There’s something intriguing about creating an idea quick and dirty from scratch. That’s why I’m a fan of hackathons: you get 24 hours to create a project about anything.
The most boring hackathon I have ever attended was when a bunch of doctors sat around and ate finger biscuits while they chatted about their patients’ problems — for goodness sakes, if no one is stressed, then it’s not a true hackathon.
I’ve heard from about fifty different doctors now that if you create a ‘physical activity tracking app’, you will “solve diabetes” or “decrease obesity” or some other sort of magic trick. Hi, can you google “fitbit”?
Doctors tell you about the flaws in their patients’ treatments and conditions though, which are good for working with. For example, after a while, breast cancer survivors become too lazy to get screened again. Or, for some tests, the length of time between getting screened and getting results is ridiculous. We put health science people together with engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs, at our hackathon, and got some great projects.
So, a hackathon is about getting the right people in the same room together and giving them the right tools to achieve a goal the dirty way. In music terms, this is like jamming in someone’s garage and coming up with a great song just because you were in the right place at the right time.
I put together a FAQ about organizing a hackathon, focused on logistics, which will give you a peek into the effort that goes towards a large-scale hackathon!
What do you need to organize a hackathon?
You need a venue; the venue needs tables, chairs, and good wifi. How many people and who exactly are you expecting? Is it a technical or an ideation hackathon (in other words, are people expected to produce code or a finished product, or just the idea of such a thing)?
You need an agenda. Are people making projects in whatever topic and device they want? Are you giving a challenge? What is the time limit? Hackathons can be 24, 36, or 48 hours. Sometimes they span a few weeks where attendees return the following weekend.
Nonetheless, hackathons are meant to be intense and taxing because that’s when the best ideas come out.
You need to create the rules of the game. Are people allowed to come with projects pre-built? Who’s allowed to come? Are you charging for tickets? Is everyone working on the same project? Will you have judges? What is the criteria for judging?
You need to decide how judging works. Are people presenting onstage? Is it an expo fair? How will you rank the top projects? Which judge will see which projects? In the worst-case scenario, what is the maximum number of projects you can have, and how will judging work?
You need coffee. Food. If you expect people to stay overnight, restaurants will be closed, and you’ll need to provide food for them. Coffee or some other stimulant is also a necessity if you want people to stay up.
You need t-shirts. This is great for branding, but also, if there’s nothing to remember your hackathon by, then people might as well have spent their weekend hacking in their basement with pizza and their besties.
You need funding. A hackathon can get expensive. You can ask attendees to pay for tickets, or get funded through sponsorships or government grants.
How do you fund a large-scale event like a hackathon?
Get sponsors! Companies in the community might be interested in being aligned with your mission and message.
Government grants may also be helpful when you’re starting out.
How do you get sponsors?
First, create a sponsorship package. This is a mini sales package explaining why a company should fund your event, detailing your sponsorship tiers. What is your target company looking for? Publicity? Social responsibility? Recruitment?
Many tech companies are interested in recruiting talent, and a hackathon is a great place for this, as recruiters get to see both the engineers and the managers in action. There are popular sponsor perks related to recruitment, such as access to attendee resume banks and interview rooms.
Companies typically have an events or marketing department with a sponsorship budget; if you don’t have a contact, this is the department you want to get in touch with. We typically send an intro email to gauge initial interest, and then get them on the phone to discuss what they’re looking for. We tend to follow up with the sponsorship package, but some companies ask for it beforehand as well. You should always have the package on hand nonetheless.
Then, break down what each perk is worth—this is your cheat sheet. For example, a sponsor booth might be worth $1000, a block of workshop time might be worth $500, and so on. Have this list handy when you’re on the phone, and use this as a guideline to make sure you don’t over-extend your offer (but don’t share your cheat sheet). Discuss what they’re looking for, and offer perks according to their budget.
Don’t be afraid to create custom packages based on your existing tiers! You could say something like, “So if your budget is x, we can offer a booth and a workshop slot, and also give you an opportunity to speak during the opening ceremony.”
How do you make sure smart people come? And produce results?
Make it a fun and interesting event. Why should people come to the hackathon and not hack in someone’s garage? Are there great speakers? Interesting challenges? Networking opportunities?
An interesting challenge will attract people that you want. For example, if the hackathon challenge is to repurpose electric keyboards and instruments, then people who sign up will likely be hardware engineers and musicians.
Helping hackers succeed means giving them all the tools they need. This may include mentors, software, hardware, and workshops.
Read more about hackathons: