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Hackathon Playbook Part 2: How to Organize an Event
Lob Culture
February 25, 2014

Hackathon Playbook Part 2: How to Organize an Event

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Dan Zhao

As hackathons become more and more popular, organizing a hackathon has become close to a full time job. We would like to draw on our own experiences both sponsoring and participating in hackathons to offer some helpful tips for hackathon organizers. Below are a few tips to help you organize your next hackathon and make it successful for all parties involved.

Before the Event

1. Choose the right venue

When choosing a hackathon venue, the most important thing is to find a place that is appropriate for the size of your event. For very large events, scout locations that have huge empty spaces such as convention centers, warehouses, and stadiums. For smaller events, co-working spaces are a great choice because they are already wired up and ready to go. Wi-Fi is always a challenge, so make sure to gather as much information as possible about the internet speed, number of routes, ethernet availability, etc. At the very least, strive to provide wired connections to as many people as possible and rate limit so that everyone gets a solid connection and nobody is left out. Make sure there is space for demos, sponsor booths, and presentations.

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2. Develop a mobile app

Communication at hackathons is tough, especially if you're dealing with hundreds or thousands of hackers, sponsors, and judges. A mobile app helps you centralize information while also allowing you push notifications to attendees, contact sponsors straight from the app, and answer questions in a live chat.

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3. Get Sponsors

Your goal at the hackathon is to provide useful tools for your attendees. Find sponsors that can arm hackers with tools (such as APIs, devices, etc.) and send technical evangelists to help participants. Participants are most successful when they have a plethora of tools at their disposal and companies benefit from the valuable feedback on their products. Don't be picky with sponsors, if they can help and have good tools, it is in your hackathon's best interest to find a way for them to get involved.

4. Give sponsors instructions

One of the biggest complaints we hear from sponsors at hackathons is that things seem disorganized and they don't know what they are supposed to be doing. Sponsors are used to organized events and expect instructions. Before the event, send sponsors tentative schedules and tips on how to engage with hackers. Suggest hotels, give parking directions, and be clear on what you expect from them.You can really bring the sponsor experience to the next level by simply giving them the information they need beforehand.

5. Plan office hours

A lot of your sponsors are awesome and have amazing products. Give them the opportunity to talk to hackers and teach them how to use your product. It's a great way to support the community and also gets hackers really excited about your company. Getting to sit down and talk to them about your app, their job, or even just life. Facilitate these types of interactions by organizing open office hours for your sponsors.

6. Arrange speakers and panels

Reach out to interesting and notable members in the tech community and beyond. You will be surprised to find that many of them love to come out to hackathons to give a talk, fireside chat, Q&A, etc. From our personal experience, industry leaders often give very insightful talks that both motivate and raise morale at hackathons. Also, these guests are always impressed by the many different hacks which helps raise awareness for your participants.

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7. Don't let sponsors take over

Many talented hackers will stay away from events with large prizes because there's no way to win unless you use the most APIs/products that the main sponsor(s) have provided. When this happens, demo day/final presentations turn into infomercials sponsored by the biggest companies with the deepest pockets. You should encourage teams to build technically sound and creative projects rather than ones that are the most branded.

During the Event

8. Engagement

Your sole job during the event is to promote engagement amongst attendees and sponsors. No one knows the hackers at the hackathon better than you do. Many of them are constantly running into issues and need help and many of your sponsors happen to be experts in one or more languages and can help hackers tackle obstacles along the way. As an organizer, you need to facilitate these introductions and help people engage.

After the event

9. Solicit feedback

After the weekend is over, make sure to personally reach out to participants, sponsors, and partners and ask for feedback on the event. What went well, what could have been better, and what new ideas could be incorporated next time around. If there are unhappy sponsors, it is important to recognize their grievances and work with them to see how you can improve the experience, especially if you want to work with them again. At the end of the day, the hackers are the voices you should consider the most. Do everything in your power to get their feedback and share it within the organizer community.

10. Track progress of projects

For the most part, most people do not continue maintaining or working on their projects after the weekend is over. Reach out to attendees to encourage them to continue on their hacks. They may have the next killer app (GroupMe).

A big thanks to everyone who contributed to this post. As always, let us know what you think about this list. What did we leave out and what do you like?

If you are organizing an event and would like Lob to be involved, reach out to support@lob.com!

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