Having participated in over a dozen hackathons and winning prizes in many of them I always walk away with a feeling of satisfaction. Whether it’s from meeting new people, discovering new development methods and apps, having an epiphany with that new idea or just picking up some cool swag. Here is how to win a hackathon.

  1. Research and no Development
  2. Brain storm 2 ideas
  3. Be ready to pivot
  4. Focus on problem statements
  5. Remember it’s an MVP!
  6. Delegate tasks
  7. Leave time to develop and practice the presentation
  8. Join a Hackathon

1. Research and no Development

It is an ethical violation of every hackathon to develop code prior to the hackathon but here are some things you can do to prepare for success.

  • Research the hackathon sponsors
  • Read any sponsor API docs
  • Create accounts for any systems you may want to use and get API keys

Also remember to hold off registering any domain names or creating any github repos. These will most likely be based on your hack anyway.

During the hackathon be sure to engage the sponsors at the event. Ask questions about their APIs or more specific questions on the problem they are trying to solve. Let them in on your idea and solicit feedback from them.

2. Brain storm 2 ideas

Come up with at least two ideas to pitch but be ready to move on none of them. The fun of a hackathon is jumping into an idea that you believe in even if it’s not your own. But stick to your guns, if you believe in your idea, be persistent with your team members and get feedback early.

3. Be ready to pivot

If you end up developing on your own idea or joining a team with another idea be ready to pivot. It’s healthy to pivot and the sooner the better.

4. Focus on the problem statements

Most hackathons have problem or challenge statements.

Solving the problem statements are what the prizes are going to be rewarded for.

This may mean pivoting your idea to use your team strengths to focus on one of them. Then again narrow the focus to solve one or two of the problem statements, any more and your scope may be too big for the time allotted.

5. Remember it’s an MVP


mvp photo attribution: @stephenanderson

Whip the eggs and flour and leave off the sprinkles, narrow the focus and do one thing great instead of trying to build every feature and team members ideas.

Create a vote list, put all features on a list that each member can vote up or down then estimate the time needed to create that feature. Relate the features to the problem statement and determine the importance. Creating business goals, product hypothesis and a mission or theory statement will also help determining importance.

In the end you’ll have a solid feature set to showcase your Minimum Viable Product.

Ok, maybe one or two sprinkles as feature bling and wow factor is also key to the preso, so up vote at least one of these features.

6. Delegate tasks

Think of creating a team like creating a startup. Find 3-4 people with diverse strengths. Usually a front end developer, back end developer, designer, sales/biz and or charismatic presenter person.

There are also usually requirements/deadlines and docs for the hackathon, dedicate one person to keep track of all of this. Usually it’s stuff like submitting a team name, team members and github repo.

Decide on frameworks and collaboration tools then assign tasks, create clear goals for each member, get commitments and checkup on progress every hour, you may need to remind each other of the end goal.

Get everyone’s email and github username, create a project on slack or trello or old school with a whiteboard and create a tasks list, ask members to check off tasks as they are completed. Add dependencies on the board of your choice and split the work.

7. Leave time to develop and practice the presentation

Create a slide deck, tell a story and delegate tasks for the presentation.

If one person is presenting, then someone else should be clicking on the website or swiping in the app. Don’t make one person do everything. Have another person watch the time and practice the presentation a dozen times until everyone is comfortable and knows their role.

Most presentations are between 3 and 5 minutes.

Check whether there is a hard stop. If you have a good sales person and there is no hard stop then let them know as they may have an extra minute or so, which could be a good time for audience interaction or questions or to just expand on a powerful feature of the hack. Feel free to present the evolution and future roadmap of your hack.

Reflector is a great tool for presenting an iOS app. Have all tabs open with the screens in sync with the preso and don’t spend time logging in. Everyone knows how to login.

End on a high note, that sprinkle, that wow feature.

8. Join a Hackathon

That’s my wrap, have lots of fun hacking! Here are some of my favorite hackathon sites including GoCode Colorado who just released challenge statements.