Whether you’re inspired by that coding session/bacchanalia scene in The Social Network or by GroupMe’s journey from TC Disrupt hackathon creation to $68m Skype acquisition in 15 months, it's almost a mathematical certainty that you're interested in planning a hackathon.In just a two-month period this summer, New York played host to Game Hack Day, Photo Hack Day, Hacking Education, and the Bloomberg-endorsed Reinvent NYC.gov.Hackathons are, for lack of a better phrase, so hot right now.But hackathons don’t just materialize out of thin General Assembly air; they take a serious amount of planning and hard work.
As part of my internship at ZocDoc this summer I looked into planning a health hackathon, and part of that preparation involved talking with a pair of hackathon gurus to learn their secrets.I ultimately ran out of time this summer, but fear not; instead of throwing out my notes, I’m putting them on the internet for eternity!Or at least until the Wayback Machine runs out of steam.
If you follow these guidelines, you’re guaranteed to come out the other side with an amazing event and more good karma than you can shake a stick at.
NOTE: If you’re planning a hackathon at a university, your first stop after reading this post should be Penn CS student Alexey Komissarouk’s guide to student hackathons.
Why throw a hackathon?
1.The satisfaction of a job well done.
2.25-35 projects will be created that might never have happened without your work (based on 100 participating hackers, YMMV).You're like a mini Paul Graham!
3.It reflects well on you, the company you work for, the projects you’re involved in, and the way your mother raised you.Having a good reputation never hurt anyone.
What you need:
1.More of your time than you’d expect.Most of it will be spent on logistics, promotion, and arranging sponsorships.
2.Money.As a rule of thumb, an overnight hackathon for 100 people will cost $5,000 plus the cost of the venue.This leads directly to the next requirement…
3.Sponsors.More on this later.
4.5-8 SOLID APIs/datasets, each with a knowledgeable representative around for the bulk of the event to answer questions.
5.An accessible, suitably climate conditioned venue.
8.Food + Drinks.If you don’t provide enough of these things, people will leave to get them.You don’t want anyone to leave, ever, for any reason.
9.Sleeping facilities/quiet area.Maybe a friendly overnight stay-related startup can help out with some sleeping bags?
10.A pre-populated wiki, ala this one from Game Hack Day.It should include:
d.Organizer contact info (pic, phone #, email etc.)
e.Forms for volunteers, sponsors, press and hackers to sign up
Rules for the Host - Above All, Don't be Selfish!
1.Make sure your topic is broad and generic enough that it’s of interest to people not affiliated with your company/organization.A big part of the reason Photo Hack Day was so successful was because it wasn’t Aviary Hack Day, even though it was organized by Aviary’s Erin Tao and Alex Taub.
2.Don’t privilege your own niche/product/organization above other participants.Everyone should be on an equal footing.
3.Focus on hosting a community that exists, rather than trying to create one from scratch.There will be people who are already involved in the space who want to be involved- welcome them!
1.Pick a topic.Again, make sure it’s not too broad or too narrow, and engages an existing community.
2.Start keeping track of everyone you think might possibly be good to contact/get involved.This includes hackers, potential sponsors, employees at related companies, people who tweet a lot about the space, whatever.Make a master spreadsheet; it’s never too early to start.You will forget about people and lose their contact info, so do yourself a favor.
3.Make a website for the hackathon.Include forms for: API participants, sponsors, press, and volunteers.The Photo Hack Day website is a pretty solid model.
4.Reach out to potential judges, sponsors, API participants, and any other stakeholders.It’s never too early to start working on these relationships.
a.For API participants, do your research!Find every company in the space that could possibly be interested.If this sounds like too much work, you can always outsource using a service like oDesk.For sponsors, your best bet is to network through people you know who have thrown successful hackathon.They can tell you which sponsors are easy to work with and which will nickel-and-dime you for a bigger banner or better placement or whatever.In general, it’s probably not worth it to spend time with a sponsor who can’t kick in at least $1,500.Make it clear to sponsors that the real benefit of sponsorship is the good will of everyone attending.Everyone attending will know that without their support, the event would not have been possible.Make sure sponsors understand that they are not going to get double-secret gold-level status.Finding non-intrusive sponsors should be your goal here.
c.API contributors are good bets for potential sponsorship, and vice-versa, so make sure to ask each group if they’re interested in the other option.That being said, you SHOULD NOT have to be a sponsor to present an API.Make sure that any API presented is RELEVANT; don’t waste people’s time.
d.For volunteers, make sure to recruit people you know and can rely on.It’s easy to sign up for something a month ahead of time, so don’t be surprised if 30 volunteers on paper turn into you and your 5 friends (true story).
5.Assuming there’s sufficient interest, pick a date and find a venue.
6.However you set up your event, you will be emailing out tickets (Eventbrite, MogoTix, etc.).Email is unreliable; your messages will get stuck in spam filters and disappear into the ether.Get people their email tickets as soon as possible, so if problems arise you have time to take care of it.
7.Once the date and venue are finalized, start spreading the word.Every vertical (i.e. health, games, education) will have its own groups, publications, and prominent figures.For any major city, the following places are a good start:
a.Startup Digest for your city (over 100 cities have a local startup digest edition).In addition to submitting via the form, get in touch with the curator for your city’s edition, and also contact the curator for your specific vertical (SD Health, Social, Mobile etc).
b.Gary’s Guide weekly event email
c.Meetup groups for hackers in your vertical
d.Local accelerators, incubators, and co-working spaces
e.Local universities often have a tech organization that might have students interested in participating
f.Reach out to prominent bloggers and Twitter influencers from your city who might be inclined to help out.
g.Aviary's Alex Taub recommends contacting the sponsors, API providers and companies participating and asking them to write blog posts about the event as well.Photo hack day scored promotional blog posts from tons of companies, including Flickr, Etsy, Photobucket, andCanvas.
h.New York Specific:
vii.New Work City
xiii.NYC Innovation Community email list
xiv.Columbia and NYU
The Day Before
1.Assume everyone will flake and everything will fall through.Follow up on everything, double-check everything.Make sure you have extras of everything (batteries, cups, etc.).
2.Confirm everything with your volunteers
3.Make sure you have at least five reliable volunteers who are willing to be on call for the duration of the event.Remember, 30 volunteers can turn into 5 in a hurry, so be careful who you count on.
4.Set up a group texting circle with your volunteers (GroupMe etc.) so everyone can communicate and ask for help if necessary.Make sure you have everyone’s contact information, as a bunch of people will flake/show up late.
5.Assign each reliable volunteer an area of responsibility.Make sure to clearly define what each volunteer is in charge of, and make sure they’re comfortable with what they’ll be doing.Delegate as many tasks as you safely can.Something will always come up, and you should have everything foreseeable already covered so you can deal with the power going out or whatever other emergencies happen.
6.Make sure all the small details are nailed down.There are a million things that can slip through the cracks, but make a big difference in the success of the event.Who knows how to work the coffee maker?Where is ice for the drinks coming from?Does the venue you’re using have the AC turned on over the weekend?
1.Overnight hackathons (usually Saturday AM- Sunday PM) result in the best hacks.There’s often just not enough time to create something cool at a one day event.An overnight hackathon also allows you to be a bit looser with the schedule, cutting down on some time pressure and stress.
2.You will need to provide a schedule with times to make people comfortable, but don’t worry too much about sticking to it.
3.It's not a bad idea to put something exciting/important near the beginning of the event, to make sure that people show up roughly on time.This could be any number of things; at Startup Weekend, you get to start meeting possible mentors right at the beginning of the event.You don’t want to miss that!
4.Start by giving the hosting venue, event organizers, and maybe a big sponsor <1 minute to thank everyone for coming and explain who they are.No more than this!Explain the prizes, judging, and any other important logistics.
5.Demo a prototypical hack presentation, which should be about 3 minutes (more on that later).
6.Make sure everyone knows how to communicate with other people at the hackathon, how to submit a hack, and where to find other important information.A Wiki with a hosted Freenode IRC channel is the best way to do this.Make sure to have a sample hack submission up, so everyone formats their submission the same way.
7.Have all participating API providers give a BRIEF demo of their API.They don’t need to go into detail, just let everyone know what their API does in broad terms, what’s awesome about it, and give some suggestions for hacks they think might be cool.This should be informational, not sales-y.IMPORTANT: anyone presenting an API needs to be around for most of the event to answer questions and help out.Present and run doesn’t fly.
8.After the API presentations are done, let hackers get up for one minute and explain what they’re working on, and what kind of help they need.“Hey, my name is Mike, I want to build a _____ and I need help with ______.”Let everyone go once, if there’s time let people who need to go twice.Have everyone list their contact info and project description on the Wiki.
9.Set a firm deadline for submitting a hack.
12.Let everyone know when the deadline is approaching.Once everyone has submitted their information to the Wiki, make sure to lock it so that nobody can change their submission, alter the presentation order, etc.Make clear that a completed Wiki submission is required in order to present and be eligible for prizes.
13.A complete Wiki submission should include the project title, people involved, contact information, a URL for the hack, and screenshots.Explain that if participants are interested in having press/bloggers write about their project, they need to complete their page.Here’s a great example from Game Hack Day winners Hadokam.
1.If there are more than 30 people presenting, make sure you have two projectors set up.It is inevitable that a graphics card will die an untimely death, or someone won’t have an S-Video port, and you don’t want to hold up the entire event while troubleshooting.
2.Short is sweet.Remember, have someone exciting give a sample presentation at the start of the hackathon to set expectations.If there are less than 30 projects, give everyone 3 minutes to demo; if there are more than 30, two minutes per project.Be strict with time limits, or else it’s not fair to the people who go last.
3.Once everyone has presented, it’s time to start voting for the people’s choice winner (or whatever you want to call it).There are a variety of tools you can use to make sure that the vote is conducted fairly (Precision Polling is just one example).It’s up to you whether you want to let people vote for just their top choice, a top 3, or some other configuration.
4.While you’re conducting and tallying the voting, let the judges (or sponsoring companies) give out their topic awards.If you’ve got judges, let them give a prize in an area that relates to their expertise.Again, sponsoring companies should be awarding a prize that takes place in their space, not one that uses their specific product.For instance, Foursquare could give an award for the best location-based project, Facebook could reward the best social hack, Soundcloud the best music-related hack.
5.It’s up the company involved to work out prize delivery with the winner, which takes a load off your plate.Make sure to write down which prizes go to whom though.This is important not only to ensure that everyone gets the prize they deserve, but also so that there’s a permanent record for participants and press of what went down.You’d be shocked how often this information gets lost.
6.Announce the people’s choice winner and give out the grand prize.Kick everyone out.Congratulations, you’re the man!
The Final Rule of Hackathons:
This is your hackathon!Do whatever you want.If you want to have quadracopters buzzing around everyone’s head (ala Game Hack Day 2011), go for it.Be creative.Don’t be afraid to switch things up on people (within reason); you can’t have a game without creating arbitrary restrictions, so feel free to bust out a surprise theme on the day of the hackathon as long as it’s relevant.Above all, have fun.That’s the point.