How to run your first hackathon

Plan a successful hackathon with this guide

Are you ready to host your first hackathon? These collaborative events can be the springboard for innovative solutions to tricky technological problems. The creative energy that fills the air when great minds come together is truly amazing!

To make sure your first hackathon goes off without a hitch, use the following hackathon ideas.

What is a hackathon?

Before you set the date for your first hackathon, you need to understand what these events are like. Basically, a hackathon is an event, usually lasting for several days, where technological wizards—including programmers, designers, and everyone in between—come together. They form teams and work together around a specific idea or problem; they start from scratch to come up with new solutions.

If you have any doubts about whether hackathons work, consider that GroupMe, the Facebook Like button, and Facebook Chat all came about because of hackathons.

Pick the right venue

Having the right location is essential for hosting a successful hackathon. Ideally, the place you choose should have a large open space where all the participants can gather for te kickoff ceremony at the beginning of the event and for the prize ceremony at the end. There should also be some breakout rooms where teams can sequester themselves and really put their noses to the grindstone.

Consider where your participants are coming from and the parking situation around your chosen venue. You don’t want inconvenience to stop people from enjoying your hackathon.

When you’re shopping for a place to host your hackathon, turn to WeWork. Our collaborative workspaces have individual desks, private offices, and even entire floors you can rent for days or weeks at a time. Whether you’re innovating at Tower Place in Atlanta or Merchant’s Row in Detroit, you’ll find a positive environment that fosters collaboration.

Build the anticipation

It can be expensive to host a hackathon, so look for local companies and investors who might be interested in sponsoring your event. Even government agencies and software developers may be willing to contribute. Those who don’t make straight-up monetary donations to your startup might become in-kind sponsors, offering things like volunteers, food, or equipment.

You also need to attract participants and make them excited to attend your hackathon. Build a web presence for your event and have an easily accessible sign-up form. Be sure your website clearly explains things like when and where the hackathon will be, who is invited, and what special prizes you might be offering.š

Actively market your hackathon through social media and websites such as Reddit and Socrata. Don’t neglect college campuses, either. Post fliers at the nearest major university, especially around the Computer Science building.

Set up judging criteria and choose your judges

You should be able to define clearly what you want your hackathon to accomplish. Not only will this help you market your event, but it will also help you to establish the rules and set up judging criteria. Participants should understand exactly what you and the judges will be looking for to determine a winner. Some criteria you might consider include:

  • Innovation. How creative is the solution? Does it represent out-of-the-box thinking?
  • Technical achievement. What technological problems had to be overcome to create this product?
  • Application. What kind of an impact will the solution make?

The number of judges you have will depend on how big your hackathon is, but three or five are good numbers to start with. Ask people outside your company to join the judging panel; they might come from sponsoring companies or from a local government office. Give the judges clear instructions, and make sure they’ll arrive at the event at least half an hour before judging begins, so you can show them the ropes of how to carry out their responsibility.

Order food and drinks

Hacking takes ample brainpower, and your contestants are bound to work up an appetite. Order more food than you think you’ll need, and don’t just stick to light snacks. You don’t want your participants to complain you were stingy!

For breakfast, you might offer foods such as bagels and cream cheese, fruit, and yogurt. Food like this is easy to grab and quick to prepare. For lunch, you might do a sandwich bar, chicken, salad, pizza, or other universally liked foods. Dinner can have foods similar to lunch. When you’re creating sign-up forms for your event, ask if anyone has special dietary restrictions. If you have a small selection of gluten-free and dairy-free foods available, you’ll make sure no one goes hungry.

Don’t forget the caffeine! Hackathons challenge participants to roll out a working prototype of a new product in an extremely limited amount of time, which means they’re likely to forget about sleeping during the event. Make sure fresh coffee is always available.

Ensure you have the right equipment

Your venue may provide some of the equipment that you need, but you still have to be prepared to collect some of your own. Here is a list of things you might need to gather:

  • A projector. You might use this during the kickoff and prize ceremonies.
  • Tables and chairs. Everyone needs a comfortable place to sit!
  • Power strips. At every table, there should be at least as many plug-ins as there are chairs. Keep in mind that some participants will bring more than one device that they want to plug in.
  • Extra bandwidth. Bring in extra routers, and make sure your ISP knows that you’ll need lots of juice for the day of your hackathon. A strong internet connection can make or break or your event.
  • Spare cables and USB drives. Having extra odds and ends can put the touch on your hackathon that will motivate participants to come back for your next event.

If your hackathon is going to last more than 24 hours, there are even more things you need to consider. You should have a dark, quiet room where participants can nap for a few hours. They’d also likely appreciate a place to shower.

Allow for plenty of setup time and preparation

Make sure you’ll have access to your venue the night before the hackathon starts. You might need to set up tables and chairs, but you’ll definitely need to set up signage. It should be easy for participants to find the different areas in the venue, whether it’s the bathroom, the common room, or the private workspaces. The signs should also have instructions on how to access the event’s Wi-Fi.

You may also want to post some signs that have the event schedule on them. The schedule should outline when meals are served, when the kickoff and prize ceremonies are, when team demos start, when the judging begins, etc.

You should also prepare name tags for anyone who will be working at the event. This will make it easier for participants to know whom they can ask for assistance. For an extra dash of flair, you could even order T-shirts for the event volunteers.

Start the planning process for your hackathon at least three to six weeks ahead of time. This will give you the time you need, not just to plan the event, but to prepare your presentations, build hype, and overcome any obstacles that may pop up along the way.

Make sure things run smoothly

Have some volunteers assigned to roam among the teams and answer any questions that teams may have. Also, make sure you have contingency options to fall upon if something goes wrong. For example, if the Wi-Fi goes out, you could have ethernet connections available as a backup. Allow wiggle room in the schedule in case things fall behind.

Follow up

Phew! You made it through hosting your first hackathon. The fun isn’t over quite yet, though. After the event is over, send an email to everyone who participated. Thank them for attending, and give them information about any upcoming events you’re hosting—you might already be planning your next hackathon.

You can also ask for feedback on their experience. Those who have been to previous hackathons will offer insight into what you might be able to do better next time.

Hosting a hackathon requires meticulous planning, but the effort is well worth it. By picking the right venue, marketing the event, making sure you have the necessary food and equipment, and giving yourself plenty of time to prepare, you’ll make sure your event is the talk of the tech community.

Interested in workspace? Get in touch.