Archives For hackathons

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.





This article appeared first as a guest post on The BeMyApp blog.

About a year ago I decided to move from Amsterdam, The Netherlands to Silicon Valley. I had tried to start my previous tech company HelloInbox in Amsterdam and that was hard. Nobody was doing startups, there were no investors that were willing to take risk so I and my co-founders were on our own. After having spent a week here I already knew I had to move to Silicon Valley if I wanted to succeed. Everywhere I went I ran into entrepreneurs starting new companies, everybody was really open about how and what, and totally willing to help out. I heard about numerous early stage investors that understand startups, know the chance of succeeding is much smaller than failing, and still are more than willing to invest in you.

So there I was, had moved over to San Francisco to pursue my dream of building a kick ass company. I needed to start networking, and became pretty good at finding the great events to go to. Besides that, I went through the program of  the incubator Founder Institute. Incubators/accelerators are great because they teach you a lot, but also introduce you to local seasoned entrepreneurs that will help you and give advise on how to start your business.

So getting in contact with fellow entrepreneurs is not that hard. However, I also needed to get in touch with fellow developers to build my team. Engineers are a little more difficult to get in touch with, they don’t like chit chat that much. Hackathons are great for that. There are just developers, very few business people that want to sell you their stuff. These are my 5 reasons why I like to go to hackathons:

  1. meet fellow hackers. As an entrepreneur but also as just an employee, you need to know people in your field. You will definitely learn from your fellow hackers, designers and idea people. Maybe you will hire them, they you, or learn about a great job opportunity. Three days working 12-15 hours with lots of Red Bull and beer will make sure you get to know them pretty well.
  2. learn to build something in only a few days and get results. Sometimes spending more time on something does not improve the product. Being forced to build something tangible in only a couple of days forces you to focus on the most important features. You will be surprised how far you can get.
  3. work on different projects than your current project. Maybe you have already poured months into your current project, with many more to come. Stepping away from it and try something else will clear your mind and let you see what other possibilities are out there.
  4. try out cool new technologies. You get try out new stuff like Ruby on Rails, Backbone, ARC or API’s like Twilio’s or Foursquare’s that you haven’t used before. It is a great learning experiment, no previous software that it has to work with and no boss telling you to hurry up when you are diving into something new.
  5. have fun! Ha, yes real hackers enjoy working on code in their free time and so do I. Hackathons create a relaxed atmosphere (in particular after midnight and some beers) in which your work feels like a hobby again.

So what kind of hackathons do I like? I like the more structured ones like BeMyApp. As proof, I already attended 2 and will do so again this weekend (February 24th 2012). I need a goal and a bit of pressure to create something, so having a panel that will judge your work at the end of the day will certainly take care of that.

Now hackathons will seldom create great software that you can build on for years and are not meant for that, as Dave Winer should have known. You might end up with a good idea, a first prototype and a great team and think in the high of the event that you will be a 100 million dollar company in a year. OK, GroupMe is a known exception, but more often you have had a great time and met some great people that you really got to know.

See you at the next BeMyApp event! No doubt it will even be better than the previous one featured in this Wired article.


Well, I like hackathons. Fortunately in Silicon Valley there are a lot of them. Organized by small organisations just for fun or big organisations to push stuff nobody wants. Highly unstructured just sitting together and socialize to structured days (and nights!) to reach an end goal that can be judged by a panel. For just the honor, or big prices.

I like them for these reasons:

  • meet fellow hackers (and designers) and be inspired by them
  • learn from your fellow hackers
  • work on different projects than your current business you have already poured months in with many more to come
  • try out cool new technologies you haven’t used before

The one hackathon I have been to already 2 times and will go to again is BeMyApp. It is around mobile apps (iOS, Android) and highly structured. On Friday idea people pitch their concept, best ones are picked. Saturday and Sunday hacking with a panel at the end. So last time I happened by wind up in the team of a Wired correspondent, Steven Leckart. He was there to write a story about hackathons. So now the story is out. It’s a great article and not only because I am prominently featured. Read it, it has an awesome overview of all hackathons going on.

And next week there is a new BeMyApp weekend, and I will be hanging out again. So see you there!