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How developers, founders and tech providers benefit from hackathons – and how to make the engagement even better

Madanmohan Rao
3rd Jun 2018
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Usually held over a weekend, hackathons are a great way to experiment with emerging technologies and come up with a viable prototype. Here’s how to make them even better.

Along with German development agency GIZ, YourStory recently conducted a month-long series of five hackathons across Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Goa. The problem statements for Techathon 2018 were provided by Bosch India and DBS Bank, with a focus on smart city, mobility, financial inclusion and educational outreach.

Unlike many other hackathons that focus only on technology and business models, the GIZ-YourStory hackathons added the element of social impact and inclusion. In addition to prizes and subsequent mentorship agreements, some of the winners got selective preference for admission into sponsors’ accelerator programmes. The hackathon series was also cumulative: winners of the first four qualifying hackathons went on to compete in the grand finale hackathon (see the full sequence of activities here).

Success factors for an effective hackathon include compelling yet practical problem statements, workshops on technology and socio-economic impacts, mentorship in project management and product-market fit, and activities on team building and creativity. There should be a clear code of conduct and ethics, strict adherence to a well-planned schedule, thorough documentation of all activities, and effective networking between participants and sponsors.

On the support side, there should be a steady supply of healthy food and beverages, and motivational talks. An accompanying lounge space with games and recreational activities also helps.

With 91Springboard co-working spaces as a partner, the GIZ-YourStory hackathons brought together about a hundred participants from a dozen cities across India. Here is what the participants and partners had to say about what they gained, and how to make hackathons even more productive.

Hackathon benefits for participants

Among the participants, hackathons promote creative thinking, team formation, and time-constrained development and design. They help validate ideas, improve problem-solving confidence, and connect with like-minded developers.

Workshop leaders, mentors and jurors for the five hackathons were drawn from a range of organisations: Bosch India, Digital Ocean, Inventrom, IIIT Hyderabad, Open Destinations, 91Springboard, Hug Innovations, Powerhouse Ventures, DarwinBox, Endiya Partners, DBS Bank, 3LOQ, and School of Accelerated Learning (SOAL).

“We were able to find a perfect business model for our venture. We pivoted away from our original customer and are now in the final stages of closing design and starting manufacturing,” said Ashwin Natarajan, Founder and CEO of SMIDER Technology, which designs smart movable dividers to optimise traffic flow.

“Our team’s ability to work together and deliver a minimum viable product (MVP) was showcased. Recognition and winning is far more important for startups than many other things, as the team comes together and performs at the hackathon and beyond. This adds momentum to the startup,” added Ashwin.

“It was out-of-the-box learning. We also saw other people's projects, and learnt how different concepts and approaches can be used to solve the same problem,” said P Prasanna Sai, a student from NIT Warangal. “We got to know different people and made good friends,” she added.

“The hackathon was the first time we unveiled our concept to the outside world, and it was good for validation,” said Deepak Reddy, from the team AutoBots, which makes electric engines for autorickshaws.

“The hackathon helped us get prepared for the challenge and improved our confidence on the product. It also gave us an insight into how different people reacted to our product, and we received suggestions on how to refine our product for the market,” he added.

“The hackathon benefited us with a platform to showcase the product. It pushed our limits to prove the point and its possibilities,” said Shadab Khatib, Founder of SaltNow, an AI-based linguistics solutions startup.

“We experienced first-hand what you can achieve in a short time when you put your mind to it and when support is provided,” said Anand Achyut, Founder and CEO of WonderSlate, an AI-based learning resources startup.

“We finally could work on a feature that we wanted from a long time. That feature has become one of the USPs of the product today. What I learnt from listening to the speakers in the sessions is also priceless,” he added.

Hackathons are a great way to connect with like-minded people. “As simple and cliched as that sounds, the reality of the matter is that in a country with 1.2 billion people, it's really hard to match with the right partners, in terms of co-founders, early hires and early investors,” said Luke Sequeira, Founder, Driver and CEO at Goa-based logistics startup Numadic.

“A hackathon gives participants a very good chance to validate ideas, give it some initial shape, and get some mentor eyeballs on the idea,” said Ramesh Loganathan, Professor of Practice in Co-innovations at IIIT Hyderabad, and a mentor at the hackathon.

The hackathon gives a high-level feasibility and market viability assessment. “Like-minded people who work together can even become co-founders. In any case, it is a weekend of some good product hacking fun,” he added.

“Hackathons help diverse individuals with varying skills come together as teams to interact, ideate, and collaborate while coming up with disruptive solutions,” said Kolla Krishna Madhavi, Head of Alliances and Strategic Partnerships, School of Accelerated Learning. These solutions from the hackathon can help tackle some of the most pressing real-world social and business problems.

“A hackathon gives participants exposure to business perspectives such as scaling, applicability, market needs, and product-market fit,” said Anirudh Shah, Founder and CEO at 3LOQ Labs.

Focusing on getting things done as opposed to thinking about it leads to increased confidence. “Participants also accept that there are different perspectives and approaches to the same problem, and can learn from other teams,” he added.

“A hackathon is an awesome platform and learning experience for the participants to explore various business domains and technology solutions. I strongly believe that in the current software economy, open repositories like Git Hub are the new CVs for budding software engineers,” explained Ravindra Prasad, ‎Vice President, Technology and Operations at ‎DBS Bank.

“A hackathon gives participants an overview into the process of converting an idea into an MVP or a PoC and pitching it to investors or a jury. Getting hands-on experience of these aspects goes a long way in giving participants clarity about building startups and helps them test their resolve,” said Pranav Kundaikar, Co-founder and CTO of IoT startup Inventrom. Industry experts share insights from their experience on how to avoid mistakes they have made or seen, and this can help participants expedite their business.

“A hackathon is an effective platform to build on and develop ideas of participants. They get to work with industry mentors to develop the use cases,” said Debasis Goswami, Head of the Startup Innovation Platform, New Growth Programs at Bosch India. Participants also get to leverage tools like SDKs and industry-defined problem statements from market leaders.

Hackathon benefits for partners and sponsors

Mentors, sponsors, and technology providers also benefit from hackathons by staying up to speed on emerging technology adoption trends, identifying potential partners for co-creation, testing core platforms, and even getting a fresh dose of inspiration.

“For me, hackathons are a major source of ideas, inspiration and lots of creative stimulation. And in the process if we can source some good startup products that can be nurtured, then even better,” said Ramesh Loganathan, Professor at IIIT Hyderabad.

“For mentors and jurors, hackathons provide a unique look into emerging ideas, memes and talent. Attending hackathons to me is akin to being a journalist in the field, versus just reading the news,” explains Luke Sequeira of Numadic. “The insights and occasional paradigm shifts are something you can't afford to lose out on if you intend to build a long-term business,” he adds.

“Hackathons are like hot-air balloons flying up in the sky - it is difficult to judge the outcome at the outset. Only once you interact with the participants, do you realise the true possibilities - the breadth of ideas, the depth of technology and the spectrum of innovation that is achievable even within a finite time-frame,” said Kolla Krishna Madhavi from the School of Accelerated Learning.

“I strongly believe that hackathons are unique levers that help ignite creativity, encourage talent and foster long-lasting partnerships to bring transformational ideas to actionable solutions,” she added.

“Mentoring forces a change of perspective that helped me with new insights about my own business,” explained Anirudh Shah of 3LOQ Labs. “The energy and enthusiasm of the participants are infectious. Being a mentor is also a way of giving back to the community,” he added, reminiscing on his own early experiences with hackathons.

Tech providers and sponsors benefit by getting access to new ideas and building new use cases for their SDKs. “We also get to work with motivated teams to co-create solutions,” added Debasis Goswami of Bosch India.

“As a judge and mentor, I feel energised spending wonderful time with the participants of all ages, their excitement, focus and determination to succeed commercially or make a social impact,” said Milind Anvekar, Vice President, Open Destinations. “There is a sense of satisfaction if you are able to contribute by sharing your personal experience and provide useful inputs to the participants,” he added.

“I am blown away by the understanding the teams showed by just reading a few lines from the problem statement. They did their homework, analysed market trends and came up with great solutions. I also saw some great pivots made from ideas from Day One to Demo Day,” said Ravindra Prasad of DBS Bank.

For mentors and investors, a hackathon is a platform to understand the concerns and issues of young teams and share some relevant learnings. “We also identify potential team members for our portfolio companies,” said Abhiram Katta, VP, Endiya Partners.

“Hackathons are a great way to meet people who are keen to be a part of the startup ecosystem. Some of them can become prospective hires for our teams in the future. It also shows the tenacity and perseverance of teams and individuals when the going gets tough. This is quite inspiring for us as well to push us at our daily work,” added Pranav Kundaikar of Inventrom.

Challenges faced by participants

The high-pressure environment of a hackathon can be unnerving for those used to more relaxed paces of learning, or those who are more introverted. The jargon can take some time to get used to – but there are enough online resources to help prepare better.

“We had to build an MVP in a compressed time frame. Although there were a lot of features we wanted to put in, aligning to the theme and delivering a tangible product was of the essence,” explained Ashwin of Smider. The weekend-long experience (with extra travel time) can be exhausting, though exhilarating.

“As we were new to the software tools, we found some parts of implementation difficult. But then there were people around to come and help us,” added P Prasanna Sai of NIT Warangal.

“We were participating in such an event for the first time in our lives. Some of the startup jargon was completely alien to us, it can get sort of unnerving for new entrants like us,” said Deepak Reddy, from the team AutoBots.

Some participants who attend as individuals with a product idea may be disappointed to find that there are no other takers to join their team during the hackathon. In that case, they can work solo, join another team with a different project -- or, sad to say, leave the hackathon.

On the final afternoon of Techathon 2018, the teams presented a demo of their prototypes to the jury from their desks, for four minutes per team. This was followed by stage pitches and a round of jury questioning.

Many participants may feel that a three-minute elevator-style pitch is not enough to present their finished work at the end of the hackathon – but then, is five minutes enough, or ten minutes? This eats into the already tight schedule of the hackathon; in any case, a three-minute deadline helps sharpen communication skills, especially after a few rehearsals.

It can also be disappointing for a team to accept that they may not have won at the end, despite a weekend of hard work. However, they should accept that the jury process is rigorous, broad-based and multi-variate – and come back to fight another battle another day.

How to make hackathons even better

Organisers of hackathons should not treat them as one-off events, but as the beginning of a deeper engagement with the broader ecosystem of innovation. This calls for regular communication with the participants before, during and after the event, and extraction of lessons for the broader hackathon community, as this article shows.

For example, many hackathon participants suggest that some accommodation assistance must be given to those coming from out of town. The prize money can also be increased, especially if the hackathon is conducted across multiple rounds of solution refinement.

In addition to tech support and logistics at the venue, the organisers should be prepared for any medical emergencies that may arise. One of the participants in the hackathon suffered a leg injury, and was offered medical assistance. Given the amount of food served during the hackathon, ‘green’ practices should also be encouraged with respect to packaging materials, utensils and left-over food.

“Each team can be given extra time to make a presentation about who they are and what they do formally. There are quite a few talented people at these hackathons, and networking or collaborating with them would be a dream come true for most startups,” advises Ashwin Natarajan of SMIDER Technology.

India’s startup ecosystem is largely skewed towards software and services, and to improve the hardware ecosystem there need to be more mentors and tech providers from the hardware products sector, according to some participants.

“Makerspaces are the need of the hour for hardware startups. We need more co-working spaces to step in here and include maker facilities as well,” suggested Deepak Reddy from the team AutoBots.

In sum, hackathons are emerging as a crucial component in the broader innovation ecosystem of accelerators, incubators, makerspaces and co-working spaces (see the YourStory series Startup Hatch for in-depth profiles in this regard).

“Hackathons are the best way to reinvent one-self in a short span of time. Ideate, experiment, fail, and ideate again - this loop goes on until success is achieved. This is how great things were invented in the world,” says Ravindra Prasad of DBS Bank.

“Hackathons are the real watering holes of the startup world,” sums up Luke Sequeira of Numadic.

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