Hackathons: 5 Keys to Success, 5 examples

By Scott Kirsner |  October 21, 2013

A growing number of companies — from Google to Coca-Cola — are hosting hackathons that invite outsiders to build something related to their businesses. They can supply an infusion of fresh thinking or new directions for the sponsoring organization; they can be a way to attract talent, or get people energized about participating in a “big vision”; or they can be a way to get people creating things your customers might want, or that might plug into a product or service that you are planning to offer.

We divide hackathons into two categories: company hackathons, which bring together employees and perhaps business partners, and community hackathons, which are geared primarily to participants outside of the organization. (Here’s a guide to running company hackathons, from The Game Show Network.) In talking to hackathon organizers, they emphasize five keys to success:

  1. Strong pre-event promotion, using company resources and outside partners, to ensure that participation meets expectations.
  2. Ensuring that the company is clear about what it wants from the hackathon, and that it communicates clearly about what participants will get out of it (whether or not they win prizes.)
  3. Organizing the hackathon space and agenda so that participants can form teams quickly and work efficiently.
  4. Being crystal clear about who owns the ideas developed. Typically, this is the participants, but in some cases, prize-winners must agree to grant future development rights to their idea to the sponsoring company.
  5. Making sure employees and in-house experts on relevant product lines or technology sets are present at the event, both to learn from what happens, and to provide their expertise.

Here are five examples of community hackathons held recently, at Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and non-profits, along with a look at their goals and how they were run.

Hasbro-a-thon (run in collaboration with AngelHack)

Objectives: “The Hasbro-a-thon is a first of its kind toy and game hack! We’re taking hacking to a whole new level of fun! Hasbro is looking for new ideas for play in their world class portfolio of brands and beyond. Build a prototype (“hack”) of something that solves a big problem. It can be an App, Website, Game or, of course, a Toy… you don’t need a crazy business plan but you need to be able to show in 3 minutes why your idea will be the next big way to play.”

Key rules: “Teams have full ownership of everything they build at our events and are free to do with it as they wish.” Also: “Have fun. Use whatever languages or hacks you have in your arsenal. Show us hardware. Show us new concepts. Show us anything you’d like.”

Judges: Four Hasbro executives, eight outsiders (primarily entrepreneurs)

Brigham & Women’s Hospital Hackathon (run in collaboration with the H@cking Medicine group at MIT)

Objectives: “Bring together inventive, forward-thinking minds to change the status quo and create disruptive solutions in healthcare today…The ultimate result could be the beginning of the next big health care transformation. End the weekend with a team, new connections, and prizes with potential access to BWH’s iHub resources, and a hack on its first steps towards disrupting healthcare.”

Themes: Participants were asked to focus on one of three themes: The Patient and Family Experience, Chronic Disease Management in the Outpatient Setting, and Modernizing the Practice of Evidence-Based Medicine.

Entry form: Created in Google Docs. Asked questions like “What skills can you bring to a hackathon team?” and “Describe a problem in healthcare you would like to solve?” (See entry form here.)

Prizes: Presentation and feedback on product at a meeting of the hospital’s innovation team; a review on usability from hospital experts; an invitation to present at the CareFWD 2013 conference in Boston; a financial award of $1,000. “In addition, the BWH iHub will provide awardees with an opportunity to bring their project into the iHub as an innovation pipeline project which may lead to commercialization or dissemination. This opportunity is subject to the execution of a mutually acceptable collaborative agreement.”

Campbell’s Hack the Kitchen

Objectives: Getting software developers to use Campbell’s recipe API (application programming interface) to create new apps, games, or web-based experiences related to meal-planning.

Themes: None specified. Company said participants had a “blank canvas” to work with.

Prizes: Grand prize was $25,000, plus a $25,000 contract to get the app ready for release. Runner-up was awarded $10,000.

Judges: Campbell’s chief marketing officer, plus two well-known tech and food blogging personalities.

Winner: Food Mood, which helps users find relevant recipes based on their mood. Created by Pollinate, a Portland, Oregon digital agency.

Controversy: Some developers didn’t like the idea that they’d have to submit their idea and have it approved before being given access to Campbell’s API, or that if they were chosen and spent time developing something, they might not be guaranteed continued access to the API (IE, they’d have built something that no longer worked.)

eBay’s Battle of the Bay University Hackathon

Objectives: Recruiting college students, or those who had graduated in the prior six months. “We’ll fill you with yummy goodies and challenge you to build great things on our platform. Bonus: An hourly Wii/Xbox/PS3 competition. Get cozy and have 1-1 talks with our developers, product managers, marketing gurus and program leads. And learn more about eBay and eCommerce innovation! If that excites you, we have our Career folks on hand so you can even get a jump start on internship and job searches!”

Prizes: Cash prizes for first, second, and third place ($2500, $1000, and $500.) Also prizes for most tweets about what a participant is working on, a “WTF Award” for the most out-there hack, and an eBay internship “based on demonstrated skill, knowledge and activity during the hackathon.”

NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge

Objectives: Engage thousands of people around the world in NASA’s mission, via “mass collaboration.” For the 2013 edition, more than 9,000 people participated in 44 different countries.

Themes: NASA offered more than fifty different challenges that participants could tackle, from visualizing solar flare to designing miniaturized satellites to collect data about Mars.

Prizes: Recognition, rocket launch invitations, spaceflight training, plus local awards offered by local NASA organizers, including flight suits and 3D printers.

More: If you’re moving forward with planning a hackathon, you’ll definitely want to read this blog post on “Ten Protips to Avoiding Hackathon Fail.”