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Posted by Aspen Hollyer on 15th May 2017

The Mini-Hackathon

My Experience, Plus Tips for Organizing Your Own

MiniHack Photo

So, I guess I’m a real coder now: I organized a hackathon! It was awesome. It took place here in Houston on Saturday, May 6th. It was a success, especially considering that it was put together over the course of about two weeks. I’m definitely looking forward to organizing a larger one in the future.

If you’re thinking about organizing a similar event, hopefully my experiences will help you out. Here are the steps it took to get from idea to reality.

Scope it Out

The idea of hosting a hackathon came about as a casual conversation with a group of friends after we participated in HackHouston at Texas Southern University. We had an incredible experience there, and we wanted to help other new developers get involved in hackathons. So I offered to help organize an event for the Houston freeCodeCamp meetup.

From the start, my friends and I knew we wanted something a bit smaller than a full-fledged hackathon. We envisioned a one-day event that would feel less intimidating for new and aspiring developers. Eventually, I settled on the title Mini-Hackathon. Who knows, maybe it’ll catch on. This type of event has some real perks over a traditional hackathon:

  1. Beginner Friendly: I’m a member/co-organizer for Houston’s freeCodeCamp meetup. Many of us are new to programming or are trying to change careers. My number one goal was to host an event that would be accessible, educational, and fun for new coders, especially those who have shied away from other hackathons due to ‘imposter syndrome.’

  2. Easy Time Commitment: Most hackathons run 36-48 hours, which can be near-impossible for people who work weekends. I initially scheduled our event for 12 hours, 9am-9pm, but left things flexible. We ended up finishing about 2 hours early. I’m glad I left this flexibility in the schedule, because 10 hours ended up being the perfect amount of time for us.

  3. Less Pressure: As an organizer, I found this a great way to get my feet wet. I was able to get the logistics down–securing food & venue, creating the agenda, etc.–on a smaller scale, so I have a better feel for how to plan a large hackathon in the future.


Setting a date was easy: We wanted this thing to happen before Houston’s civic hackathon on May 20th. That way, developers could practice and (hopefully) build their confidence to participate in a larger hackathon. That left roughly two weeks to plan it–yikes! I was definitely crunched for time.

Things came together, though. It was busy, to be sure, but the two-week timeline was more doable than you might think. I prioritized the most important stuff first:

  1. Secure a Venue: My coding bootcamp, DigitalCrafts, supplied the venue. If this hadn’t been an option, I would have asked around. A local tech meetup or company may have been willing to host. If that failed, I would have tried co-working spaces around town. Many of them are eager to host events/meetups and spread the buzz about their amenities.
  2. Set a Date: This part was easy. I just picked the earliest Saturday when the venue was available. If time weren’t an issue, I definitely would have set a date further in the future. For a large hackathon, five or six months of planning time seems ideal.
  3. Find Judges: I went to a couple of networking events and spoke to developers about our event. I made lots of great connections for future events, though most people couldn’t commit to the MiniHackathon on such short notice. I ended up securing two judges.
  4. Decide the RSVP Limit: Our venue could comfortably support around 30 participants. Luckily, about that many people signed up to attend. I probably would have closed RSVPs at 45. It’s safe to assume you’ll have no-shows as well as folks who show up without RSVPing, so things tend to balance out. For most tech events I’ve seen in our area, the number of RSVPs exceeds the number in attendance by at least 15%.

Once you have a time and venue, and a general idea of how large your event will be, you can begin securing sponsors.

Hacking on The Cheap

Getting Sponsors

I e-mailed several tech companies and local businesses, though I always tried first to visit with someone in person. I’m no professional fundraiser, but here are my tips for securing donations:

MiniHack Flyer

Cost: Just gas money to visit local businesses.

Find Food

Even if you don’t plan to offer prizes, I think it’s crucial to provide food and drinks at a hackathon. Participants shouldn’t have to go off-site or spend money unless they want to.

We had quite a few individuals donate snacks, and I can say that healthy snacks (fruit, trail mix, etc.) were far more popular than junk food. It’s fine to offer some chips and candy, but most coders want brain food.

Breakfast was fresh fruit and coffee. Lunch was pizza and sodas. Energy drinks and coffee were also available throughout the day.

Cost: $0.

Get Swag & Prizes

What’s a hackathon without stickers? Because I was too time-crunched to secure many sponsorships, I e-mailed a few companies but knew I’d be mostly on my own. Here’s what I did:

With a little hustling for donations/sponsors, the out-of-pocket cost of hosting this hackathon came to…

Total: under $50

Miscellaneous Tips

In Summary:

There are all sorts of hackathons out there, ranging from casual college campus events to huge convention-center affairs with glamorous sponsorships and cash prizes. When deciding where you want your event to fall along this spectrum, these questions might be helpful:

I guess that’s it! Hopefully this advice is helpful to others who want to organize a small-scale hackathon. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

Cheers, Aspen

P.S. Check out some awesome projects that came out of our event!

Off The Chain: Local Authentic Eats

DS Camera: Motion-Activated Deer Stand Photo Album

YouFood: Compare Dishes’ Price vs. Quality

Quantopian Investment Algorithm