What is a Hackathon? Here’s everything you need to know

You’ve probably heard of hackathons, but unless you’re involved in the tech industry, you’re likely wondering - What exactly is a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event where programmers, designers, innovators, and other domain experts get together for a sprint-like event to collaborate on intense projects to solve specific problems.

Hackathons can last anywhere from 24 to 48 hours depending on the expected outcome. The goal of a hackathon is to create a proof of concept for your idea, such as a workable software or an app, by the end of the event.

The rise in the popularity of hackathons comes with good reason. Not only are they fun, but hackathons also provide a number of benefits to participants and organizers alike, such as team building, recruitment, and innovation.

In fact, some ideas that were formed at hackathons later grew into multi-million dollar startups. Zapier, Rover and Launchrock, for example, were created at Startup Weekend - a hackathon where participants pitch ideas, form teams, and built prototypes of their ideas in just 54 hours!

If this sounds interesting to you, read on to learn more about what’s involved!

What do people do at a hackathon?

Every hackathon is organized slightly differently depending on the desired outcome, but here’s how many of them are structured:

  1. The organizer sets a well-defined objective for the hackathon. For example, the objective might be for participants to form teams and generate use cases around a new technology, product, or problem within 48 hours.
  2. Once the event starts, participants collaborate with each other to form teams. Strong hackathon teams typically consist of participants with complementary skill-sets, such as programmers, designers, and innovators, and often consist of 4-6 people.
  3. Next, participants work together with their teams to build a prototype of their idea that solves a specific problem.
  4. After the prototype is complete, teams demo their product to a panel of expert judges.
  5. Finally, the organizer announces the winning team, which can sometimes earn them a chance to develop their idea in full or receive an attractive price. For example, large companies like Microsoft or Google often sponsor the events and offer prizes such as cash or business contracts.

The specifics of how a hackathon is organized depends on the type of hackathon you’re participating in.

Different types of hackathons

In general, there are 5 different types of hackathons. Here’s an overview of what each one is.

Internal hackathons

An internal hackathon (also referred to as a corporate hackathon) is one that is organized by an organization for its employees. Internal hackathons enable these organizations to source ideas, promote intrapreneurship, and boost collaboration and employee engagement. Companies can even involve non-tech employees to promote a culture of collaboration.

External hackathons

An external hackathon is one where a company attempts to engage people on the outside. Organizers often use these to find new talent for their organization or to source ideas externally rather than from within the company.

Online hackathons

Online hackathons are similar to external hackathons but are used by organizers who want to source ideas from participants regardless of their geographic location. In this type of hackathon, everything including registration, participating, idea submission, and judging happens online.

Startup hackathons

During a Startup hackathon, pre-selected mature startups compete to create solutions to a challenge set by the organizer. The goal of participating in these events for the startups is to enter into a relationship with the hackathon organizer.

MVP hackathons

An MVP hackathon (understand “Minimum Viable Product hackathon) is a type of internal hackathon where the most important business units gather for 3 days to work on developing a new product that answers specific strategic core organizational challenges.

Learn how to optimize your hackathon outcome.


Why you should participate in a hackathon

There are a number of benefits to participating in hackathons. Here are a few.

  • Bringing your ideas to life - If you’re a creative type and are looking for others to collaborate with on a new or existing idea, this might be the most appealing aspect of a hackathon for you. The intense problem-solving environment of a hackathon forces participants to solve problems in creative ways.
  • Getting out of your comfort zone - If you’re looking for opportunities to break out of your comfort zone, participating in a hackathon is for you. Hackathons introduce you into a new environment where you’re encouraged to collaborate with others to meet intense deadlines.
  • Learn new skills - People who have participated in hackathons know that they’re fantastic learning environments. By working with others who have complementary skill sets on intense deadlines, you’ll instantly add to your own knowledge and abilities.
  • Meet like-minded people with similar interests and common goals - This is one of the biggest benefits of participating in hackathons. Because of the nature of these events, you have an opportunity to meet and collaborate with people with shared interests.

How to find hackathons in your area

If you want to participate in a hackathon, there are opportunities all over the world! We actually have a tool that helps you find hackathons in your area. Here’s how it works.

First, go to hackathon.com and scroll down to the section where you can enter your city. If you want to participate in a local hackathon, simply enter your city in the text box where it says “Enter a city Name” and click the “Take Me There” button.

Finally, you’ll be presented with all of the hackathons in your area! If you’d prefer to participate in an online hackathon, just click “Online” instead of entering a city and you’ll be presented with a page that shows you all of the online hackathon opportunities. All you need to do then is choose a hackathon that interests you!

If you can’t find a hackathon in your area, consider hosting one !

Why you should organize a hackathon

Hackathons are great tools for organizations looking for ways to improve collaboration or stimulate new, innovative ideas.

Mastercard, for example, uses hackathons to achieve an agile work culture, strengthen existing partnerships, and develop new ideas.

In addition to the above, hackathons provide organizers with a number of benefits:

  • Find and assess business solutions - If your company has been struggling to find a solution to an ongoing issue, hackathons can be a great way to leverage the power of competition to drive teams to create innovative solutions.
  • Train your staff - Careful planning of a hackathon can enable you to leverage the event as a training session. Create an objective that forces new hires to overcome common challenges faced in their day-to-day activities, and they’ll be more prepared to handle them. By hosting hackathons that involve new and existing employees, your new hires will quickly feel as if they’re part of a team.
  • Work with startups - Startups are often more agile and focused than larger organizations, which makes them great partners when looking to create more mature products or find solutions to specific challenges. Hosting a hackathon in collaboration with your startup partners can strengthen the collaboration between your teams.
  • Build a talent pool - Having a database of talent has become essential for HR managers. When faced with the goal of strategic recruitment, this is something companies can rely on.
  • Launch a product - If your organization is preparing to launch a new product, hosting a hackathon can create an environment that stimulates internal passion around the problem you’re trying to solve. When paired with the intensity and competitiveness of hackathons, this results in innovative solutions not found in the typical work environment.

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