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Should Your Startup Participate in a Hackathon?

hackathonImage courtesy of Flickr

Hackathons, once a brand new concept with collaborative intentions, have become commonplace among professional developers, and now are being scrutinized for the their inherent perils. Generally, hackathons are a weekend-long event where developers gather to collaborate on projects with a turnaround of about 24 hours.  Think pizza, dozens of Red Bulls, gallons of coffee, an occasional nap, and a mission to create ‘the next big thing’ while cloistered away with strangers.

The term ‘hackathon’  now covers such a wide variety of events that it’s difficult to decipher which ones are a benefit and which are a detriment.  If you’re keen on participating in a hackathon to boost your startup team, you need to know exactly what you want out of the event.  Hackathons can be physically and mentally gruelling, so if you’re up for the challenge, make the most of your time and stress by doing your homework to find the right one.

Types of Hackathons to Avoid

Burgeoning popularity has turned many a hackathon into PR events aimed at kicking off a company’s new API.  This might be all fine and dandy if you’re just looking to network, but beware of events that want to take ownership over your intellectual property.  If the event states on the registration that anything you create there is licensed to the host — RUN.

If you create something truly remarkable in exchange for, say a $5000 cash prize, you could be seriously kicking yourself when that organization takes your idea and makes a few million dollars.  When the goal is to collaborate on something innovative, you’re wasting your time if all that effort is essentially for someone else.

Another one to avoid, especially if you’re looking to collaborate with talented developers, is a hackathon grounded solely in entrepreneurship.  While you might run into some great idea people, as a developer you won’t be gaining much as a builder. Instead, you’ll be subject to a business plan competition. If you’re not interested in being in a real life version of Shark Tank, it’s probably best to steer clear of this type of hackathon, which really isn’t a hackathon and is in dire need of a new name.

Beware of recruiter spam under the guise of a hackathon.  Normally, this is an event thrown by a large corporation in hopes to find a superstar in the face of an enormous challenge.  If you’re going with your startup in mind, this definitely isn’t helpful to you.  You might meet some real talent, but this event encourages competition rather than teamwork.  It may taint your attempt to collaborate and find like-minded people. Especially if the best talent there is getting scooped up by a tech giant.

Keep in Mind

Not everyone is going to be excited about spending an entire weekend coding with strangers, even with enticing social and culinary offerings.  All nighters fueled by a mixture of free beer, coffee, and pizza may appeal to a younger, gamier crowd, but they tend to exclude people with lives and family responsibilities.  And let’s be clear, it’s not exactly a healthy endeavor.  If you’re going to ask your team to participate, make sure you’re only ‘asking’.  Some hackathons offer childcare, healthier options, and time structures — so if you want to bring team members along it’s best to find a hackathon that is accommodating for a more diverse crowd.

How a Hackathon Can Benefit your Startup

The basic idea of a hackathon is to get a group of developers together and get something done.  That means you have an opportunity for your team to gain fresh perspectives in the face of new problems.  The concentrated environment creates an atmosphere for your team to work together very closely, exchanging ideas and tactics in a new way, and building camaraderie while you’re at it.  And if you pick a good hackathon and enter with a good mindset — it could end up being really fun.

Perhaps side projects that you’ve been putting off have the right space for building. Compression and time pressure allows you to learn quickly with your team, act quickly on decisions, and strip a project down to the most useable and important features. It’s not about winning, but the result from collaborating in a new way might give you a really valuable project to take home and implement in your startup, or simply learning something new.

Networking your startup at a hackathon is a major plus.  You have access to a dynamic set of people — all with different skills and interests.  People go to hackathons for a variety of reasons, but many are looking to network for potential job connections.  What better way to find talent than in a hackathon?  You get to see first hand what someone is capable of while under pressure and adversity.  Perhaps you’ll even get to find out how that person works with your team under some circumstances.  Beyond recruiting your own talent, you may have exposure to investors looking to check your team out as well — the best of both worlds.

So, should your startup participate in a hackathon?  Well, that depends on your motivation and ability to find the right one.  The good ones could be an awesome place for your team to come together, instill some passion, and meet talent.  If that’s the case, go forth and hackathon a weekend away for the love of building.