Why and How I Organized a Collaborative Hackathon

hackathon image

I think it was three weeks ago that Dan and I organized Hackendo: an Internet of Things Hackathon. Maybe two weeks? I’ve lost track of time ever since.

We created the event for a variety of reasons and with the help of so many others along the way. But we got asked a lot of the same questions over and again, so let me sum this up by interviewing myself.

Why create an Internet of Things hackathon?

Dan proposed the idea about 6 months ago and we both looked at each other and said “Well, why not?” We like a good challenge. The truth is, we were mostly curious and a little frustrated with the current state of hackathons. Today, almost every single hackathon is organized by some corporate entity, looking to capitalize off of developers’ creativity without paying to hire them full-time or as contractors. They feed them pizza for a weekend and end up with a few great, saleable ideas.

What exactly is wrong with most hackathons right now?

Hackathons are a wonderful opportunity to build community around new ideas. People fly in from around the world at the very largest events to gather and build for a weekend. And yet they don’t foster community or collaboration or even building together with fresh perspectives. You’ve got brilliant minds coming together and they’re fighting one another to win a couple thousand dollars. It’s crazy. Instead of fighting, we wanted hackers to think about what we can do when we work together. Dan and I had a hunch that something much more impressive would happen in a collaborative environment. So we set a date and got started.

How did we hone the idea?

qualcomm toq watch hacking

Stephen, founder and CTO of PubNub, hacks with Qualcomm’s tools

When we first got started, we had an enormous goal: create a large, unparralleled community space where people can build, learn from companies’ tools and resources, and hear from thought leaders. As Dan met with prospective sponsor after prospective sponsor, he discovered that honing the idea into something incredibly focused (an IoT hackathon that required teams to use 2+ technologies) would inspire more creativity than something trying to accomplish too much. We give major credit to the team at Techshop and Collaborative Advantage (Matthew and Jared– they’re some of the most inspiring builders I’ve ever met) for helping us to chip away at the complexities and leading the product development sessions.

How much did it cost?

In the spirit of transparency, I will tell you that this event ended up costing us nothing and making us nothing. We had no goal of making money, but we were hoping not to spend any, and we did reach that goal. We reached out to many sponsors and the ones that really came through were the ones that should have been there: they were focused on the community, on building, and on helping create a better world. Those who were not there don’t have this same vision for collaborative building, and that’s their prerogative. Being surrounded by companies like that was a true gift. So a huge thank you to: TechShop (could not have done this without the venue), Qualcomm Toq and Alljoyn, Automatic, Wit.AI, Emotiv, Leap Motion, O’Reilly, Instacart, Caviar, and Viglink. All of these companies contributed something (in addition to mentors), whether it was cash to pay for food, snacks, discounts, free devices, or prizes.

What was so very different about this hackathon?

team formation

Teams forming and meeting each other for the first time.

 Other than the lack of major corporate sponsorship that kills the community feel of events like these, we had one major differentiating factor: we did NOT want teams to come prepared with a project. In fact, we didn’t want teams to come as teams. We wanted people to meet one another for the first time and build something awesome. This was truly unique, and it really threw some people off at first. We kind of liked watching people navigate the situation, and they did so flawlessly.

What was the outcome?

On Friday, about 100 people showed up for a space that fit 60. We knew that our unorthodox approach to the hackathon would keep the right people in the room and self-select out the ones who were there for a more traditional, competitive feel (and free food– even though we had lots of it).

ideation process

The ideation process: lots of pens and Post-Its.

By Friday night, teams had formed and we asked people if they were happy with the results. And I will say this: Every single team (every one!) was made up of people who had just met that evening. Every one was made up of people who wanted to build for the sake of building.

Over the weekend, we watched as developers and designers walked between teams and asked for advice, went to company mentors with questions and feedback, and lent each other tools. We had one neuroscience engineer in the room, and I watched as he fielded questions about EKG headsets. We had a team hacking on hardware and borrowing tools from other teams. We had one Oculus Rift headset that slowly made its way around the entire room. This is the kind of collaboration that companies hope to build among their teams, what small businesses wish they could form around themselves as an anchor in times of need. And we built it in a weekend.

On Sunday night, Dan and I surveyed the teams as they put the finishing touches on their projects. It was so inspiring to see them coming together. We greeted our judges – Robert Scoble, Rachel Metz, John Adams, Chris Bruce, and Erik Klein – and got them comfortable as everyone prepared for their presentations.

As each team took the stage, people oohed and ahhed. Robert Scoble made the comment that he would actually buy a tool that a team created for use with Automatic. People popped open beers and celebrated.

That night, we cleaned up the empty beer bottles and put away all the tables and chairs with the Collaborative Advantage team, and we gave ourselves a little pat on the back. Putting together an event like this – having never put one together before – was no small feat. I lost some sleep over it, I won’t pretend otherwise. But the end result was the formation of a group of friends, some new business partners, and invaluable and deep connections between hackers and the sponsors who helped them along the way.

Now that I am fully recuperated from the 3-day buildfest, I’m rather proud of what we accomplished. I had a chance to build something from scratch with my best friend and business partner. We had an idea and we executed.

And that’s what life and work are about for me: dreaming, thinking, believing, and doing. Then sleeping a lot as a reward for a job well done.

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5 responses to “Why and How I Organized a Collaborative Hackathon

  1. Wow, what an incredible read! Carrie, Sheila and I only got to meet you for a tiny bit during SXSW, but this is obviously so you! Could feel the electric satisfaction in this post, thanks so much for sharing this with us :-)

  2. Hi Carrie,

    I really enjoyed the article about collaborative hackathon. Have you seen Protohack: The Code Free Hackathon? It took place this past weekend, and was also a hit. http://protohack.org/

    I’m co-producing the FunnyBizz Conference: Where Business Meets Humor to Craft Better Content and we have Lyft’s Director of Community Relations along with speakers from Airbnb, LinkedIn Betabrand, Optimizley, a golden globe winner and three time Emmy nominee discussing how to make an impact through humor and story telling.

    Would you be interested in sharing this event with your group? If yes, I created a healthy 50% discount for members to attend. If not, I’d still love to connect, given we are also focusing on nurturing our community of folks who want to make business more fun.

    https://funnybizzconference.eventbrite.com/?discount=sfcmgr

    With a smile,
    Rachman

    • Hey Rachman, I just saw your conference posted via David Spinks. I can include it in my group’s newsletter going out tomorrow or over the weekend. I’d love to attend, sounds really fun but I’m on a bit of a budget for various reasons. :(

      Thanks for the tip on Protohack. I’ll definitely check it out!

      Feel free to email me if you’d like to connect further!

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