How to Run a Company Hackathon in 6 Simple Steps

Hackathons have taken the world by storm and are happening all around the world in a number of different industries.

These events typically last 24-48 hours and are designed to bring developers, designers, innovators, and other domain experts together to solve specific problems.

Hackathons are often designed for fun, but they’re often very effective for solving problems in the area they address.

These days, hackathons have evolved from the stereotypical programming weekend filled with pizza and energy drinks to a methodology used to better collaborate, solve problems and train on new skills. Today, there are hackathons for medical tech, mobile apps, APIs, and more.

Hackathons aren’t just designed to solve problems, though. They’re becoming very impactful ways for organizations of all types to recruit technical staff, come up with new product ideas or use cases, and even to train existing staff on new business procedures.

These events have clear advantages over traditional innovation and problem solving processes. They’re inclusive, agile, promote collaboration, and have shorter development cycles.

If you’ve been thinking about organizing a hackathon for your organization, then read on. Here are 6 simple steps to run a company hackathon.

1. Define the hackathon objectives

In order for a hackathon to be successful, you need to have a single, clearly defined objective. Without clear objectives, you’ll be unable to provide participants with clear direction.

A clear objective gives you organizational direction. If you know what problem you’re trying to solve, you and your team can organize the event around finding a solution to this problem.

There are 5 key objectives that hackathons are known to deliver results for. Let’s go over each of them.

Finding new business solutions

Organizational issues are traditionally resolved by upper management or project managers, but these people usually aren’t the ones who are close to the problem.

Hackathons help find new business solutions by getting the people closest to the issues involved. This allows you to leverage hackathons to:

  • Improve existing products or processes by including the parties that work closest with the existing product or process.
  • Generate new use cases for existing products by having attendees build creative use cases around a specific technology.

Speeding up product launches

When you launch a product in a large organization, there are typically excessive delays caused by R&D time, red tape, and submission and approval requirements.

Hackathons help speed up product launches by:

  • Gathering stakeholders together to find ways to save time and money.
  • Allowing you to collaborate with mature startups that have unique technologies you can make use of.

Training and engaging your staff

Careful training of your staff is essential in onboarding new hires or getting your team comfortable with new technologies that you may be introducing into your organization.

Additionally, if you’re looking to encourage intrapreneurship in your organization, hackathons can be great tools for this.

Hackathons can help you train and engage your staff in the following ways:

  • Integrating new tools into the process into your hackathons to force your staff to use them in creative ways.
  • Collaborating on new methodologies in a boot camp style hackathon that gets your team comfortable with any changes.
  • Encourage collaboration and teamwork by hosting hackathons that involve new and existing employees, forcing them to work as a team and collaborate with each other.
  • Foster intrapreneurship by tasking your hackathon attendees with the objective of overcoming an ongoing technical challenge faced by your business, coming up with new ways to use an existing product, or building an MVP of a new product.

Finding new talent

Attracting and recruiting new talent is a common challenge for many businesses.

If your business is going to hire the best of the best, and even attract candidates away from competitors, you’re going to need to build a talent pool - a database of candidates interested in working for you.

Hackathons can be leveraged as a part of your recruitment process so that you can…

  • Attract and hire candidates by hosting fun events (like hackathons) that appeal to potential candidates so that they have a positive outlook on your business, making it easier to convince them to join your team.
  • Reduce the time and cost of hiring by looking at the winning teams or individuals that stood out at your hackathons.
  • Scale your recruitment process by making your hackathon known within the communities that your candidates are a part of. This way, if you need new staff, you just host another hackathon!

Improving developer relations

If you run a business that has a product that you need to build awareness for within the developer community, such as an API or SDK, hackathons can help.

Hosting a hackathon that puts your tech product front and center is the best way to build awareness and put your product ahead of your competitors. Docusign regularly hosts hackathons to promote their API, for example.

Creating a fun event that gives developers hands on experience means you’ll be top of mind when they’re presented with the problems your product solves.

If you need more info on choosing an objective for your hackathon, check out our masterclass - How To Define Your Hackathon Challenges Using The Challenge Canvas.

Learn ho to optimize your hackathon outcome.

2. Prepare the event

Once the final objectives are clear, the next step is to prepare the event.

This is accomplished by completing 4 main tasks:

  • Defining the correct format for your hackathon.
  • Setting your terms and conditions.
  • Creating a website and system for managing registrations.
  • Creating a workback schedule.

Let’s go over each of these in detail.

Defining the correct format for your hackathon

In general, there are 5 different types of hackathon formats:

  • Internal hackathons - These are organized by a business for its own employees and are used to promote intrapreneurship, boost employee engagement, and encourage collaboration. They’re frequently used for training and resolving internal issues.
  • External hackathons - These hackathons are leveraged when a business intends on source participants from outside their organization rather than from within their company. These can be used for the purpose of recruitment or developer relations within a specific geographic area.
  • Online hackathons - Online hackathons are simply external hackathons that occur on the internet instead of in a specified geographic location. These can be effective at improving developer relations on a global scale.
  • Startup hackathons - During these hackathons, pre-selected startups compete to create solutions to a problem set by the organizer. The goal of these hackathons is to develop relationships with promising startups.
  • MVP hackathons - If you’re looking to improve your product launch process, MVP hackathons are the one for you. These hackathons gather multiple business units together for 3 days with the goal of developing a working prototype of a product that overcomes a specific challenge.

Setting your terms and conditions

Once you’ve chosen the format for your hackathon, you need to put together your terms and conditions as soon as possible.

The terms and conditions should express all of the legalities and rules concerning the organizer and the participants. This includes intellectual property rules, consequences in case of a fraud, prize allocation, etc.

Creating a website and system for managing registrations

You need to establish your hackathon’s internet presence. Here’s how:

  • Build a website - This is how you’re going to be able to recruit and communicate with participants.
  • Set up a registration process - This can be made in-house and hosted on your website, or you can use platforms like Eventbrite, TicketBud, or TicketLeap.

Take a look at TechBeach’s website for an example of what you should aim to build.

Creating a workback schedule

Finally, you need to clearly define a schedule of milestones for you, the organizer, to complete before the event to make sure the hackathon goes perfectly. This is known as a workback schedule, and is essential in making sure you stick to a timeline.

3. Design the event

Once you’ve finished the prep work for your hackathon, you can start designing the event itself.

The steps involved in designing your event are as follows:

  • Come up with a theme based on your objective.
  • Create challenges based on your theme.
  • Define your judging criteria.
  • Put together the hackathon schedule.

Let’s go over each of these.

Come up with a theme based on your objective

The first step in designing your event is to come up with a broad theme based on the objective you defined in step 1 above.

The theme should be broad enough that if you pitch the hackathon to a potential participant, they’re quickly able to come up with 3 ideas of what they would build during the event.

Here are some examples of hackathon themes:

  • Improve the customer experience within your Industry.
  • Apply a specific technology (AI, Blockchain, VR, etc.) to your Industry.
  • Develop solutions for a social good cause your company wants to fight for.

Create challenges based on your theme

Next, you want to define the challenges based on the theme.

The challenges should essentially be sub-themes of your hackathon’s main theme that guide participants into creating the business solutions that the organizers are looking for.

You can learn more about creating challenges for your hackathon in our hackathon organization masterclass.

Define your judging criteria

After you’ve established your theme and challenges, you want to define your judging criteria.

In this step, you should define the judging criteria based on the objectives defined in the first step. These criteria can be things like business potential, relevance to the theme, practicality, technical complexity, etc.

Based on our experience and observations, here are the four most relevant criteria to ensure the best projects are chosen:

  1. Business potential - 5 points: This criteria determines the viability of the solution based on the current market and competition
  2. Relevance to the theme - 5 points: This is scored on how effectively the solution is solving the problem expressed by your theme.
  3. User Experience - 5 points: Determines how appealing the solution offered is for users
  4. Completion/Execution - 5 points: This should be judged based on the work done on-site by participants. How complete is the project? How much did they develop during the event?

Feel free to change the scale for each criterion so that the judging is aligned with what you want participants to focus on. If you want polished projects, increase the “completion/execution” criterion and reduce the “business potential” one.

Put together the hackathon schedule

Finally, after you've determined your objective, challenges, and judging criteria, you’ll want to put together a schedule for your hackathon.

This is where you define the hackathon schedule from start to finish, which may consist of activities, workshops, coaching checkpoints, hackathon milestones, and deadlines.

A day before the event, go through everything with your organizational team like a dress rehearsal. If you decide to make any last minute changes, be sure to communicate these with your attendees.

Even if each hackathon is different and has a tailored agenda, a classic corporate hackathon schedule looks like this:

Friday - 1st day

7PM: Opening

  • 8PM: Idea pitch and voting
  • 9PM: Team formation
  • 10PM: Participants go home for a good night’s sleep or start working on projects.

Saturday - 2nd day

9AM: Day 2 opening and breakfast

  • 9:30AM: Teams start working on projects
  • 11AM: Inspirational workshop
  • 12PM: Checkpoint 1

1PM: Lunch

  • 2:30PM: Technical workshop
  • 4PM: Animation (quiz, babyfoot, make it fun!)
  • 6PM: Checkpoint 2
  • 7:30PM: Dinner

9PM: Teams keep working on their projects

Sunday - 3rd day

9AM: Day 3 opening and breakfast

  • 9:30AM: Deck building
  • 10:30AM: Pitch workshop
  • 11AM: Teams complete the final refinements on their projects and presentations

1PM: Last lunch

  • 2PM: Stop hacking
  • 2:30PM: FInal presentations
  • 3:30PM: Jury deliberations
  • 4PM: Winner announcement and closing cocktail

5PM: End of the hackathon

4. Promote the hackathon

Once your hackathon is ready to go, you need to start promoting it.

Recruiting participants has a massive impact on the outcome of the hackathon. Without any participants, there wouldn't be a hackathon.

To promote your hackathon, you need to create an effective communication plan that reaches your intended audience. If you’re targeting college students for a recruitment effort, an outreach campaign to local universities might be the best way to use your resources.

Next, you need to create the communication materials. This can be press releases or email templates to use for outreach, or ad copy and images to be used for an ad campaign.

If you’re hosting an external, MVP, startup, or online hackathon, here are a few creative ways you can promote your it:

- Get it listed on hackathon listing sites. Here are a few you can use:

- Share and advertise your event on social media.

- Alert your newsletter and partner with other newsletters to promote the event.

- Reach out to relevant developer communities, universities, incubators, and meetups, to let them know about the event and discuss partnership opportunities.

- Buy ads on relevant media outlets.

Successful promotion of your hackathon is the only way to ensure you’ll be able to attract relevant participants. If you plan to make this a regular event, don’t forget to collect contact information to invite your participants to the next hackathon you host.

5. Inspire and train participants

If you want the hackathon to result in high-quality final projects, inspiration and training of participants and mentors is crucial. If you do this properly, you can also raise awareness about the event objectives and manage the expectations of your participants.

One way to accomplish this is through physical workshops. These aren’t simply networking or training opportunities - workshops allow participants to get direct feedback on project ideas, which gives them an opportunity to refine their ideas before the main hackathon event. If the ideas are compelling, they’ll attract quality team members, which will result in a better outcome in the end.

If you’re hosting an online hackathon, you can also have these workshops online in the form of a video chat.

It’s also important that you provide quality communication with your participants leading up to the event. When participants register, capture their contact information such as their email and phone number, and keep them up to date on any changes related to your hackathon. 

Additionally, to inspire new ideas, share interesting tech news, last year ideas, and other helpful content with them leading up to the event. This can help stimulate creative thinking.

Finally, have participants follow you on your social media channels and keep those up to date with inspirational content. You can even set up Facebook groups where participants can communicate. If you build your own community, you’ll build greater awareness of your hackathon over time.

6. Make it fun

Even if your organization’s brand is strong, you need to make your hackathon appealing to the desired audience.

Hackathons are appealing because they’re meant to be fun. They’re a way for programmers, designers, innovators, and domain experts to use their skills for competitive fun rather than simply for work. A hackathon is something participants want to do rather than have to do.

That said, you still need to attract the audience by giving it a purpose. Why would they attend?

Of course, the participants will attend if they are excited about the theme, but it’s strongly recommended that you take the event a step further by including these extras.

A quality prize pool

Nothing draws people to a competition more than prizes and recognition. Having a high-quality prize pool that makes it possible for all, or most, of the participants to win something makes the event more attractive.

Prizes are usually in the form of cash, job opportunities, internships, or chances of getting into accelerator programs or incubators.

You want to make sure your prizes are available the day of the hackathon as much as possible. This is hard with prizes like internships, for example, but do this when you can.

A nice venue and quality catering

It’s possible to find venues that don’t require you to pay. College campuses are a good example of this.

However, make sure you find a nice-looking venue. If you’re trying to attract talent, a posh environment appeals to developers looking for work in the tech space.

You want to make sure you provide quality catering as well. If the hackathon is for recruitment efforts, this is important for giving off the impression that you take good care of your staff.

Fun activities during the hackathon

Hackathons are intense, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any downtime.

After a day of hacking, sometimes participants will want to hang out with each other. Giving participants access to other fun activities like billiards, table tennis, board games, or video games can be a good way to keep them entertained.

Capturing and sharing pictures and video

Sharing pictures and videos of participants and their work can be a great way to keep them engaged and provide them with recognition. If they see their photos on your Facebook feed, for example, they’re likely to share it, which will increase the awareness of your event.


There you have it - 6 steps to successfully host a hackathon.

If you can successfully pinpoint the overall objective of your hackathon, the rest of the organizational process is straightforward.

On the day of your hackathon, onsite management is key in making sure the final outcome of your hackathon is what you desire it to be.

Once your hackathon ends, it’s not over. You then enter the post-hackathon phase, which consists of maintaining contact with your participants so they come back next time. 

Additionally, it’s important to follow-up with the winning teams to discuss the next steps, such as launching their products, hiring the team, or transforming the product into a startup. Doing so is directly linked to the ROI of your hackathon.

Have any questions for running a hackathon? Contact us here.