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What is a hackathon
A hackathon is a special type of event in which teams of coders come together and spend a day or two on builing a prototype for a business case which is either given a few days before the hackathon or at the very start of the event. At the end of the event, teams pitch their ideas in front of a jury and show off a prototype. Winners usually get money prizes and some of them get investing or networking opportunities to help them transform the prototype into a business.
Last year I took part in a two-day hackathon event in Bucharest and it was one of the most exhausting experiences I ever had - only one hour of sleep in about 40 hours, with the rest of the time being spent on coding, learning, networking with other participants and pitching ideas. Nonetheless, it was maybe the most exciting event I ever attended because I learned lots of new stuff about coding, building a business and pitching an idea in front of investors.
My team(which consisted of me and two other friends) didn't win the hackathon, but we came very close to the top 3 prize winners and the manager of one of the most important banks in Romania offered us her business card and told us to contact her if we ever want to further develop our idea. I am very proud about what we achieved in only one weekend(those who won were already fully fledged businesses) and I want to share the top lessons I learned at this hackathon.
Choose a hackathon wisely - especially if it's your first one
Not all hackathons are cool to attend. Some companies organize hackathons only because they saw it's a trendy event or because their sole purpose is to recruit new people/new ideas. I am sure every experience has something new to offer you, but if this is your first time attending this type of events, then you might as well choose a good one.
Look at who's organising the event, who's in the jury and make sure the prize is a good one - to keep you motivated. If you have the chance to learn the theme before or at least the technologies involved, that's even better - make sure it's something interesting for you or a field in which you have experience. That will make the event even more useful for you and you will really enjoy participating.
Choose your team wisely
Most of the time during a hackathon will be spent with your team, so be sure you'll have a team you'll enjoy working with(at some hackathons you can participate alone, but I do not recommend it). Choose people you've worked with before - either at school, at work or at other hackathons - since you have only a few hours to build a product, you need to know everybody's strengths and weaknesses, no time to discover them now!
Equally important is that you choose people with various sets of skills - usually you'll need at least one back-end and one front-end developer and most of the times you'll also need someone with great ideas for the product and for the presentation.
Most important of all, choose someone you can count on. Time is very short during a hackathon, so you can't spend too much time on everything and you don't have time to take every decision. That's why you'll need people you trust and who can work in parallel.
Choose a good product idea
Most of the time at a hackathon should be spent on the idea - after all, that's what you're selling. And this does not mean only coming up with the idea, but also validating it with other people. Usually at hackathons you will have some mentors or people who represent the jury and/or the company who is organising the event. They'll come by your working area and ask you about your product. Explain your ideas and listen carefully to their feedback - it might be just what you need to win the hackathon.
As I said earlier, a hackathon is an event with lots of networking opportunities and this means also discussing with other teams. Without going too much into the details, you can tell other people your basic ideas and listen to theirs. You never know where inspiration will come from.
My team and I spent many hours on the idea. The event started at 8 am and no line of code had been written until 3 pm that day. And even though we were worried about this, it was still fine - we had the event, the night and the rest of the day for coding. But we wouldn't have had anything to code until we were sure the idea was the best we could come up with.
Build an awesome prototype
You know that saying - fake it 'till you make it - well that is not even remotely true at a hackathon. You can't fake everything, you need at least some working prototype to show off to the jury. Most of the people in the jury are not of technical nature, they are usually business people. They hear lots and lots of ideas every day so your stories about your idea becoming the best product on the market are not enough to convince them. You need some working, real code to prove the viability of your product and also prove that your team is the best at working on this product. Of course there will be lots of hardcoding and lots of errors hidden in the background and I am not even talking about your data structures which will be a mess, but at least build a little bit of your app so that the jury can understand and interact with.
Prepare your best pitch
Your work at a hackathon is not done until you present your idea in front of the jury - you'll need this to win the prize or at least to validate your effort. So make sure the presentation is at least on par with your project - ideally even better.
Gather data from whatever source you can find to validate your idea, present valid use cases, compare yourself to other competitors on the market and make estimations on costs and revenue. It's okay if you exaggerate a bit when making the presentation - the jury is used to it and is even expecting it. But don't lie too much to them, it will become embarassing for you and you team.
Most important of all, present you and your team. Let them know you and find what what are your backgrounds. They might find you interesting enough to offer other opportunities to you, even if your idea does not win the hackathon. Tell them your plans for the future of the app and treat your hackathon idea like a fully fledged startup.
Have fun and learn as much as you can!
All in all, a hackathon is a unique experience and and there's lots to learn from one. Keep your eyes open to every opportunity, meet as many new people as you can, listen to other ideas and share yours. It's a good, fun and constructive way to spend a weekend. Good luck to you!
Thank you so much for reading this article! Interested in more? Follow me on Twitter at @b_dmarius and I'll post there every new article.