How to hack a hackathon - Part 1

One night of education and discussion, followed by 48 hours of straight hacking. 27 participants, 13 pitches, 7 teams. Supporting them, we had 6 judges, 5 mentors, 5 food sponsors and an organizational team of 5 people (not counting the amazing staff at Dojo Bali who helped us execute everything).

How it started

Having a background in working with local communities and coworking spaces as I traveled for the past 3 years, I kept seeing a gap between volunteer’s willingness to help and sustainable impact being made. I saw many obstacles popping up, but couldn’t see a viable solution. Something was missing, some framework or accountability to connect the dots.

Dojo is known for it’s community and it’s beautiful space.

I was chatting about this problem over coffee with Michael, the owner of Dojo Bali (a coworking space located footsteps from the beach) and Sean Nino, the founder of a local community project. I thought out loud, “why don’t we make this into a hackathon?” I had one month left in Bali and I thought I could pull it off. I’d never organized anything like this before and actually needed to start by educating myself as to what a hackathon was.

Wikipedia told me that a hackathon was the combination of the words “hack” and “marathon,” where “hack” is used in the sense of exploratory programming. The purpose was to come together, work on something as a team and practice your skills while solving a problem. The original hackathons didn’t have prizes; the point was to work on cool stuff together and learn from each other.

The Prep

I don’t suggest to anyone that it’s a good idea to plan, organize and facilitate your first hackathon one month before. And if you do, maybe you can learn from my mistakes.

The theme we decided on was:

“Build the bridge between coworking spaces and sustainable community projects.

Coworking spaces have a pool of talent who want to help. There are a large number of social projects in the area that need this talent. I’ve found there are a lot of problems that come up in the process of connecting the two in a sustainable way for long term impact. The aim of this hackathon is create innovative solutions to these problems.”

4 Weeks Before

I went into full planning mode and organized my team; I invited Oz, full stack developer who’s organized and participated in hackathons in London; Annelise, a data engineer who asks the right questions to get us all on track; and Lindsay, who had just won the UN hackathon a couple weeks before. And of course, Michael, owner of Dojo Bali, who’s amazing at graphic designing, software developing and generally getting stuff done.

LESSON LEARNED: Pick your planning team carefully and know who you need. Do they have prior hackathon experience? Do they understand what a hackathon is? Are they on board with following your lead (or are they going to try to make the event into something else?)

3 Weeks Before

Team meeting topics for discussion:

  • Should we charge a fee to participate in the hackathon?
  • Oz felt we shouldn’t charge. He felt people were already giving of their time and skills for a whole weekend; we shouldn’t charge them to do so. I agreed but asked, “how do we pay for food and other supplies we need for the event?” He suggested the participants buy/bring their own food. Michael said they couldn’t bring their own food into Dojo because their was a cafe selling food and they couldn’t afford to lose money. Annelise and Lindsay brought up that a fee weeds out people that weren’t really committed to the weekend. Michael and I agreed with this. I also really wanted to provide a nice experience for people once they arrived and knew how little touches like having nice food can “make” an experience for someone. Michael offered to sponsor some of the meals, but he couldn’t do all of them. We decided to charge 250,000 rupiah (about $20) to participate. (Startup weekend tickets in Bali were $75.)
Food sponsorship made the event special for the participants.
  • I signed up to write the copy for the event, rally food sponsors, and find our mentors and judges. We’d decided to have 3 community project founders and 3 founders of the coworking spaces. And I was responsible for assimilating judging criteria and putting together the finalized participant packages (a google drive that included daily schedules, info on initial pitch guidelines and final pitch guidelines and a copy of the judging criteria).
  • Oz volunteered to help with the payment information and the confirmation email that people received once they signed up. (I couldn’t publish the event until we had a way for people to pay.)
  • Annelise said she’d work on the instructions for generating initial pitch deck, and a code of conduct for participants and a food sponsorship package and final pitch deck instructions.
  • Lindsay was working on a schedule for the whole hackathon; public and private. (This came in handy later because the private schedule told us when food was arriving and when the staff needed to start setting up for different parts of the event.)
  • Michael volunteered to design/print all the banners, pendants and name tags for the event and find a photographer. He also was put in charge of prizes, of which none of us could decide on.
  • Michael offered free coworking to the winning team, but he really wanted to get the other coworking spaces to match him on a cash sum amount to fund the winning team’s project to be built out. (The cash prize never ended up happening, but he did generously donate a surfboard and brand new road bike to the prizes.)
The final copy of our event poster.

Michael said he wanted the poster advertising the event to be in line with his coworking space brand, but to stand out from his other events. He asked me to get a designer to do the poster, but we had zero budget to pay them. I posted something into the Dojo community Facebook group for a volunteer, but no one replied.

I attempted to make it myself (with no designing skills to speak of). I got frustrated very quickly. I enlisted the help of our events coordinator, Tamara, and asked her to help me with the software they normally used to make posters (called Canva.com). When Michael saw our poster work, he quickly took over and designed a poster to his liking.

LESSON LEARNED: Don’t have the owner of the business be in charge designing the main marketing materials. Or get someone qualified in designing to work with him and execute. Owners are busy and this event is one of a million they are responsible for. You will waste so much time and get frustrated.

Oz and Michael worked together to figure out how people could pay. We started with a google doc form the participants filled out and then we manually emailed the link for payment, or they could elect to pay at Dojo’s front desk in cash or card. This was too clunky a system.

Finally, they decided to integrate the registration into the coworking software called Nexedus. There was a familiar payment platform and if members signed up, their information would already be in the system. Micahel set that up and Oz did the confirmation email.

We published live 3 weeks before the event on Facebook and the Dojo Bali website.

I met with Annelise and Dojo’s General Manager, Vici, to put together a list of possible restaurants in the area that we could ask food sponsorship from. Vici spoke English and Indonesian fluently, which was perfect for calling around to all the restaurants. A couple days later she told me she had called around and no one seemed interested, or they brushed her off by telling her to email them the sponsorship package. Vici also told me she felt the hackathon was rushed and she was too overwhelmed with her normal workload to help find food sponsors. I thanked her for helping and took over. Annelise also offered whatever help I needed.

LESSON LEARNED: People have other jobs and priorities and they may choose not to help halfway through and that’s ok. Just be prepared to take over and run things if need be.

2 Weeks Before

I’d been scrambling for a week, working two jobs and searching for food sponsors. I was leaving for Singapore the next day for a visa run… and we had zero food sponsors. On my way home that day, I stopped by Made’s Banana Flour Bakery to see if they wanted to be a dessert sponsor.

Made’s Banana Flour team were wonderful to work with.

Made Wandika and Michael Aland, co-owners of the bakery, agreed to sponsor the dessert. Then, they asked what other sponsors we still needed. I replied honestly that I still needed most (read that as ALL) of the food sponsors. Michael told me not to worry; he would call around his friends who owned food/beverage businesses and help me find the rest of the food sponsors that I needed. I thanked him (and also hope he’d come through).

I started blasting the event all over community Facebook groups in Bali and Michael (Craig) started an event promotion with a $100 budget. One thing he did I find noteworthy is to put all of the event information in the post description. I was concerned it was too long, but he said it gave people all the information before they had to “commit” by clicking on the link. This ended up working really well.

I headed off to Singapore for a couple days and eagerly awaited people signing up.

1 Week Before

When I returned to Bali, I checked our registration total: We had 3 people signed up for the hackathon. Yikes.

Michael (Craig) messaged me to tell me he worried the event was headed towards disaster. He felt it hadn’t been marketed well and asked if we should cancel it.

I disagreed and shared my marketing plan with him:

  • I realized that most people that were interested in this event didn’t feel they were qualified to join because they weren’t a programmer. Some didn’t understand what a hackathon was. I needed to change our marketing pitch.
  • I continued to market the event in local and relevant Facebook communities, but changed the message to read: “This is a social impact hackathon. You don’t have to be a programmer to join!…”
  • I walked around Dojo in person and spoke to all the members about the event and answered a ton of questions that people were thinking, but were too busy to come forward and ask.
  • I messaged every single person who clicked “interested” on the Facebook event (about 30 people).
  • I reached out to the coworking spaces that we were partnering with (having the founders and team involved as judges/mentors) and asked them to market the event within their media channels.
Most of the participants heard about the event through me walking around and speaking to them in person.

Slowly, we started to generate a buzz. People were asking each other if they were going to the event and the word was spreading. Michael Aland got us a couple restaurants to sponsor the rest of the drinks and meals. We were all set on food. He kept telling us he could have done more if we’d given him more time (I was blown away with what he’d organized and especially in the short amount of time).

The last couple days/nights were spent confirming mentors/judges (I wasn’t even sure if one judge was coming until he arrived the first night of the event). I also needed to finalize the daily public schedule, judging criteria, initial pitch, and final pitch information for the participant package. This was formatted in a simple google doc folder that I made read-only and put the link into the facebook event the first day of the event. Michael (Craig) picked up the banners and pendants the day before the event (we breathed sighs of relief they got them printed in time).

One Day Before

We had a final organizational meeting to go over logistics, confirm how teams would be formed and confirm prizes. We decided that one month coworking passes to Dojo Bali would be given to the winning team. Michael donated a brand new surfboard and bicycle for prizes, but we couldn’t decide if it would take away from the team spirit if we gave them as individual prizes. (We ended up giving them away for Best Team Leader and Most Innovative Participant.)

That last logistical meeting was key to us staying organized.

We also had a long debate on how the teams would be formed. We wanted people to feel included, work with inspiring people and be excited about the project they worked on. What if we didn’t get a lot of pitches? What if everyone wanted to work on the same thing? What if we did voting and someone felt left out because no one voted to work on their project?

The meeting lasted 3 hours and a lot of last minute questions were answered about where we were going to serve food, where the main event was going to take place within the coworking space, when we needed to brief the staff, did we have all the supplies?, etc.

Finally, it was show time.

Could we pull it off? Click on the link below to find out.

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