what you can and can’t afford. Sit down with your team play with some numbers and see where they get you. If you can’t afford some things try to balance out other costs. Budgeting carefully is very important and it’s the core of any hackathon.

PROMOTING THE HACKATHON – HEAVY DUTY

The worst thing that can happen during a hackathon is finding out that people are not showing up and it’s just you with a gigantic pile of food. You need to avoid this nightmare at all cost. And we have a few tips that could help. The numbers go as follows:

100 participants – This is a great number to have. Of course, this also depends on your budget. But for the sake of this example, let’s assume you can afford to cater this number. With 100 participants you get a ton of cool things in return: cognitive diversity, various skill levels, different levels of experience which are all needed to create qualitative and successful projects.

200 participants – At 200 it’s safe to say that the dynamic of your event will dramatically change. This means that presentations will have to be shorter and demos might take too long. Nothing wrong with having 200 people, but things will drag themselves longer so some adjustments are needed to make sure everything remains fresh and entertaining.

However, if you find yourself below 50 participants, your hackathon might turn into an unproductive event and things will go downhill from there.

So, as you can see, the number of participants could make or break a hackathon. The magic number is between 60 and 100 depending on your hackathon’s goal.
What happens if people who registered don’t show up?

Sometimes things happen and people can’t make it. This is why we strongly recommend implementing a registration fee. It’s realistic to expect that 40% or more might not show up so you need to be prepared for that.

It’s also true that hackathons that charge a registration fee may have fewer participants, but the turnout rate will definitely be higher and it’s less unpredictable. So, we recommend implementing a hackathon fee just to be on the safer side of things.

Promoting the hackathon on a schedule

The earlier you start promoting your hackathon the better will be for you. People usually like to have the luxury to schedule their lives so if you start promoting it as early as possible people will less likely bail.
Start promoting the hackathon two or three months before. The reason you need to start as soon as you can is that the promotional outlets you’re using need time to get it in their content calendars. So basically you might only be left with 1 month of pure promotion.

Make your message clear

If you don’t have exceptional copywriting skills then we would suggest hiring someone to write a killer promotional message for your hackathon. You need to captivate people the moment they start reading. Keep it simple, clear and concise because brevity means efficiency.

Make sure to add every important detail like the location, time slots or even a simplified map if the location is tricky to find. Make sure you’re offering everything people need to locate you fast and easy.

We made a list to make things clearer:

• When and at what time the event takes place.
• What is the hackathon’s mission?
• Who is eligible to participate and don’t forget to be very specific.
• Specify if companies can participate.
• Lure them in with possible prizes and other fun surprises.
• How much do they need to pay? Any expenses at all? There should be no hidden costs – that’s simply unprofessional.
• Talk food and beverages.
• Intellectual property
• Requirements

You can use this list however you want just make sure it sounds very appealing. People usually want to feel like they’re gaining something when they go somewhere so make sure to be clear about that.

We’ve read a fun fact on the internet that women decide in the first 5 seconds if they want to be with a guy. So try to use this quirky piece of information to your advantage. Usually, people know what they want, your job is to keep them interested.

Other important necessities

When you’ve compiled your list with all that necessary things that need to be done make sure to repurpose your marketing strategy to win people over. Social media is a goldmine and we don’t need to tell you that you need to use it profusely to promote your hackathon.

Remember that:

Your tweets and emails need to lead to your website’s landing page so Keep it as simple as possible.

Don’t go overboard by creating an expensive website that might cost you thousands of dollars when you can use free platforms such as WordPress, Stripe, WIX.com, and more. We also recommend DevPost, an application that is free to use for hackathons.

The big day is finally here!

So, today is the day of the hackathon and you’re excited. You’ve done everything in your power to make sure all goes off without a hitch. Don’t be anxious. You’ve got this and everything will be perfect.

So here’s what you need to do next:

Arrive at the venue at least 2 hours before the event – trust us, time flies too fast – and check the following:

  • Confirm the food delivery
  • Make sure everything is in place.
  • Check if the wifi is working properly.
  • Check to see if everything is set up: chairs, tables, power cords, bathrooms, etc.
  • Connect everything – all electronics;
  • Set up the equipment.

Conclusion

We understand that sometimes it may seem impossible to organize and run the perfect hackathon – a lot can go wrong. But the important thing is to always prepare a checklist and take everything step by step to make sure that everything is in place and ready to go. We’ve compiled the best hackathon guide here to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Of course, surprises happen, things can go wrong, electronics can crash, however, we’ve made sure you have every backup possible so that won’t be the case.
If something goes wrong, just breathe and think of a quick solution, and we promise, everything will be fine!

Have you ever tried running a hackathon? How did it work out for you? Also, if you think there’s something we might have missed or you have some golden nuggets to share, please do!

Note: It’s important to stress that these tips work for any type of hackathon. The theme is irrelevant since every hackathon needs a venue, talented people, good food, a great wifi connection, and a groundbreaking goal. If you stay true to your goals, we promise that your hackathon will be a success!

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