How to win a hackathon

This weekend, myself and my co-founder, Mark are heading to Hack The House. As you may have imagined, this is a hackathon focused on the future of home tech. Given our experience attending a variety of hackathons, we thought we’d jot down our top five tips to win a hackathon.


Understand the task, and how its judged

Most hackathons will release the full details of the task a few days before the event. This is prime time for you to take stock of what the judges are looking for – and even to do a cheeky bit of stalking of them as well. What sector are they in? What’s their expertise? Why are they attending? Even if you can’t actually start working at this point, you’ll be able to think through ideas and decide how best to approach it.

It’s also worth brushing up on what’s sexy in your sector at the moment. Remember that for a lot of hackathons, the aim is to create something that can be turned into a business, or finding talent to be recruited, showcasing the latest APIs from companies, or a combination thereof. Knowing what you’re going up against, and understanding the tools at your disposal, can really give you the edge. If you can match this up against what the judges are looking for, this is a huge advantage.


Know your skill set…

This, incidentally, is a great thing to do regardless of whether you’re taking part in a hackathon or not. A ‘skills audit’ helps you take stock of what you know, and can improve how you put yourself across to your employer, employees, clients, or even your social circle. Ask yourself, what three things do you bring to a team?

Not a full-stack coder? No worries! You wouldn’t want to be stuck doing all the coding anyway, so focus on what your best skill is – whether that be front-end design or back-end development. Have no idea what any of that meant? Not a problem, a hackathon team needs more than coders to be successful. Perhaps you’re better with budgets and business modelling, or maybe you’re the team’s dynamite public speaker.

The great thing about hackathons is that literally everybody can add value to a team – but only you will know what you can bring to the table.


…and find skills to complement

The other side of that coin is knowing your skills gaps. A lot of this will come down to the aim of the hackathon.

It’s important to be honest about these gaps. If you don’t know your JavaScript from your HTML then don’t pretend you’re the next Brendan Eich. Hackathons are huge events, if you don’t know something, someone else in that room will – your task is to find that person and make them part of your team. You need to be a well-oiled machine during the entire event and you can’t afford to let personal egos get in the way.


The team is better than the idea

The thing about Hackathons, and specifically the ideas that they generate, is that the intention at the start of the day and the product at the end often look completely different. When you think about it, this makes sense – what you’re trying to do is force months of development, testing, and iterating, into 24/36/48 hours. If you think about the average startup today, the amount of pivoting the company does from Day 1 to Year 1 is incredible.

Counter-intuitive though it might sound, choosing the team you join based solely on their idea isn’t always a great move.


Nail the presentation

As it often goes in the real world, none of your hard work will mean anything if you can’t articulate it well. In hackathons, this comes in two flavours: being a good public speaker, and having a gorgeous product.

Designers and hustlers are key for this final aspect of the hackathon. Unleash their creativity, practice pitches and don’t be afraid to be a little different. Your team needs to stand out just as much as your idea. All your pre event prep, mingling with the judges, market research, coding, and hard graft to get you to the end has to be encapsulated in your pitch. Do that, and you stand out. Stand out, and you might just win.


And with that, we’re off to #hackthehouse. Stay tuned for live blogging from Twitter, and plenty of cool pictures and updates on our new Facebook page. If you think we’ve missed out anything important, let us know in the comments below.

Umesh Kumar
With over eight years of entrepreneurial experience, Umesh has worked for Oxygen, Techstars, and was the Co-Founder of Pi Labs, Europe’s first property accelerator. He since co-founded Pace Ventures to build accelerators, hackathons and innovation initiatives for corporates clients to solve their biggest challenges.