What to Expect From a Disrupt Hackathon

In: ideas

20 May 2011

Take everything the startup world is known for (launching new ideas, embracing passion, knowing when to pivot), crush it down into one 24-hour period and you’ll start to have an understanding of what hackathons are all about. Not for the faint of heart, these coding marathons require the creativity to think of an idea, the technical chops to actually build it in a day, and the chutzpah to get up in front of hundreds of people to present your work.

This Saturday, Techcrunch will be bringing the Disrupt hackathon back to the Big Apple. With over 500 hackers likely to attend, this proves to be one of the biggest hacking events in New York. But as a participant, what should you expect? And as a tech industry observer, why should you be paying attention?

As a Disrupt hackathon veteran, let me help explain what these are all about.

Deciding What to Hack

Choosing what to work on is more an art form then a science. Some people wait until they get there to make a decision. Some teams are formed the day of the event, and may toss around concepts for hours before they get to work. Others know exactly what they want to build and hit the ground running right away.

Then there are attendees who have plans to use the hackathon as a platform to launch their startups, having really built and tested their product well beforehand. In fact, during the first NYC hackathon, one Sunday morning presenter announced he had a whole pitch book with revenue projections available for review. Don’t be part of this last group. It’s lame, it’s obvious, and it doesn’t really fit into the spirit of the hackathon.

Our team usually enters with a pretty clear vision of what we want to build in our heads. We may have a name in mind, and have usually tinkered with some APIs beforehand, but every bit of design and coding happens that day. Starting from scratch is part of the fun.

One practical note – for certain APIs or services, you might need to register for access in advance. For example, when we built Flymodo for our first Disrupt hackathon, applying and getting approval for access to a flight stats API took 2 days. If we hadn’t researched that in advance, our project wouldn’t have been possible.

Not for Sissies
Hacking begins on Saturday, May 21, at 2pm ET. Things come to a halt the next morning at 10am. That’s 20 hours straight of discussions, decision-making, and actual coding. Exhausting is an understatement. But that’s what makes it exciting. The constraint of working under such a tight deadline makes everything take a backseat to actually launching.

Not sure what to build? Just pick something, anything, that you think would be cool (don’t worry about business models). Stuck on a certain feature? Throw it overboard. Communication problems within your team? Get over it. There is no time for anything but being productive.

Sharing Your Hack
After working all night, what could be better than presenting in front of a group? Be warned: this is about as tough as a presentation can be. You have just 90 60 seconds to demo a product that you aren’t sure will work to hundreds of smart people (even more on the webcast!), all after being awake for about 36 hours. Take some advice we learned the hard way: start thinking about your presentation hours before you go on. If you try and get your thoughts together at the last minute, you’ll crash and burn.

And keep it brief. The judges are serious about the 90-second time limit. Try and go over by even a few seconds, and you’ll be thrown off stage like you’re playing the Apollo.

Why Everyone Should Be Paying Attention
Even if you’re not attending the hackathon, you should still keep an eye on who participates and what they build. There are great ideas and even greater minds involved with this event. When Group.me (then called Groop.ly) presented, they were met with a nice but mild reception from the crowd. They later went on to raise $10 million dollars. There are projects with huge potential presented on Sunday morning and the savvy observer can find some amazing opportunities.

There is also no greater truth in the startup world than “good people are hard to find.” The people that participant in the hackathon are bright, capable, and willing to put their talent to the test. They’re not just a bunch of talkers, they’re producers. Best of all, since there is no prize money attached the Disrupt hackathon, many participate for no other reason than a love of the game. Aren’t those exactly the kinds of people you want to fund or hire?

All Eyes on Sunday
Sunday morning, starting at 11am ET, the presentations of each team’s hacks will begin. Some will be amazing, and some won’t. And who knows if there will be another breakout star just waiting to be discovered.

Either way, it’ll be a great chance to see a group of people who are really good at what they do, doing exactly what they’re good at: hacking.

Share Button
Mark Webster

About Mark Webster

One of the Co-Founders of SideTour, former TechStar (NYC Summer 2011), ex-NBA'er, and past TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon Winner.