Just the Beginning: Lessons From a Hackathon

Adam Lupu

May 22, 2012 · 8 minutes read

Uncategorized

It’s Saturday afternoon, and amid cold pizza, micro brews, and half-eaten donuts, teams of three or four sit in front of laptops, heads poking up intermittently  to scan a whiteboard full of vision statements, UX questions, and feature lists. This is the scene of the first hackathon at the newly opened 1871, the co-working-space-meets-tech-startup-beehive and Code Academy students are busily working on putting their first web apps together.

Hackathons are not new to the entrepreneurial tech scene. In fact, they are a borrowed relic from the software development community. I first heard about them when I was living in San Francisco in 2005. Now that I’m back in my hometown, I’m noticing they’ve begun merging with the similar, but more entrepreneur-focused, start-up weekend. From what I’ve seen so far in Chicago, the two events seem to be melding into a single hybrid focused on one unifying activity: take an idea from inception to product in a ridiculously short period of time.

How does it work?

It starts with a pitch, not for money or advisers, but for teammates. Twenty or thirty people standing in a room on a Friday night, taking turns offering their ideas for a new web application. The ideas range from purposeful to clever to silly to just plain fun. At this particular hackathon, there’s an app for providing insurance quotes to people in the under-served market of Latin America. There’s a wine and food pairing app, lovingly called “Swine” (Get it? Pork + Wine = __). There’s also an unnamed visual Rolodex app, and the crowd favorite: “Donut Tracker.” Once all the ideas have been offered, there’s a vote. Some get the green light, others get the axe. Then it’s time to form teams. Generally, people self-select what project they want to work on. Sometimes they arrive in pre-established pairs or even full teams.

Usually everyone tries to work on their favorite idea, but there’s also some consideration given to diversifying the talents on each team to balance them out. Code Academy Program Developer and current student, Ilana Milkes, chose to work on the insurance comparison platform for Latin America, called Insurease, partly because it gave her the opportunity to team up with another native Spanish speaker on a project she believed in. While another Code Academy student, Brian Kung, championed his idea for tracking donut mentions on Twitter and got four others interested on the premise alone. Once the teams are finalized, they get to work, planning and building, until Sunday afternoon, when it’s time to show everyone what they’ve created. Sometimes winners are selected and prizes awarded; sometimes it’s just about taking pride in showcasing your team’s hard work.

Competition or Coopetition?

While some love the idea of a collaborative environment where the only pressure is the clock, others prefer an event with an air of competition to propel them forward. Start-up weekends often offer prizes to the best team or the most business worthy project. These prizes work for some and not for others. Carolina Gracia found the cooperative aspect to be the most useful. “It’s great having people to help you. Otherwise I would have been very stuck.” Her teammate Ilana knew the clock was ticking the whole time. “I need to be patient with myself. There’s a ton of information, so I need to slow down the process and take it one step at a time.”

Even in the non-competitive events, there is value in knowing other hard working teams will be eagerly presenting their work alongside yours at the end of the weekend. Sometimes this can foster an environment of success and triumph over long odds and obstacles. One of the collaborators on project Swine, Sheena Gygax, had this response to the hackathon’s structure, “I wouldn’t categorize myself as a competitive person. I like working together as a team…the time that we have stresses me out more than it helps. But our team is awesome, and we’ve made good headway for sure.” While the artificially short time crunch can be stressful, it clearly forces newly grouped people to quickly bond and collaborate, usually prompting everyone’s best effort.

How to get the most out of these events? What can we learn?

There are several learning opportunities at both hackathons and start-up weekends. First you get to test out a new idea. There’s nothing like 48 hours of obsessing over one project to get it up and off the ground, giving you a good sense of whether or not it’s something you want to continue. Second, you get immediate, constructive feedback on how well you handle teamwork (and at least a couple ideas for how to handle it better). In two days you have to connect with teammates, come to a consensus on a vision, assign tasks, and make sure you’re not overlapping your efforts or leaving critical pieces untouched. Then you have to show everyone in the room how well you handled yourselves in your final presentation of your work. It’s everything that’s good about immersive learning experiences, without the fear of getting fired or irrevocably messing up. Just ask Code Academy co-founder Mike McGee about his first start-up weekend. “I learned more in the last three hours than I did in the 2 months before that,” says Mike. He and his team also walked away with the top prize: $10,000 in cash and $90k worth of business services.

Another benefit stems from how the event’s time compression has a way of focusing your attention. While hackathons and start-up weekends are not ideal for deliberately, methodically practicing your technical skills or business planning acumen, they are great for generating insights into how you work and what you are capable of when you’re completely devoted to a single pursuit. Last, but not least, one of the biggest values you can get out of these events is the chance to ground your lofty dreams in a real application. As investor Josh Mangoubi put it, “hackathons force people to whittle down their huge ideas to more manageable MVPs.”

What about IP?

Some might wonder: what if I want to make a business of this, but I don’t like my team? Or what if I really like my team, but we don’t see eye to eye on how to divide the labor and the spoils? At the beginning of one of these events, both of these concerns are premature. First off, when you’re building something from scratch, you have no revenue, no customers, and no funding. Whatever you create is not going to generate any of these three things immediately, and even if it did, the point of these events is not to start the next Instagram.

If you have an idea that you think you can sell for a billion dollars AND you don’t want anyone else working on it with you, then don’t offer it up for the event. If you find yourself working on something, and you really want to take it to market, then there’s a whole lot of work that comes AFTER the event. And it’s that work that’s going to turn the application you build into a genuine product. Insurease was Carolina Gracia’s original idea, and she is going to continue working on it after the hackathon. She’s not worried about opening it up to others, because as she says, “this is an educational environment, and everyone’s here to learn. It’s more for practice, than for a real product. You’re not going to build a company in a weekend.”

So don’t bother trying to divide non-existent spoils. Focus on coding and creating, and agree that no one on the team claims ownership over what’s created during the event. If any teammates wish to continue working on the project after the event is over, they can have a conversation about roles and responsibilities. Till then, stay focused on learning and building.

“Date before you marry.”

You might have heard this in conversation or read about this in books on founding companies. It’s the phrase commonly used to suggest that potential co-founders test their collaboration before solidifying it. This is another great opportunity offered by hackathons and start-up weekends: the chance to try out partnerships without committing to them for the long haul. I personally discovered this at my first hackathon last February when I championed my pet project, Digital Schoolhouse, an online cross-cultural platform to help teachers and students in developing countries learn about each other’s worlds. I got four teammates to work on it with me. After the event, one decided it wasn’t a good fit for him to continue. Another was interested in participating occasionally. Two of them loved the idea and continue to put their time and effort into helping me build it. What lasting partnerships will emerge from this weekend’s hackathon is anybody’s guess. But one thing’s for sure, everyone who participates gets a timeboxed litmus test of both the project and the people involved.

What happens to the projects?

Beyond the learning experience, hackathons and start-up weekends are also about producing real, tangible applications. Some live only long enough to serve the creators for that one weekend. Others go on to become the seeds of businesses (see: GroupMe) or launch careers (ask: Mike McGee). For Carolina, this hackathon is a chance to get an important part of her business started: “I have a business plan. I’ve done the research. The only thing holding me back is the website. So I really wanted to build something as soon as possible. This [hackathon] will give me something to show the insurance companies.” Meanwhile, Josh likens it to Angry Birds, saying “it can be that perfect initial launch that prepares you to break through your obstacles in getting a business off the ground.”

I hope Carolina and Ilana succeed, I’m excited to use Donut Tracker to find the best donuts in Chicago, and I really want Swine to work out, if only so I don’t have to worry about what to order the next time I’m enjoying “the other white meat.” But regardless of the product outcomes, one thing is certain: this hackathon has been a great way for these budding coders and entrepreneurs to spend a weekend practicing their craft and test-driving a collaboration with some new friends and potential colleagues. If you want to try it yourself, the next Start-up Weekend is on June 1st, and the next hackathon will be the first ever to take place on a Chicago ‘L.’ So take a cue from the Chicago entrepreneurial community. Don’t just dream up your ideas: build them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment