Innovation and entrepreneurship are two of my greatest passions, in part because of their innate excitement. Recently, while representing RingCentral at the Launch.com "hackathon," I found myself thrilled with how my passions are showcased at such events. Hackathons have become a new channel for aspiring entrepreneurs to engage with tech companies while trying out their ideas in an intense "fail quick" atmosphere. Developers participating in hackathons get support from sponsoring or involved companies in an environment in which these developers quickly can learn, iterate, and try out their ideas. Developers also have access to investors, angels and industry luminaries -- folks who aren't always as readily available or accessible. Ultimately, these events test entrepreneurs' creativity, endurance, technical prowess and market awareness, which are all skills necessary to starting a company. And this usually unfolds in a 24-48 hour timeframe. Would that I could have had these opportunities decades ago!
When I built my first prototype for a LAN, which was my first post-college entrepreneurial endeavor, I had no forum in which to showcase to anyone what it could do, and I did not know how to look for investors. Really, there was no place even for the exchange of ideas. In those days, as a young entrepreneur with no established network, I kind of worked in a semi-vacuum, hoping to network through my college friends -- who, for the most part, were just as clueless. My, how things have changed!
At the Launch hackathon, I found the energy there to be infectious and exhilarating. I enjoyed both the developers' enthusiasm and creativity especially. It was also thrilling to see my company's product, the RingCentral Connect Platform, become part of innovative solutions in the form of apps and tools that we had not imagined. For example, the hackathon's 3rd place prize winner Pro.spekt is a back-end that allows bloggers, brands, and companies to build fan-following based on phone numbers and SMS rather than email addresses. By integrating RingCentral's messaging APIs, the team built an opt-in setup where followers submit their phone numbers. Team members Amanda Legge, Fernando Jorquera, Kevyn Arnott, and Megan Johnson did a fabulous job building and presenting their project. My post on the RingCentral blog showcases others who placed in the competition and the interesting, exciting endeavors they undertook as well.
At this hackathon, teams like Pro.spekt's had only two minutes to make their presentation on the heels of 48 hours of sacrificed sleep, hard work, and way too much pizza. For each demo/pitch, teams took a stage with guts, stamina, and confidence. Judges, who can become investors, see these new ideas and test their ability to select winners. As it's much less costly to start a company than ever before, access to what's becoming a proliferation of angels and micro-VCs is a real plus for developers - who have learned to make relatively funding go a long way.
The experience of a hackathon illustrates how entrepreneurship has become much more dynamic, fluid, and integrated. The climate is ripe for innovation, as there lots of opportunities to try things out, fail fast, collaborate, learn, and try again. Nothing fosters critical thinking like pressure and competition, which is part of the reason I'm such a big fan of hackathons. Great stuff is coming out of these, and quickly.
Are hackathons changing the way we do business? I believe they are, and in exciting ways. Rather than developers working and building for months or years with hosts of unknowns, these events provide a glorious test-market at developers' fingertips. Instead of wondering like I did two decades ago about who to call about financial backing, those who are the most motivated to invest in innovation are already at the table. The time is right and ripe for those with good ideas to gather a team and start joining in the fun and benefiting from the resources the hackathons provide.