What hackathons teach us, and what they don’t Melanie Baker June 11, 2015 Columns, Featured, M-Theory, Startups There’s a magnet my aunt has on her fridge that says, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” Grammar crimes aside, it’s good advice. And it came to mind when I was perusing yet another upcoming hackathon . . . or was it a startup weekend? I started wondering if anything actually comes from these events. It seems that at the end of these weekends, the winners are announced and the prizes handed out, but the winners’ future plans for their idea/company/product are at best nebulous. I made some casual inquiries, and learned of Videostream, one local offering that came out of a startup weekend. Except, did it? Because according to this Communitech piece, their idea came together over more than one startup weekend, and they’ve since morphed a fair bit. Videostream wasn’t what they were originally doing. I did a bit more (unscientific) research to see what else I could find. There were a few companies and products, but nothing mind-blowing. No Ubers, Teslas or SnapChats. One thing was interesting. The startups that got traction seemed to lean toward producing physical things, rather than apps or other software, for example. Why would concrete, make-the-world better items potentially have a better success rate? Hackathons and the like are good at training people in particular skills: collaboration, focus, making decisions quickly, etc. But by necessity they eschew other skills and requirements important in developing a successful idea: customer/audience research, market opportunity, cost/benefit analyses. I can’t be the only one who’s checked out post-hackathon results and wondered if the winning idea was actually solving a problem that a lot of people have. This has been my experience at hackathons, startup camps, and democamps. That said, while I’ve seen an app demo that would instantly get you accused of sexual harassment (it required aiming your camera at someone’s chest to scan a conference badge), I also saw the first 3D prototype of the Allerta watch (precursor to the Pebble) at such an event. But in the space of a weekend you hardly have time to find out. I’ve seen teams spend more time figuring out the “company” or product and domain name than making an effort to determine the utility of the idea, as though the idea made so much sense to them that fleshing it out was peripheral to making it look cool. The hackathon environment also doesn’t really reflect real company or startup life, or at least it shouldn’t. I suspect most of the teams participating in these weekends know each other beforehand, which is probably a good thing for those circumstances. And it gives them a taste of how they work together under pressure for a short time. From observation, camaraderie is definitely high early on, but one day I need to take mental snapshots of a team over the entire weekend. But a hackathon doesn’t have high stakes. It doesn’t mean winning or losing your livelihood and those of others, or millions of investors’ dollars. Spending a weekend over-caffeinated and under-slept doesn’t show you how to deal with angry customers – or happy ones – or how to hire or fire. (And do you ever really learn how to fire friends the “right” way? Friends in tech management never have in 20-plus-year careers.) I wonder about the “focus” aspect, too. Yes, teams are required to focus hard on their idea/product for the weekend, but is it really focus? It’s more the kind of panic of “get all the things done that you’ve been slacking off on before the deadline” than it is paying careful and dedicated attention to the various important things, large and small. So if the drawbacks of hackathons and startup weekends are so obvious, why are there so many of them? Most broadly, I think they offer a decent glimpse into what actually embarking on a startup would be like. You’re not vetting your idea well, but if you want to win, or at least be competitive, it needs to be decent and hopefully solve a plausible problem. The environment (competitors, mentors, tools) can give you a good framework for taking a stab at determining that. Unfortunately, you often get the most constructive feedback at the end of the festivities, like the endlessly entertaining judges’ comments at Communitech’s own Startup Smackdown. You can look around online and see if anyone’s already doing that thing, and, if not, perhaps get a sense of why not, or why previous efforts haven’t panned out. [Though sadly, this does not necessarily inoculate against Not Invented Here (NIH) syndrome.] But you will have access to at least brief input and mentorship that will hopefully torpedo a bad idea before you get too attached to it. Hackathons require you to vet a group of people you may or may not know and determine fairly quickly what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how best to utilize them. You don’t have the luxury of time to wait for someone to catch up, pull their weight or “get it.” In startups, one bad apple can ruin a company shockingly quickly. You will learn from your mistakes in glaring Technicolor. If you have two and a half days to pull everything together and spend one of those days wrangling over company/product name and domain, you’ll quickly become aware how badly you’ve screwed yourself with regards to actually building something, getting it working, figuring out audience, pricing model, marketing, etc. (I still recall a team holed up at the old Velocity residence focusing SO HARD on just the right combination of colour and fruit names.) You’ll be soaking in it – startup culture, that is. If you’re in school and have never really worked at a startup; if you’ve never worked for yourself, or have only ever been a corporate drone and are noodling on entrepreneurship, this will give you exposure to people who have taken the plunge and those who work with or help entrepreneurs. You’ll get a quick sense of whether that path, which is by no means an easy one, is for you. Ultimately, these events wouldn’t continue to happen if people didn’t get something out of them. After all, plenty of participants come back again and again. At the very least, working under deadline pressure with a team will turn you from friends and acquaintances into comrades in arms. You will collect more of these people over your working life, and they will be immensely valuable to your career, social sphere, and sanity. Nothing wrong with starting early. Now, where’s the Red Bull? Photo: hackNY Spring 2011 Student Hackathon by hackNY.org is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech.