What’s the difference between running a hackathon and sailing into a gale? A cynic might tell you that the boat will get a lot further. To stop your flagship of innovation being torpedoed before it even leaves port, Agorize is donning its captain’s gear and helping you to navigate the turbid waters of open innovation. Here are five sure-fire ways to sabotage your hackathon (and how to avoid them).
1. Opt for a full physical or a full online hackathon
Do you want your hackathon to be physical or online? Both, captain! There’s a more effective alternative to traditional hackathons – O2O or online to offline hackathons, which start off online and finish with a physical event. This is the type of open innovation challenge we’ll be referring to throughout this article.
Some might accuse us of being biased. And they’d be right – because we believe that O2O hackathons are the best possible compromise between online and physical open innovation challenges.
Unlike fully physical traditional 48-hour hackathons, the O2O format helps to produce more complete projects. Participants have the opportunity to develop their ideas over two to three months (or so) with the help of mentors and experts. Plus, the final at the end of the O2O hackathon helps to create a buzz and a feeling of engagement that you don’t always get with fully online open innovation challenges.
Finally, O2O hackathons have the benefit of being applicable to all business sectors, professions and issues. Whatever sector you work in, there’s no risk of a major disaster. Hackathons let you reach out to more participants (an expanded geographic scope and more diverse profiles) and get to know them better. It’s a chance to discover their social skills and their personalities as well as their technical abilities – and this last point is essential for companies looking for new talent.
Whether your hackathon is physical, online or O2O, to stop it from becoming an utter disaster, you need to attract as many participants as possible. And that’s where the problem lies for over-confident businesses.
2. Think that your brand’s reputation alone will attract hundreds of participants
Pride comes before a fall – and pride is the first risk that companies are faced with when they get on board with the hackathon adventure. Whether you’re targeting students, developers, startups, consumers, your customers, or even your partners, your brand isn’t enough by itself to attract hundreds of participants. It might be annoying, but it’s a reality that you just have to accept. And even in-house, with your own employees, it can be difficult to get people interested – unless you resort to certain less than respectable methods to coerce them into taking part (but I digress!).
Experience shows that it’s absolutely vital to launch a specific and well-targeted marketing campaign before and throughout the entire duration of your hackathon. And as we’re fond of saying, the companies that attract the most participants aren’t always the best-known or trendiest companies.
The importance of communicating upstream of your hackathon
It’s important to have proper outreach in place before your hackathon to encourage as many participants as possible to sign up. It’s a way of attracting the right people from your chosen community (students, developers, startups, employees, etc.). Communication channels and drivers are different from one community to another. And relying solely on social media doesn’t pay off in the long term.
Here are a few tips to help you reach out to each community:
- Students: outreach to universities and colleges, teaching and administrative staff; student organizations (student unions, sports clubs, etc.)
- Developers: tech courses and universities (such as Ecole 42 and Epitech, to name just two)
- Startups: incubators, accelerators, tech and startup shows
- Employees: email and poster campaign, communication on the company intranet
- Consumers: consumer associations, the press
It’s essential to put these long-term strategies in place. They mean creating relationships and forging partnerships with universities, colleges, organizations and incubators, and that can’t happen overnight. Innovation is a long-term process, but the rewards are worth it.
How should you communicate during your hackathon?
Having a large number of people registered for your hackathon doesn’t necessarily guarantee a high participation rate. Without an engaging campaign during the hackathon, it’s quite common to see participants lose interest and decide not to see their project through. It’s up to you to find the best drivers to maintain interest throughout the hackathon.
And to do this, you need to communicate with participants regularly, keeping them interested through reminders and customized tips. Don’t be too formal when communicating. It depends on your target communities, of course, but in general, participants prefer it when they’re addressed in a relaxed, natural style.
Finally, it’s absolutely essential that you provide guidance throughout the hackathon. That’s the second most common mistake that businesses make – leaving participants to their own devices during the hackathon.
3. Leave participants to their own devices
Ignore steps 4 and 7 of the assembly instructions and there’s a good chance that the minimalist design of your new Swedish bookshelf won’t stand up to the hefty legacy of Shakespeare and Dickens. The same applies to a hackathon. Participants need to be given guidance and support.
And this means two key benefits for you: ensuring a high level of engagement and obtaining more complete projects.
Ensuring a high level of engagement
Contrary to what you might think, it isn’t the prizes that motivate participants the most. What they’re really interested in is taking their idea as far as possible and showing what they’re capable of. By supporting them and helping them to develop their projects, you ensure that you get a high level of engagement throughout your hackathon.
And to do this, we recommend that you implement a mentoring system. The principle is simple – assign mentors to each participating team. In most cases, you cast your employees in this role, but you can also choose mentors from outside the company.
Mentors work to support participants, helping them to develop their idea’s potential and present it in the best way possible. Whether it’s a deliverable (PowerPoint presentation, video, etc.) or a pitch session, mentors provide custom support to their team. And there’s also the opportunity for mentors to learn from the participants they coach. It’s called ‘reverse mentoring’.
As well as coaching, some hackathons also need you to provide technical support. After all, when the deliverable is a mobile app or a connected device, for example, participants might need a little extra help. If this applies to your hackathon, you can call on experts for support.
Unlike mentors, experts aren’t each assigned to a team – they’re available for all participants to contact. Experts are specialists who make themselves available to help participants and answer their questions.
This support shows that you’re taking the hackathon, participants and their projects seriously. It’s essential if you want to achieve high levels of engagement – and end up with ideas, concepts and prototypes that are as complete as possible.
4. Filter through participants at the outset
Lack of openness is what kills creativity and innovation dead in their tracks – which is a pity! It’s also one of the bad habits that big groups have when they’re looking for new talent – they make the same old choices every time. It’s a human copy-and-paste on a massive scale, intended to reduce the risk of making recruitment mistakes. The same is true of companies that want to innovate but rely exclusively on their R&D department.
Hackathons are designed precisely to bring these outdated practices to an end. So when you launch a hackathon, whether it’s to recruit or innovate, don’t just cosy up to students from the most prestigious universities, and don’t try to only involve a single department from your company. Encourage people to be open and form multidisciplinary, complementary teams.
Seek out diversity and prioritize outsiders. We see it all the time during the student hackathons we organize, for example: the businesses that are willing to open up to new profiles and new ideas are the ones that identify the most innovative projects.
When Cetelem organized its personal finance challenge, for example, two first-year agronomics students took first place ahead of students from more prestigious universities such as Centrale, HEC, and Télécom ParisTech. They were atypical candidates with the best idea – so it isn’t always students from the top universities and courses who win hackathons.
Having multidisciplinary teams rather than teams of pure experts results in better perspective. Specialists who take the same courses at the same universities have the same reactions and the same ways of thinking. But to innovate and to develop your company, what you need is new ideas and new solutions.
Once you’ve identified the best ideas, you need to be able to build the tension. That’s why the final – where finalists will get the chance to pitch their ideas in person – is so important. Unfortunately, if it’s not properly organized, the final can come crashing down around your ears and ruin what should be the highlight of a successful hackathon.
5. Botch the final
You’ve been managing your hackathon like a pro for the last few months. Your participants couldn’t be more motivated and innovative ideas are springing forth in their hundreds. There’s just one job left to do – organizing the final ceremony. And stopping it from falling flat.
After all, the final is the peak of your open innovation challenge. It’s when the teams you’ve shortlisted meet face to face to defend their project. To make it an unforgettable event, you don’t just need a dynamic host, you also need to make sure that participants are ready to present their project.
Hosting the final
It might sound simple, but it’s a big job. You need to be able to manage stress and create a great atmosphere throughout the entire event. Nothing’s more off-putting than seeing yawns spread through the audience when you’re on your own on stage, introducing a team.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you can always delegate the task to a host from outside the company – someone who can breathe a bit of energy into proceedings and deal with the quieter moments.
Preparing the finalists
The finalists’ pitches are the other key moment of your final. Participants present their project to the jury that you’ve put together. No-one wants to sit through an hour of clumsy, monotonous presentations.
And it’s not an easy job. When the time comes to talk in front of dozens or even hundreds of people, most of us get nervous or flustered. The most effective way to prevent this is plenty of preparation.
And that’s what mentors are for – giving guidance to the finalists, helping them to present their ideas in a way that will capture everyone’s full attention. We speak from experience when we say that the finals where participants have prepared with help from a mentor are the most successful, in terms of both style and content. Both aspects play a hugely important role in making sure that teams leave a good impression on the jury members.
Helping your hackathon run smoothly
Organizing a hackathon isn’t a simple task. But with a little practice and proper preparation, any business can rise to the occasion and source the most innovative projects and talent.
Over its six years of history and after organizing 250 hackathons, Agorize has quite a few stories to tell. But by following these five simple rules, you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle:
- Choose the right hackathon format
- Communicate regularly and on specific aspects
- Support participants every step of the way
- Encourage people from different backgrounds to get involved and to form multidisciplinary teams
- Fine-tune every aspect of the final ceremony
To find out more about organizing a hackathon, download our free e-book: The ultimate guide to organizing your hackathon in 10 steps! It includes all of our unique tips and tricks – taken from real life cases – to make your hackathons a success.