Competing at a hackathon is a lot of pressure, especially for someone that is just starting out. When I first began competing, I started in my second year of university. In first year, I underestimated hackathons - I didn’t think they could provide me with any benefit.
I quickly learned that my close minded perspective was preventing me from gaining the most valuable experience. School is imperative to credibility within society but the hackathons were a great source of a hands on experience that I needed.
I went from being against hackathons to participating in two or three per month. I started with local hackathons, then I travelled to hackathons across North America. Although I was enjoying the experience and challenges that come with participating, but I was struggling to win.
At hackathons, you are presented with a variety of challenges also known as tracks. These tracks address various social issues and problems the companies and venues want to address. The more unique a track is, the better organized a hackathon usually is. These tracks are beneficial to developers because we are forced to be dynamic thinkers. Instead of building a solution for something that has a clear correct answer, we are forced to tackle a problem with no correct solution. This forces a developer to try anything and everything to find the best possible solution.
Many people have used hackathons to launch multi-million dollar companies. Very recently I was introduced to Tom Lehman who mentioned that he started his company, Genius at a hackathon. Genius is now a multi-million dollar platform with over 100 employees.
Winning a hackathon eventually became my goal. I was participating, networking and building amazing tools that are still in development at Speer today. However, I wanted to win and I did! I’m proud to say I’ve travelled to six different competitions and have won 10 different hackathons (yes, I keep count).
1. Make it simple
From my experience, building from a simple concept is the most important concept. The judges at hackathons are a blend of business people and developers. It becomes very difficult to appreciate the technology behind a project in a four minute pitch, which is why focusing on user experience is so important.
Make the solution simple but still attractive, so it’s something fun to hold in your hand. Compare this to applications like iTranslate, which won many awards for it’s simple and revolutionary design.
2. Design a logo
Branding your tool is so important. Give it an identity, something that rolls off the tongue easily. Spending some time to come up with a creative but catchy name will help your tool stand out.
A tool I designed for a competition at the University of Michigan ended up winning the Google Firebase challenge. This was because I made my product standout through branding. I designed a simple logo, in a similar to their icons. When I think of Google, I think of the minimalistic designs they create - that is what I wanted to emulate with my tool.
Every competition I’ve won had an application logo and name. Every competition I’ve lost didn’t have a name or icon. I’m not saying this is key, but it’s something to definitely give you a competitive advantage.
3. Prepare your pitch
You’ve only got four minutes to impress your judge. The judges usually begin by introducing themselves. Use that to determine if they have a developer or a business background. From my experience, it’s important to break up your pitch into sections explaining the issue you’re resolving, the innovation behind your idea, the technology stack and the business logistics. It’s important to discuss the new technology and frameworks you’re using. Technology can be scaled very well, make sure to emphasize the simplicity of your tool for a global expansion and high adoption rate.
Now, I’m not saying that I win every competition. I recently competed at Yale University and lost. From my experience at over 20 different hackathons, I’ve learned that persistence is key. Don’t give up, and you’ll do amazing things. Good luck!