It's no secret that hackathons are quickly growing in prevalence and size around the world. If you are unfamilar with what a hackathon is, check out this great piece by Dave Fontenot. At Lob, our goal is to give developers access to physical world infrastructure through an API, so that they can build cool features directly into their applications. Hackathons have been a very valuable medium for us as a company to evangelize our APIs, build our brand, and meet developers. We have seen many creative uses of the Lob APIs as hackers have built applications on top of Lob and as cool extensions of their existing applications. What follows is our playbook for doing hackathons well.
As a hacker, these events are the best way to come together with others to build amazing products, solve interesting and challenging problems, and meet new people all within the span of 24-48 hours. When companies sponsor hackathons, they are presented with a great opportunity to meet talented individuals of all ages and backgrounds. With numerous software and hardware hacks, the insight into the most popular tools, APIs, languages, and development approaches taken can be invaluable for companies as they look to hire and develop their own products. If the organizers of these events are able to bring together all these parties in a well-planned fashion, then it is truly a one-of-a-kind experience for everyone involved.
In part one of our Hackathon Playbook Series, we wanted to lay out 10 things that sponsors need when they are considering sponsorship of hackathons. Sponsoring these events often requires a great deal of commitment for companies of all stages and it is important to make the most of your experience. We based this list off of our own observations and learnings sponsoring and attending various hackathons of all different sizes. No matter what event you choose to sponsor, the common theme of a successful sponsorship is a strong presence.
We cannot stress the importance of this as it relates to sponsors. Even though you probably have a nice spot in the venue with a table set up dedicated for your company, you should be spending a good chunk of your time during the hackathon walking around and meeting hackers. Ask about what they are working on, offer your help and constructive feedback, and tell them about your company. The large majority of hackers at these events won't even know you are there if you stay at your table all weekend.
Bring as many stickers, t-shirts, stationery, and other fun things as you can get your hands on. Hackers love swag (who doesn't?) and bringing fun stuff accomplishes two things: 1) builds your brand and 2) attracts attention. Things like stickers have a viral effect and subtly markets your brand during and long after the weekend is over. When you have swag at your table, people will immediately gravitate towards you and more often than not, listen to a quick pitch about your product. If you don't bring anything, you're going to miss out on these opportunities.
This one is absolutely crucial, especially for companies that are trying to evangelize technical integrations such as APIs. It is very important to have someone on the ground for the duration of the weekend that knows your product inside and out and can help to debug and answer any questions hackers have at these events.
Have clear documentation/instructions on your website that is immediately accessible. Explore other avenues as well. For example, the folks at MongoDB hand out small, aesthetically pleasing journals that are ripe with FAQs and helpful tips on how to integrate with their product. They hand this out as part of their swag pack and it's awesome. You have to remember that hackers have to build out a functional product in as little as 24 hours so if your product is confusing to use, they will more than likely give up and use something else.
Make sure to bring banners, table throws, and whatever signage you can get your hands on. Hackathons are usually held at big venues, so unless you have a visual presence that commands attention, it is difficult to stand out. Buy some stand-up banners and put it on top of your sponsor table so that everyone can see it from anywhere in the venue.
All companies should always make sure to beef up their customer support efforts, but this is especially true when it comes to hackathons. There has to be a way to interact with company reps in real-time. So if you can't send people to be physically there, make sure to let everyone know that they can get answers from you in real-time via a support phone line, email, olark, twitter, and other mediums.
For those companies that have an API, offer up a prize to the team with the best integration. Make sure you approach every single person that uses your API that weekend, thank them, and ask for feedback. For companies that are recruiting, offer up a prize to best overall hack or some other general category. This will allow you to personally communicate with teams that impress you. Prizes don't necessarily have to be expensive. iPads and gadgets are always a hit, but often times what's more valuable may be some sort of unique trophy, or perhaps even a private dinner with your team. The opportunity for hackers to pick your brain can be way more valuable than gadgets you can buy any time. Just keep in mind that simply offering up a prize is not enough, you have to do a good job of evangelizing it as well.
When midnight rolls around, hackers start getting tired and burnt out. Even though the event organizers generally do a great job of making sure there is always enough food, you can never have enough frappuccinos, red bulls, chips, and candy. If nothing else, people will love you for bringing treats, but more often than not, they will also give you their attention and learn about who you are and what you do. We have personally had quite a few hackers find out about our product and actually use it because we offered up some drinks.
Many people will say that business cards are becoming obsolete, but it is still the easiest way to hand out your contact info. We have found that hackathon participants ask for your personal business cards because it is always nice for them to be able to follow up with you after meeting at the event. You will meet lots of interesting and talented people at hackathons, so be sure that they have a way to contact you afterwards.
When it comes to sponsorships, there is an innate sense of competition. Sponsors are competing for talent, technical integrations, and attention. Although this is true, you should be building relationships with other sponsors. If you go to enough of these, you start running into the same people. The two most recent hackathons we have been to were MHacks and hackTECH. At both events, we saw several cool apps that used a combination of sponsor APIs such as Pinterest + Lob, Sendgrid + Lob, and others. Some ideas are so impressive that they could inspire real product integrations.