4 Tips to Rock Your First Hackathon

Whether it's your first or your fifteenth, each hackathon is a different, energy-draining, caffeine-consuming beast.

My first hackathon was a classic: white-knuckle worked till 3 a.m., inhaled caffeine (in this case, chai tea in Nepal), ate greasy pizza (and dal bhat), and concluded the Final Pitch session with a rousing dance party set to Nepalese rock and roll. Like I said, classic.

My second hackathon was nerve-wracking in a different way: I organized and ran it. And there's nothing more terrifying and exhilarating than growing a breathing, raging colony of startups exploding to life in 24 hours.

My third hackathon is coming up, ATHack! in San Francisco, which brings together activists and technologists to fight human trafficking.

After being on both sides of hackathons, here are four tips to unleash the badass in you at your first hackathon.

  1. Go for diversity on your team. Having a team of all coders at a hackathon isn't ideal and will leave you struggling in areas like business development, user research and marketing. Advocate for a well-balanced group: two to three developers, a designer, a topic expert, and a business-savvy person. Your hackathon pitch shouldn't just be technically sound, but also pitch-worthy and user-friendly.

  • Don't reinvent the wheel: use templates. When you have less than 48 hours to launch a prototype, focus on reusing and recycling. Something that saved me at my first hackathon was Startup Stash, a site that lists templates of everything from wireframes to pitch decks to front-end design.
  • UX test, UX test, UX test. By the end of the first day, a real user -- not someone on your team or a ragtag friend -- should stress-test your prototype in whatever shape it's in. Run an informal usability study, and ask the user to think out loud as they explore your prototype and dig for detailed feedback (check out these usability tips). Put those learnings to work as you iterate in the final stretch!
  • The pitch matters. So don't neglect it. In a 5 minute final pitch, break it out: the first 1:30 is your hook, with a clear description of problem and solution. Next 2 minutes is a demo. The last 1:30 is critical: discuss a launch plan, including how much initial funding you need, what it will be used for, and a growth model for first year or two. This business model canvas is helpful in outlining a plan.
  • Go forth and hack! The future of the world (or at least the future of your next passion project) could depend on it.

    Justine is a co-founder of ATHack! , bringing activists and technologists together at the first ATHackathon on April 29, 2016 in San Francisco.