Four Reasons Startup Founders Should Go to Hackathons (It’s Not What I Originally Thought.)

Our team at CODEX Hackathon: a museum curator, a writer-translator, MIT grad student and a start-up founder.

As a startup founder, you’re constantly making decisions about how to spend your scarce time. Weekend hackathons can be a hard sell from this perspective: two whole days that are seemingly neither on your company’s critical path nor a break from sitting at a computer.

But after spending a weekend in late June at the CODEX Hackathon in San Francisco, I think I’m a convert. Hackathons can be a wonderful way for founders to re-kindle their creativity and gain a lot of unexpected professional insights too.

CODEX was weekend-long event dedicated to hacking literature, which is already cool and creative to start. But what really won me over was that the organizers used the sponsorship funding they raised to fly in interesting participants rather than simply offer a large cash prize pot. As a result, the crowd was varied: MIT researchers, language translators, museum curators, Google engineers.

In my idealized dreams, I* *thought CODEX would be an opportunity for my startup Cloudstitch to find eager users of our product (and it was — I’ll post about the cool things we built another time). Our company, which is in the current Y Combinator batch, helps developers power websites with Google Spreadsheets instead of databases, which is a perfect fit for prototypes and hackathons.

So our plan, looking forward to the event, was all about build build build. We prepared some spreadsheet-powered literary APIs and example starter projects, like an infinite wall of books and a conference attendee widget in hopes they would serve as useful launching pads.

But looking back at the event afterwards, was really surprised me was how much I personally got out of the experience as a founder. So here are four reasons why you, as a founder, should consider going to a hackathon.

1. You’ll be reminded creative goals, not technology details, are what’s


Each company has their brand of hammer and spends time finding people who have the right nails to hit. And a hackathon reminds you that this is a very narrow mentality.

Despite being part of the kickoff-pitch lineup of talks in the beginning, I couldn’t help but see a bit of comedy in our situation. We wanted everyone to use Cloudstitch to power their prototype’s data with spreadsheets. MailChimp wanted everyone’s prototype to send mail to people. Dropbox wanted people to use the Dropbox API. I don’t mean this in a cynical way: our job as sponsors is to provide an arsenal of tools and support for anyone who wants to use them. And we all did a great job of that, I think.

But making the rounds and chatting up people to see if you can help is a powerful reminder that, at heart, creativity, not tooling, is the powerful driver of the innovation. The goals you admire while making the rounds have nothing to do with implementation. “I want to help book worms find love based on their reading list” “I want to help people finish the books they’ve started” “I want to connect people to the stories that take place in their own cities”

If you’ve fallen into the trap of clutching your hammer and looking for nails— and I certainly have — a hackathon is a vitamin shot back into that creative space where technology is simply a detail in service of creative goals.

2. You’ll have a chance to use your product in an unexpected way

Building on the importance-of-creativity thought, you can almost be guaranteed that the way you thought people would want to use your project will not be how they actually use it. This is probably somewhat true of products in general, but to get to see it in the condensed space of a weekend is refreshing and eye-opening as a founder. At the very least, you will leave with the excited feeling of a parent seeing their child do something they never directly taught them.

Take the team I spent the weekend hacking with: Anika Gupta of MIT, writer-translator Arendse Lund, and Eric Gardner of Getty. We built an eBook that layered rich ambient experience onto plain text: subtle background images and maps behind the text; ambient music and sound effects; photos of relevant places in the margin. All of it was meant to subtly enrich the feeling of story immersion without going too far and making it feel like a magazine. You can read a demo of the Hound of the Baskervilles we made here.

I never would have thought our Spreadsheet-based development platform would have relevance to eBook authoring.

Now all this was powered by nothing more than the raw text of the book combined with a very clever and simple spreadsheet. In one column you paste a sentence in the book, and in the next column you paste what kind of rich media accompaniment that sentence should queue up for the reader. But if you asked me the week before if Cloudstitch had relevance to eBook authoring, I probably would have quickly said, “No — we’re really focused on people who have structured data to publish”.

3. You’ll get to see many different pitching and demo styles

I think the pitches at the end of a hackathon are far more useful to observe than those at a pitch competition. First of all, hackathons presentations are closer to what a founder does than a pitch competition because there’s sweat and love involved. You’re excited about an idea, have worked hard to prove it out, and now you want to make the case to others in an environment crowded with others doing the same thing.

Secondly, hackathon pitches are essentially marketing pitches, whereas pitch competition pitches are heavily business-plan focused. If you subscribe to the Dave McClure school of thought, you’ll find way more utility watching marketing-style pitches.

In the final hour or two of any hackathon, you’ll see a range of presentations. Slick pitches based entirely on design mockups. Data-driven pitches that argue for the feasibility of a product. Demo-based pitches. Slide-driven pitches. Narrative-driven pitches. Demos that crash. Demos that leave eveyone with tears of laughter. And there is guaranteed to be someone trying to sound like Steve Jobs, with intonations and pauss (identifying this person definitely be incorporated into some sort of hackathon drinking game).

You probably fall into one of the pitch categories above. It is important that you occasionally get the chance to see many different pitch styles together so that you can reflect on your own style.

4. Your memory of the event doubles as reminder of how important it is to finish

your product and ship it

The group emotion of a hackathon project roughly follows this arc:

  • 25% Milepost: “Okay, it’s becoming clear we need to limit our scope…”
  • 50% Milepost: “This is really turning into a cool prototype.. now if only we can actually get it to work”
  • 75% Milepost: “Wow, just think if we followed through on this! So many people could use it”
  • While saying goodbye: “So cool to meet you guys — let’s really stay in touch and see if we can work on this!”
  • Two weeks later: “Gosh…if only there was time in the day to finish that up.”

And that’s just fine. Most hackathon projects are destined to be Tibetan sand paintings. Beautiful collaborations that arise through hard work and then, in an instant, are left for the wind.

Most hackathon projects are destined to be Tibetan sand paintings.

But your startup must not be a sand painting. So let the memory of “gosh, if only we had time to finish that hackathon project” be a powerful reminder that it’s the things we ship — not build — that create a lasting company. Your professional life as a founder is the sum of how you spend each week, and you must make sure that those weeks are spent not just starting things, but finishing them too.

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