Posted by Aspen Hollyer on 15th May 2017
My Experience, Plus Tips for Organizing Your Own
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:
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.’
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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:
- Spread the word on social media. Having an online RSVP (here’s mine) where folks can sign up to participate, volunteer, or donate, is a must.
- Keep it simple. I used the following platforms to spread the word about the Mini-Hackathon: a Facebook group, Meetup.com, and a local tech slack channel. Through these channels, around 35 people signed up over the course of less than two weeks. Depending on the size of event you want, you may be more or less selective in how you advertise it.
- Print some flyers. When you speak to businesses, a flyer lends you some credibility. They may even post it in their business for extra advertising. Here’s the one I made (for free using Canva):
- Ask for help in an open-ended way. My bootcamp donated soda and energy drinks, and another coding school donated pizza and prizes. Also, a local grocery store gave us fresh fruit for breakfast. When my friends or I approached these people, told them about the event, and asked them if they could help in any way, the response was almost always: “We’d love to! What do you need?” This allows you to list a few options. The donations you get in this manner will probably exceed your expectations, and you’ll get more than you would have initially asked for.
- Make it win-win. Offer to let sponsors set up a table at your event. They may want to give you brochures, stickers, or other information to display at your event. At the very least, you should briefly thank each of your sponsors at the start and end of your event.
- Follow up. After the event is over, let your sponsors know how the event went and thank them one last time, either in person or with a kind note. You want this relationship to be positive for you and them, especially if you hope to have them sponsor you again in the future.
Cost: Just gas money to visit local businesses.
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.
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:
- A Folder for Each Participant
- These were actually left over from my teaching days. I had around 40 plain-color folders. Here are some ideas for what to put in them:
- GitHub likes 2-3 months’ notice in order to sponsor an event, but you can order a 50-pack of OctoCat stickers for $8.
- I ordered this pack of stickers from Amazon, 100 for $7.50. There was something for everyone, and it was a very good value.
- Prizes: I didn’t want to go over the top, but I did want to offer some token in recognition of everybody’s hard work. My fellow coders generously offered to donate the $50 Amazon gift cards we won at HackHouston. Unfortunately, those didn’t arrive in time. So I ended up finding things here and there:
- LootCrate goodies I didn’t want
- A donated StarBucks giftcard
- Computer glasses (2 for $12 on Amazon)
- Fancy notebooks & planners donated by a code school
With a little hustling for donations/sponsors, the out-of-pocket cost of hosting this hackathon came to…
- Gas money: $10
- Cheat Sheet Copies: $9
- Stickers: $16
- Prizes: $12
Total: under $50
- Judging: Rather than 1st/2nd/3rd place, we used prize categories. This allowed for a wide range of projects, and also gave the judges some guiding criteria. We awarded prizes for:
- Best Hack (using existing data/API)
- Best Social Impact
- Prettiest Design
- Technically Badass
- Crowd Favorite
Mentoring: One judge stayed throughout the day and also helped mentor/debug when groups got stuck. This was great, and I highly recommend finding mentors like this, especially for a beginner-friendly hackathon.
- Breaking the Ice: We kicked off the day with a brief presentation. I just made some Google Slides with key info:
- Meal times, snack & drink locations
- Venue details (restrooms, emergency procedures)
- Resources (who to ask for help, extra power strips, whatever)
- Prize categories
- How teams should submit their projects (DevPost, GitHub)
- Project presentation guidelines, e.g.
- 3 minutes to present
- Explain your tech stack
- Include a demo
- Be ready to answer questions from judges
- Thank-you to our sponsors
- Facilitating Teams: Some people will come with project ideas, while others will arrive wanting to join a team. As an organizer, it’s your job to help these people find each other.
- Some large events do this in a formal way, having people stand up and pitch ideas, then having the participants vote by show of hands, sticky notes, or congregating in certain areas of the room. I really don’t think this is necessary unless you see that there are too many project ideas, or folks are having trouble organizing themselves.
- For this event, I suggested limiting teams to 3-5 people, and then gave those with project ideas a chance to pitch. This was done in a casual, low-pressure way. After everyone pitched, the event officially began. I moved around the room helping to make sure everyone found a group, but for the most part, people self-organized efficiently.
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:
- What kind of developers do you want to attract?
- Large events with big prizes may attract experienced developers, and will probably scare off new coders who suffer from ‘imposter syndrome.’
- How much time do you have?
- More time = more sponsorships. Many well-known hackathon sponsors, like GitHub and Amazon Web Services, require at least 2-3 months notice in order to consider your event.
- More time = more attendees. Events spread gradually over social media, and people are more able to make space in their calendars if you give them plenty of notice. (Knowing this, if you want a small event, don’t start advertising it too early!)
- What are your local resources?
- Local tech groups and meetups may want to get involved or even help organize.
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.
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