Seven Habits of Highly Successful Hackathon Teams

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For those that don’t know, I’m a confessed hackathon addict. I love creating things. An event that pushes the boundaries of creation in such a short amount of time feels like it was made for me. Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in a lot of hackathons. Many of the projects I’ve created at them have crashed and burned, but a few have gone well. Most recently, Josh Reznick, Hannah Robinett & I competed in (& won!) the TwilioCon hackathon. I’ve noticed several trends in my hackathon experiences and wanted to share seven common habits I’ve seen in successful hackathon teams.

1. Have a Well-Rounded Team - My rallying cry for hackathons lately is that product people and designers are hackers too. If you want your team to be successful at a hackathon, you need a well-rounded team with hackers of all types. Often times, the hacks that do well at hackathons have nice designs.

2. Keep It Simple - I have historically struggled at hackathons because I would bite off more than I could chew. Remember that you’re working in a short amount of time. Beyond that, you probably will only have 2 minutes to demo what you’ve built. I typically take the length of the hackathon, divide it in half, and think what I could build in that amount of time. If I’m lucky, I’m able to finish that.

3. Prepare Your Demo - It’s not uncommon for teams to forget how important the demos are. If you build an awesome hack but don’t do a good job of demoing it to the audience and judges, people may not realize how great your hack is. As time winds down, take time to map out your demo, discuss it with your team, and make sure it’s not too long.

4. Play to the Judges - If there are judges, take them into account when you’re deciding what to build. Some judges (like me) enjoy funny and novel apps. Other judges want to see things with real business potential. If there are API prizes, take advantage of the fact that the evangelists are there. Pitch them on your idea and gauge their reaction.

5. Be Ready - I’m a bit of a hackathon purist and don’t think you should write any code before a hackathon starts (though I know it happens), but you should come in prepared. At minimun, prepare a development environment where you can code and a production environment where you can deploy. This saves a ton of time. Beyond that, I think it helps to come in with ideas and bounce them around with your team.

6. Make People Laugh - Whether your hack is strictly novel or an actual business, making the audience laugh during your demo works wonders. I saw one great example of this at TwilioCon where one of the teams built a social radio listening app (a very serious technical challenge, and definitely not a novel concept) and during their demo they had it switch to playing Gangnam Style. By getting everyone to laugh, they made a cool hack resonate with the crowd in ways it wouldn’t have otherwise.

7. Don’t Be GrumpyWin or Lose, don’t be grumpy. Enjoy being part of a great event and have fun with it.