How to Host a Hackathon

Hackathons are becoming extremely popular nowadays.  They’re being used for education, small business initiatives, social purposes, as well as big-corporation product development.  In fact, MIT’s medical technology group recently held a hackathon with the intent to find solutions for infant deaths caused by breathing problems. NASA even holds an annual hackathon for earth and space technology.  If you’re planning on hosting a hackathon within your business, check out these Four Principles of Small Business Teaming – you’ll realize that a hackathon would be very beneficial to you and your coworkers for multiple reasons!

So, what exactly is a hackathon?  Hackathons are usually events held over a short period of time, 24-48 hours (although some can last up to a week), where a group of specialists get together to deliver a project.  Usually, a theme or task is assigned at the beginning of the hackathon that determines what the participants will be working towards.

Hosting a hackathon has tons of benefits and isn’t as hard as it may seem!  There is a decent amount of work involved, but it’s a great way to meet new people, collaborate with a team, and spark your innovation.  Hackathons are also a great way for small businesses to get a project done in a short period of time at a low cost.  The specifics of planning your hackathon will change depending on your purpose, but here are some quick tips to get started!

Step 1: Set a Plan

The key to a good hackathon is good planning.  There are a lot of variables to consider and you want your event to be tailored to your goals.  A good jumping-off point for all this information is to ask yourself why you’re hosting a hackathon.  What is your purpose for the event and what do you want, not only yourself, but your attendees to get out of it?  This will serve as the theme of your hackathon.

Part of this plan includes the demographics of participants you’re looking at.  Hackathons can include people of many different backgrounds, talents, and ages, even kids!  Coding for Kids has become increasingly popular over the past few years and is incredibly beneficial.  David Dodge, CEO of Codakid says,

“Hackathons are excellent ways for kids to learn how to work together while sparking their creativity and critical thinking!  There are plenty of Coding Languages for Kids out there and young people in the world are creating fantastic things.”

Once you’ve landed on a theme and targeted group, the next thing to consider is the date and time of your event.  You want to make sure you allow enough time for the project to be completed.  It’s also important to consider the best time your volunteers and participants will be available.  This means that scheduling on a big holiday weekend or close to a big travel time is not recommended.

Setting a plan also involves finding people to facilitate that plan.  Holding hackathons for small business would provide you with employees that are able to facilitate the event.  If you are putting on an event for the community, you need to find volunteers.  Make sure you decide on people whose personality can fuel the hackathon’s energy as well as being someone you can trust.  If you’re working with your business, this might be a great opportunity to explore The Mutual Benefits of Interns, people who are involved in your business but also have fresh perspectives.

Planning is crucial to seeing your hackathon turn out the way you want.  You want to be specific with details of your event and communicate those details effectively with your team.  Make sure everyone is on the same page and ready to go!

2. Find a Space

Finding the perfect location for your hackathon is probably the most important aspect, as well as being the element that takes the most time and consideration.  There are a few things you need to consider when finding space for your event.

1. How many people will be attending?

                 You need to accurately assess the population that you’re allowing into your event to properly book a good space.  If you have a small group of people attending, an office or classroom can suffice.  For medium or large groups, you may want to look at booking 3-4 conference rooms or an entire hall.  A good rule of thumb to follow is to make sure all your attendees can fit in one conference room – then give them additional space to work.

2. How will you decide who’s attending?

                 Will you be inviting specific people?  Do you plan on putting out a flyer for the entire community?  Are you screening applicants and then inviting them? Ultimately, you need to know how to be in control and aware of the number of people attending.  This includes people who will bail on the event last minute.

3. Does the location have all the amenities you require?

                 Be sure to consider the convenience of your guests.  Some hackathons require places for people to sleep.  Is your venue accommodating this, or is it at least close enough to people’s homes?  Is it conveniently located for people to find and does it have adequate parking?  Consider every detail.  Even ones as simple as a close place to get coffee, dependable WIFI, or having enough outlets.

You’ll want to book your location 2-3 months in advance to guarantee you’ll reserve the space.  We recommend always checking out the place in person so you know exactly what you’re getting.  There is a lot to consider when getting a space, but it’s worth it!

3. Spread the Word

The next step in hosting your hackathon is to invite participants!  In some cases, this could be an easier decision process than others.  If you’re working within a business then usually employees are participating.  If you’re an outside organization, or hosting for a competition, you may need a different strategy.  In either case, it’s important to nail down who and how many people you want to attend.

In order to find the best way to contact potential guests, decide on who exactly should be coming to your event.  Is your event specified to one craft?  Is it a community event?  Are you accepting applications nationwide?  Decide on how you’re going to control the number of people attending.  You want your teams to be even and the people attending to be qualified.  Also, consider that emergencies may come up and some people may end up not attending!

After, you can find ways to spread the word.  If you’re looking at people within your business’s community, putting an ad in your newsletter or on your company website is effective.  You can also take out an ad in your local newspaper or contact local news and radio to spread the word throughout your surrounding area.  If your event involves a specific niche, don’t be afraid to contact other companies or university departments directly.

You, of course, can’t hold a hackathon without participants.  Be sure to be courteous and clear when reaching out to people.  You want to be inviting, but also make sure there’s no confusion about the details.  Always leave your contact info when contacting people so they’re able to reach you with any questions.

4. Awards/Prizes

Hackathons can sometimes be hard to get through.  You work nonstop and hardly get any sleep.  A great way to boost morale is by setting goals for teams and giving out awards and prizes.

It’s not a necessity, but awards and prizes can add a lot to your hackathon.  They don’t have to be anything extravagant, just something to keep the momentum going.  It is easier for people to work efficiently if they feel encouraged.  Awards and prizes also add a competitive element that may fuel participants’ work efforts.

Awards are, of course, not a necessity, but they are a great addition to your event.  There’s a possibility they could even draw in more people!  Keep track of big advancements a team is making, or set points along a creation process for teams to hit.  Then, reward them for being the first to reach those goals.  We recommend awarding multiple small prizes along the way instead of one large prize at the end to keep the momentum going.

5. Make a Backup Plan

It is all of our worst nightmares; what if something goes wrong at the event?  When planning, be sure to always account for a backup plan.  You wouldn’t want one silly thing to destroy your entire event!

We all understand, accidents and emergencies no one can plan for happen.  That’s why it’s important to have a backup plan for each detail in your event.  What do you do if the power goes out or the internet is down?  What if not enough people show up, or too many people show up?  It’s important to be prepared for any situation.

Even if it’s not utilized, a backup plan can come in handy.  It will at least give you peace of mind knowing your event is still on track even if something unexpected were to happen.  Worst case scenario, something does happen and your event still goes on!

You’re Ready To Go!

You’ve done all the planning, now you just have to see your event through until the end.  The majority of the work is over, but there are still a few things to do to make sure your event runs smoothly.

With plenty of time before your event, make sure you book any space needed for your event.  You’ll also want to arrange any transportation your guests may need.  Around two weeks before your event, contact participants to give them a quick reminder as well as all of the details they’ll need.

Just prior to the start of your event, double-check all details.  Make sure you have enough food and drinks for your guests.  Be sure each group will have enough space to work.  In certain cases, you may not be able to provide everything your guests will need.  Regardless, make sure they will be prepared with any materials they may need to complete the task at hand (e.g. computers, paper, pens, calculators, whiteboards, etc.).

In Conclusion

Hosting a hackathon is easier than you thought!  Ultimately, you just want to provide a great space for people to spread their knowledge with one another.  Your event, by no means, has to be elegant or upscale.  Once the planning is complete, celebrate knowing you’re bringing together a group of wonderful people to accomplish great things!

Hunter Amato

This Blog Post was guest written by Hunter Amato for Zekiah Technologies.