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Hackathon Hacks for Organizers (alexeymk.com)
62 points by AlexeyMK on Oct 22, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

Couldn't agree more with everything said in this article. Well done.

I want to reiterate on the fact that multi-tier demoing just does not work. While the prizes and judging are important pieces of every hackathon, they really are not the main focus. These events are about enabling hackers to show off their skills and experiment in a fun, safe enviornment. When you start grouping hacks into "the best" and "the rest", you end up with the focus being on the product rather than the people. And that fundamentally sucks.

A number of hackathons have done this to great success. If you want to expand a hackathon beyond ~40 teams, you do need to figure out a way to structure demos better, since less 2 minutes per demo is too little time to really show off what you built, in my opinion. And I don't think it's a poor idea to go beyond 40 teams for a hackathon like this (because then you have to start being super selective of who you let in, which sucks for teams who are new to hackathons).

I totally agree that short demos don't do these hackers justice and that being selective on admission also not an attractive option either. In fact, I'm not sure if there actually is a best answer for how to handle the situation. On some level, you always end up having to pick the lesser of three evils and somebody always ends up getting left out because of it.

If I do come up with a good system, I assure you, you'll be the first to know!

Just did the TwilioCon hackathon on Wednesday - the organizers set it up with two demo stands (left and right sides of the stage) and a dedicated A/V guy - while one team was demoing, they were getting the other side set up. As soon as one was done, the next team was introduced and the video was switched. AFAICT it worked perfectly.

That hackathon got through 47 demos in about an hour - 60 seconds for a 6 hour hack was actually probably the right amount of time.

Well, it didn't go _perfectly_ but I'm glad that it appeared that way!

The fixed setup that Alexey proposes in his article is totally the way to go. I totally agree with him when he says not to plug in "somebody else's laptop into the projector." He is correct when he says that "Pain this way lies."

Frankly, the only reason we were able to pull off the TwilioCon presentations is because we had 9+ people dedicated to them: 1 MC, 4 presentation assistants (2 per podium), 1 A/V guy up front, 2 A/V guys in back (1 to run the switching equipment, 1 to run the timer), and 1 other A/V guy to mix the sound.

(A good A/V tech is worth their weight in gold. Make sure you always let your A/V techs know how much you appreciate their work.)

I rallied together and went with about 25 Michigan Hackers to PennApps this past year....what an amazing experience.

Many of the students had never built anything outside of class and almost all of them left the event feeling inspired beyond belief; one of the first-time teams won an award and has since turned their hack into a full-fledged startup here at the TechArb in Ann Arbor!

Great post - will definitely take this into account when planning the hackathons here at Michigan!

I'm loving what you Michigan guys are doing; met you guys at PennApps and HackNY. Great work at both hackathons. Which hack from PennApps are they turning into a full-fledged startup?

Please write a blog post. I saw some Michigan hackers at hackNY as well and would love to hear more about the Michigan hackathon tour and where it's taking you guys.

Great post by Alexey, but I must admit I'm disappointed he didn't incorporate any of the insights we use at AngelHack to sustain hackathons of 400+ attendees( walkie talkies, rated video submissions for cutting down demos, hackathon.io for team building and seamless communications, helicopters and nerf guns for fun, massage tables and endless candy as added amenities).

There's also a lot to be said for the handholding that goes into working with sponsors. Those sponsor dollars don't come as easy as you would think. Perhaps there'll be a follow-up post :)

Hey Greg!

Glad you liked the post. There were definitely some pretty cool ideas from the AngelHack I went to; I missed the walkie-talkies, which is a pretty nifty idea. I've also got a backlog of like 30 or 40 more hacks that I can write about, but the post was sort of getting long enough as it was. I may end up doing a follow-up at some point.

As for fundraising/charging participants: Both back in my day at PennApps, and with the organizers that run it now, have never had a problem raising funds to cover the cost of the event (learning how to fund-raise is actually an awesome way for CS majors to learn about the business side of things). I have no idea what fundraising for the non-college circuit is like, though, since recruiting is a less-obvious selling point for sponsors.

Here's a full breakdown on hack sponsorships...maybe it'll make it in your next post ;)


Non-college hackathons are sponsored mostly from Platform Marketing departments that want developers to use their toolkits. Inspired by "the greats" like Twilio and 10gen, most developer tool companies are looking for ways to get their tools known and used by developers and are willing to pay to do it. Good examples are: Heroku, Pusher, Apigee, Mashery, Cloudmine, Mailchimp, Box, Firebase, Pearson, New Relic.

Some like Apigee will only sponsor if they can be the top prized API or headline sponsor for the event. Some like Mashery will try to convince you that they don't have money (they do), but that they'll bring a bunch of people to your event (they wont), others like Microsoft will pay if you can integrate an appealing Windows 8 vertical, and then there are those like New Relic who will sponsor if they believe you are doing good for the community and want to show support #nerdlife (this is an extremely rare breed though, so don't count on finding too many like this). There are lots of Platform marketing teams out there with a lot of different budgets and reasons to sponsor. If you can align your hackathon with their initiatives then you can land some good ones.

After that, there's recruiting -- The recruiting bucks come easy if you're a top tier engineering school. Most of the big companies I know only want to hire top devs and will pay for creative ways like this to brand themselves to them. The only non-college hacks a recruiting sponsor will pay for are the mega hackathon events that bring everyone out of the woodworks - (ex. Photo Hack Day, Disrupt Hackathon, AngelHack).

Lastly, there is sponsorships from organizations sponsoring entrepreneurship (Kauffman, BizSpark, Google Entrepreneurship, Ford). These deals normally take 6-18 months, but are completely worth it if you can land one. They cut monster checks (normally 6-7 figures) and will guarantee the growth and sustainability of your event. However, you have to prove you're creating a scalable model for entrepreneurship (ex. StartX, AngelList).

And should all else fail there are ticket sales. If you're scrappily putting your hackathon together, want to see it scale (which means hiring people to help organize), and you don't have big entrepreneurship sponsors onboard yet, then you should probably charge for tickets. Either that or be willing to pay out of your own pocket if ANYTHING goes wrong…. and like most events, it almost always does...

Thanks Greg. Great plug to promote your next hackathon. You absolutely know how to draw big dollar sponsors in for hackathons. Kudos to you for that.

For us, hackathons are not about money. We prefer to partner and co-host hackathons with companies to who have similar values and credibility among developers that they've earned by participating and forming deep links into the developer community. These include but are not limited to Twilio, SendGrid, TokBox, Hacker League. We've all earned developer credibility over the years by helping developers on the ground, not by buying our way in.

We serve developers earnestly and will continue to do so at events and with partners that are aligned with our values.

Amit - Mashery

That is pretty darn helpful. Thanks Greg! You should write it up yourself, though: it's your knowledge, wouldn't be right having me take it.

FWIW, my posts on sponsorship:

Getting Awesome Sponsors (for college hackathons): http://alexeymk.com/hosting-hackathons/index.html

Getting Your Money's Worth as a Sponsor: http://alexeymk.com/61608156/index.html

+1 That's good info. It's hard when you first plan a hackathon, because you don't know why your hackathon audience is valuable!

calling a hackathon a 'hack' is confusing, the generally agreed upon definition of 'hack' is the one in the jargon file

I wonder if that's as true for hackathons, like Alexey's, that don't charge attendees $70 a pop.

Most hackathons, like the Greylock one mentioned, are organized with large budgets in hopes of bringing in talent to find recruits for their companies.

Independently organized hackathons like AngelHack need to charge to ensure long-term sustainability of the event and ensure you're getting certain amenities that you should expect from a quality hack. If you've ever been to a Facebook hackathon you can tell they spend easily 20k between setup, employees, food costs, travel, and prizes.

If PenApps isn't charging yet, then that's because they are being subsidized by UPenn, which is an awesome luxury that most potential organizers will not have.

PennApps is funded solely through our awesome sponsors! No money from Penn at all :)

Well, when you have an awesome event and you're fully transparent about what's going on and where the money goes, things like sponsorship get pretty simple :) Everyone involved gets some good value out of PennApps (which is why you guys have absolutely no problem finding sponsors or funding your event).

Pen Apps not getting money from UPenn!!! Pulak, I thought your hustle was stronger than that ;)

We've been running SuperHappyDevHouse for over 7 years and we have never charged money for admission. $20k is a lot of money to run an event, ours usually run in the $1-2k range.

As long as you have a venue, Hackathons are not terribly expensive. They typically cost anywhere from $500-$2,000 most of which can be financed by sponsorships. PennApps does have the luxury of being housed at Penn, and the organizers have subsidized use of the rooms there. Given the community that has formed in various tech cities around the world, it shouldn't be hard to find a venue for free or a reasonably if you look around.

Here's a breakdown of other costs:

--food ----< 50 people >>> (3 Meals at $6 pp) = $300 (sandwiches, pizza, bagel breakfast) >>> (3 meals at $10 pp) = $500 (with this you can get a well-priced taco buffet, pizza, snacks, bagel breakfast)

--drinks ----< 50 people >>>> $3 pp = $150 ....bubble tea would be much more pricey, but also much more awesome.

Also note that gummy bears can be purchased in 5 lbs. packs for $16 http://www.amazon.com/Haribo-Gummi-Candy-Gold-Bears-5-Pound/....

SHDH is great, but I wouldn't compare it in the same light as the hackathons we're discussing. It's not a weekend long event and you cut corners on getting healthy food, because you have no funding. Not to take away from the great fun of a SHDH, but most developers these days expect a certain level of quality from the hackathons they attend.

went to pennApps... even a little attention to gluten-free would have been nice.

In the past, PennApps organizers went out of the way to cater to my dietary needs (dairy-free), but I think it was too big for that this year. Maybe allergen inclusion on the registration form could have informed organizers on the ratio of different foods they could get?

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