Hackathons are really bad for starting companies

December 5, 2013

Only a few years ago, hackathons were a new thing. Geeks like me would get together for a Saturday or a whole weekend, write a bunch of code while everybody else was enjoying their time off. We would try new technologies, get to know other developers and have a load of fun. Most often there would be a prize for the best demo, which provided some nice competition. Everybody that would attend events would be amazed by the demos that would be shown at the end of a weekend. And I absolutely loved and still love going to hackathons.

But then, the business people moved in, as participants and as organizers. Now don’t get me wrong. Thinking about a market, what problem you are trying to solve is a very good exercise for engineers. I have seen too often smart developers building great apps that had no market at all, which is a waste of good engineering. But with the business people came the notion that that demo was the start of a company, and even could be funded. I fundamentally disagree. Here’s why:

  1. Hackathon teams are just a group of people together for a weekend, not a team of founders.
    Most people at a hackathon have a day job, and a steady one. They don’t intend to continue working on the demo after the hackathon with the people they just met. So that rock star team will lose a lot of players the first Monday morning after the hackathon.
  2. The outcome is just a demo, not even an MVP. 
    Normally apps take week if not months to get to a level to call it an MVP. With the right level of coffee, Red Bull and adrenaline  a small dedicated team will be capable of building something amazing over just a weekend that shows a few screens that demo the intent of the app. At sooo many hackathons if not all I have faked certain screens, just to cut corners. And written horrible code that only deserved to be thrown away. Getting the demo to the level of an MVP in general means starting from scratch again, with weeks if not months needed to build.
  3. Business validation is minimal if not zero. 
    Sure, great hackathons have a good jury that ideally have knowledge of the business and can judge not only the technical level of the demo but also the business opportunity of a demo. But there is no real live interaction with potential customers.

Yet, conferences like Techcrunch Disrupt, Launch and Dreamforce keep on organizing bigger and bigger hackathons with more generous prizes. So, participants start to cheat. For instance, one rule that most hackathons have is that all source code is written at the event itself. With the stakes becoming higher and higher, teams come in that are indeed a team before the event. Have thought about their business, and talked to potential customers.  And have source code written while not being allowed.

This all probably increases their chance of starting a successful company. But it clashes with the original intent of hackathons, to have a fun and fair competition and learn about new technology. And therefore these high stake events should be called a startup competition with mandatory product demos and not a hackathon. So please, more old skool hackathons with small prizes and just hacking.





Dirk de Kok