How to Win A Hackathon

Hackathon in BerlinPhoto by Ralf Roletschek - CC BY SA

Hackathons are great events for startup guys. They can be used to validate your idea, to find likeminded people and eventually to actually found your business with the help of other co-founders, mentors and even investors.

However, please keep in mind that hackathons usually charge a fee for application. While there is nothing wrong with that, it means that you will meet people who pay money for being allowed to work during their weekend. This, in turn, may create a somewhat competitive situation.

That’s why you should be focussed on building your stuff! Here is some advise on how to win hackathons.


You usually do not know what project you will be working on that weekend. If you are about to pitch your own idea, there is a chance that you won’t win people to join you and you then should pick another team. That makes preparation a bit complicated, but there are some aspects you can focus on beforehand.

Who is there

Find out who is attending the hackathon. Some people announce their participation via Twitter, so search for the appropriate hash tags. Try to get to know those people. Read their personal blogs, their Twitter… If you feel that some of them are on the same wavelength as you, you may start a conversation with them. Focus on people with skills complementary to your own skills! If you’re a developer kind of guy, look out for Photoshop artists and marketing frontmen and vice versa!

When you are choosing the team you want to join on the first hackathon day, you have a bit more than your gut instinct at your disposal: You can see how the guys you found interesting during your research react to the ideas pitched. And you can find a team with strong members if you are not sure which idea you like the most.

Next, find out who is joining the hackathon as mentor, jury member or investment scouts. Learn a bit about the sponsors. Again, get to know something about their online alter ego.

If your goal is to win that show, you should get a focus on who is in the jury. What do those people like? Are they more into rock-solid e-commerce business models or more into the wow-effect models and do not really care about monetarization in the first instance. Of course, you can use it to make your pitch a bit more appealing to them. However, do not overfit your pitch to the guys you meet there! If you would have to sell your soul in order to make the pitch appealing to them: Don’t do that! If your team is committed and your idea is great, you will find other people who will help you after the hackathon! What are the personal backgrounds of the people? Take that serious! You can use examples of their daily business in your pitch. Again, do not overfit! As for the mentors: Find out what they do, why they are experts in their business. Having this information easily recallable will help you find the right mentors during the hackathons and not lose precious time in endless discussions with mentors whose advise your team does not really need.

Your friends, family and business partners

One of the most important steps: Inform your network! Tell everyone you have a personal relationship to that you’re going to be on the hackathon.

When it comes to customer validation, you can call them for a short statement, if they are part of your possible target audience. If they know what you will be doing, you don’t have to explain to them during the hackathon. Another side effect: They won’t call you, when they know you’re busy that weekend!


The First Night

One of the most important thing you will learn during a hackathon: “Time” is a very, let’s say, flabby concept. You will be go through different stages of attention, fatigue, euphoria and depression. In the end, time is simply too short. Always. So, your first step should be getting a clear alignment within your team.

Usually, hackathons start on Friday evening. Do not stay up for too long unless you (and all team members!) know exactly what you’re doing. Use the first two or three hours for an open discussion on the idea within your team. Do not be too enthusiastic, leave room for concerns during the discussion. And let your team members phantasize about possible strategic expansions to the idea. You should not let the discussion overtop the banks! Limit it to those two or three hours.

After that, your team should be splitted up! Allocate different domains to each other. You should consider those domains:

  • Product design
  • Development
  • Market research
  • Marketing
  • Business model generation

Limit that process to one hour!

After that, stop it! The best advise for that point in time, is to go to sleep. Trust me! The team will work more efficient when being a little bit awake, so don’t waste your energy on the first night! If you cannot go to sleep on that moment, grab a drink (no alcohol, no caffeine!) and have a nice hour with your team mates! Chat with your new friends, maybe sketch something regarding to your idea, but do not try to be really productive at this moment.

The First Day

Ok, here we go! Let the show begin. You have a rough idea of what you’re going to build and who is going to take which task. Take something from the breakfast table, sit together with your team members and try to find out if anybody has had a sudden inspiration during the last night and if there is a need to alter your product outline. Try to keep this as short as possible and start building soon!

But where do you set your focus? It is often said that the demo is the most important part of your pitch. That’s not true! And here is why:

Everything you discuss, build or change during that weekend has to be condensed to a five minute pitch (YMMV). That’s roughly the time it took for you to sign up and pay the fees. Usually, it’s that short! So, your most important job is to be as clear as possible to the most important aspects:

  • What problem is out there you want to solve?
  • How do you want to solve it?
  • How easy or complicated is market entry and marketing?
  • Who is willing to pay for it?
  • How much?

Since you are well prepared and you what makes the jury members tick, you can now prioritize the list above.

Get People To Know What You’re Talking about!

One reason for the demo considered to be so important is that it’s the easiest possibility to get an idea of what your project is about. But that’s for the receipient. For you, the creator, relying on a live demo is the most complicated and risky strategy you can choose! Build a demo, if you have enough skilled developers in your team, but care for a backup, too!

Another good way to get people knowing what you’re talking about is to pretend your product already exists and give them the marketing materials! Create them during the weekend.

MINDSET marketing materials created during one weekendPhoto by Sebastian Steins - CC BY SA

Let one team member run to the copy shop and print business cards, posters and brochures!

Create a demo. To be clear on this: A demo will not show what the functionalities or the technological foundation of your product is going to be: You will neither have time to develop that in detail nor to showcase that in your presentation. Instead, your demo should show, howyour product feels. Is it easy and fun to use? Does it look good? If you’re going to showcase a demo, invest most of your resources to User Interface design and User Experience. Choose the right colors. Do not rely on the standard themes of Twitter Bootstrap or something like this. It turns out even technically savvy jury members will most likely not be able to abstract a plain vanilla look to a working prototype. There are two reasons for that: First, they have a look at 15-30 products per hour for only 5 minutes each. Second, show them that your team is able to deliver sexy products. Record a video of the demo. It will not affect the credibility of what you’ve built but it is way less prone to Murphy’s law during your presentation.

Next, head to the marketing material. Condense the benefits of your product onto a small flyer. Make it for your customers, not the jury. If your future customers will understand it, the jury will most likely, too.

Create a online presence!

Register a twitter account and try to caputre the hashtag of your hackathon with your brand! Organizers or mentors are likely to retweet your stuff because they are proud that you are successful!

Tweet pictures of your team working, laughing, resignating. Greet the other hackathon attendants in your tweets!

Build a web page with you proceedings. Add a email newsletter signup to that as well as an analytics software.

This will indicate that you are dead serious about going on with your project after the weekend and thus, gives you some bonus points for the jury. It’s also impressive to tell during the pitch that you started on Friday and had your first 100 visitors and 10 signups by Sunday morning. However, this puts you in a situation of pressure: When you are visible that much (at least to the microcosmos of people with a relationship to the hackathon), the expectations to your team will be higher!

Once you have something to show which looks done, it will bring you the attention you were looking for, like this

Beside from impressing the people at the hackathon building a web presence and filling it with marketing material will also have another, very important effect: It will help you to explain what you’re talking about when you’re going to approach potential customers like in the next paragraph.

Talk the hell to people!

It’s time to leave the building or at least pick up the phone.

Talk to everyone you may know (or find). Ask them what they think of your product, ask them what they would be willing to pay for your solution.

Find people complaining about the problems your product solves in discussion forums or Facebook groups!

Try to get some feedback from companies if you’re building a B2B product. That’s a tricky one: Most hackathons take place on weekends, so it may be extremely difficult to reach a companies representative. You can solve that problem when you’re focussing on small or mid-size companies with a strong social media presence. Odds are, you will get a feedback if you start a conversation on Twitter with them. Politely ask if they would agree to a short(!) telephone call. When they agree and you are in good terms with your conversation partner, you can now ask nearly everything: Ask for a retweet, for example! You cannot have a more trustworthy proof of authentic interest than that!

Document all of the above! Take photos, screenshots, embed tweets. Do not record phone calls, though, as it is either illegal or impolite!

Make it personal!

Always connect the personality of each team member to your product. Upload team photos, display real names. Prove that you are not doing this for fun, but that you are commited to your work for real!

The pitch

Your job for the pitch is to condense your 48 hours of proceesings to a five minutes presentation. Outline, that:

  • You’re tackling a real world problem people understand
  • Your team is well prepared for that challenge
  • You are dead serious about building a company for that product
  • You know your customers and the market

Use your team photo as the first slide’s background.

Explain the problem. Make your audience feel the pain people have when struggling with the problem you address.

Show your solution. Why is your solution relevant to people having that problem? Why should they prefer your product over alternatives?

Show customer reactions. The best pitch I’ve seen on a hackathon so far was a guy who started with explaining that they talked to a nurse who depicted her problem to the team. Then the team came up with a solution. After the demo a jury member asked: “Ok, then. Have you shown your solution to the nurse?” The presentor immediately took out his phone out of his pocket, gave it to the jury member saying that maybe he could read it out loud. He did. The nurse wrote: “Great! Can I start using it on Monday?” Bamm!

If you have time: Show numbers. Do not overdraw charts and so on. Just give your audience an idea of the market size. Avoid incredibly large numbers. No one would believe you. That’s the zero trillion dollar market trap.

Hand out the business cards you printed that weekend with the names of all team members on it.

Demo: When it comes to the demo, use prerecorded screencasts. You can easily re-use them for your landing page and you don’t have to worry about how the projector may react to switches between presentation and application windows. You don’t have to care about the wifi connection in the presentation room, either.


Ok, Judgement Day: The jury has decided whether or not your team has made the first place of the event.

However, while a first place may make you proud, it is completely irrelevant! You already “won” the hackathon since you put effort in a cool project during your weekend.

Now, it’s time to enjoy the bounty of your labor.

Get connected instantly to the people you met during the hackathon. Follow them on Twitter or email them that you enjoyed the time you spent together. You just extended your network!

Again, it’s time to go to sleep! The next day, you will wake up knowing wheter or not you are willing to continue the work on your product with your team. Try to schedule a video conference with your team mates.

Connect to the jury members, mentors and organizers you’ve met. Thank them for their suppport, tell them whether or not you are going to proceed. Maybe send them some stuff you’ve made if that’s useful for them. Organizers, for example, will probably be pleased for getting some photos that they can put on their website.

Go on and proceed to the next event, if you enjoyed it! Try to discover different hackathons and consider attending one in a foreign city. Hackathons in a particular city already tend to have a kind of “community”, so going to a farther city will more likely bring you new contacts than waiting for the next event in your city.