How do you organise a successful hackathon? Follow these tips!

If you haven’t heard of a hackathon before, you might spontaneously think of a darkroom full of superfocused nerds prowling the internet. In reality, it’s simply a wonderful initiative by companies to accelerate innovation, to attract fresh talent or to organise a fun and productive team building session. Here, at Duke and Grace, we do this every year! Would you like to know how?

First things first

The word ‘hackathon’ is composed of two recognisable parts:

  • Hack: A clever way to achieve a result. Just think of the popular lifehacks: anything that solves a problem in a clever and unconventional way.
  • -athon: as in ‘marathon’, because a proper hackathon lasts more than 24 hours without interruption.

The purpose of a hackathon is to develop a basic idea into an operational concept (or prototype) as fast as possible. After the hackathon, the results can be refined if the concept is promising enough. A piece of advice? Start with a single event to familiarise yourself with the methodology and the obtained results. More even, you can ultimately integrate this methodology into your everyday functioning (in the form of design sprints), yielding even better results!



What do you aim to achieve with a hackathon?

Even before you start planning the hackathon, you must answer an important question: what do you wish to achieve? Innovation is the most obvious goal. Here, the participants start from an idea and develop a working concept within 48 hours. Hopefully, the company can use the results going forward.

A hackathon is also the perfect way to discover new talent. By allowing external participants, you attract profiles with a genuine passion. Someone who is willing to work for 48 hours on end, entirely for free, is clearly motivated to do the work. The results will then tell you just how talented that person is.

And finally, you can easily regard a hackathon as a strong team building session. Colleagues are completely absorbed by something they want to work on. Play your cards right and your whole company will be pervaded by an atmosphere that is very hard to create under normal circumstances.

But perhaps you have a secondary goal? Whatever the case may be, it is important to ask yourself this question in advance, so you can create a transparent framework for the hackathon. Use the tips below to further elaborate your hackathon.


How do you organize a hackathon?

Enter SIMO, the four components of an efficient hackathon. It stands for:

  • Structural: material, space …
  • Content: objective, framework, ideas …
  • Mental: motivation, coaching …
  • Organisational: food and drink, recreational options …


Step 1: The success of your hackathon depends in large part on the structure

If participants have to set up servers when the hackathon is already underway, then you risk losing valuable time. Make sure all the structural elements are in place beforehand. Communicate this clearly to the participants, as well as how the hackathon is organised. This way, they can concentrate fully on their project.

  • Make the hackathon longer than 24 hours.
    The night in between helps to form close-knit teams. Moreover, this period of rest gives ideas the time to mature and improve. The unique night atmosphere is unforgettable and sometimes results in interesting, surprising and hilarious situations. The ideal structure? Start at 5 PM, work through the night and the following day, another night and end around 5 PM on the third day, for a total of 48 hours of unbridled creativity!
  • Make sure there is a good mix in each team.
    Put together diverse teams. Ideally, a team consists of at least these three profiles: a developer, a designer and a commercial or conceptual profile. At the start, make sure that everyone takes part - even participants who don’t have a team yet.
  • Make sure there are no technical hiccups.
    Fast and reliable open Wi-Fi, easily accessible data sets (and preferably with a good API), hardware and gadgets, a sufficient number of power sockets ... The teams have to be able to get started on their project without any delay.
  • Provide inspiring spaces.
    Preferably with a central stage for joint presentations. Also, install breakout rooms for teams who really want to burn the midnight oil. And, of course, a recreation room is also more than welcome.

Step 2: The content creates a framework and allows plenty of freedom

  • Introduce an overall theme.
    A hackathon has to give the participants a lot of leeway, but feel free to launch a theme. For instance, you can award bonus points to teams who develop a project that fits the theme.
  • Collect the ideas at an early stage and inspire.
    Start collecting ideas a few weeks in advance, preferably within the proposed theme. This forces the participants to start thinking about their approach early on, so they can get cracking as soon as possible. Suggest options yourself as well. Use examples from abroad and describe possible applications of certain data sets. This will spark new ideas.
  • Make data sets available in advance.
    Or at least the structure and a description of the contents. This tells the participants in advance what they will have to work with and it gives ideas time to develop.
  • Collect other public data sets.
    The best ideas are born from combining unexpected data sets. If the participants are forced to only work with sector-related data sets, then you will end up with anaemic projects. Collect a wealth of public data sets and process them in advance.
  • Monitor the progress of the ideas
    Introduce a ‘show moment’ on the first morning. Every team gives an elevator pitch in front of the group, but not in front of the jury yet. This sets a clear deadline and focus to wrap up the idea. Otherwise, some teams will continue to ruminate on the idea for 48 hours without executing it.

Step 3: Have you stopped to consider the mental impact of a hackathon?

Working for 48 hours on end is very taxing mentally. More even, both motivation and creativity can suffer. Fortunately, this can be avoided:

  • Inspire through lectures.
    If possible, organise inspiring talks on the evening of the first day. Preferably on topic and in the language of the participants. Have speakers (non-participants) from inside or outside the company give these talks.
  • Walking coaches
    Get a few experience experts (from inside or outside the company) to act as a sounding board during the hackathon. They visit and coach teams based on the progress they’re making. This can give a welcome boost to teams that are stuck or having doubts.
  • The odd surprise is very effective.
    If it’s summer, a visit from an ice cream car can work wonders. Or a stall with gin and gluhwein on cold winter days. A spot of relaxation is always a good idea. Taking your mind off things for 10 minutes helps you make faster progress afterwards. Try to include a few distractions, like a foosball table, a punching bag, a pool table ...
  • An inspiring jury
    Arrange for a jury to evaluate the end results. Make the jury as inspiring as possible. Engage a thought leader within the industry, for instance.
  • A motivating prize.
    Money and physical prizes are always welcome, but usually the promise that a project will be pursued and the team in question will be involved is a stronger motivator.

Step 4: Set up the overall organisation and communicate clearly

  • Communicate clear objectives and criteria
    For example: “Friday at 5 PM, we expect a ten-minute presentation with a working prototype”. At Duke and Grace, we’ve had excellent results by sharing a handful of criteria on which projects will be evaluated: innovativeness, commercial feasibility, quality of the finish, profitability, fits in with the theme or not ...
  • In spite of this, there are no rules whatsoever!
    Although you have to create a framework, absolute freedom remains extremely important. That freedom is the essence of a hackathon: having people toil over a project that inspires them and that they would otherwise have little or no opportunity to pursue. Everyone is free to choose what to work on, with whom, when, where, how ...
  • Corresponding communication campaign.
    After all, it takes an effort to attract the right profiles. Your communication ahead of the hackathon also helps during the hackathon to focus attention and present the projects to the outside world once the hackathon is over.
  • Social media during the hackathon
    Arrange for someone to generate and share that content (text, video, pictures) during the event. Also keep the initiative alive after the hackathon. Try to attract as much attention to the initiative as possible, in an authentic way.
  • Keep energy levels high
    Keep in mind that the participants have to ... eat. Don’t let them sneak off and break the atmosphere: offer a variety of food options, such as fresh fruit, pizzas, smoothies, a standing buffet …

Benefit from our experience

Meanwhile, Duke and Grace has built a respectable track record and the organisation of a hackathon, both for customers and our own staff, is right up our alley. Feel free to contact us and benefit from a wealth of knowledge and experience. A hackathon is a budget-friendly way of using an original initiative to innovate, recruit fresh talent and organise a fantastic team building event.