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Designing the Hackathon of Your Dreams

Hackathons are often a short-lived fever dream of programming, pizza, and parties. But could they be better? I think so.

I’ve had some really inspiring conversations lately about this hackathon of my dreams. Folks at Degen House graciously chatted with me about their experience planning hackathons. And as host of the Rotterdam crypto drinks meetups, I get to meet with some brilliant, friendly brains.

At the most recent event, I mentioned the development (or lack thereof) for my hackathon idea. While most people think a consumer-focused hackathon is a cool idea, I’ve been particularly stuck on how the final projects can become viable products.

However, after all these wonderful chats and a few beers, I think I have a pretty sweet solution.

The Hackathon Problem: Value for Partners

Partners treat hackathons as an opportunity to market towards developers, regardless of whether they’re a new or established protocol. Raising awareness, however, may not be enough value—protocols and networks ultimately want to see increased usage and continuous building after the hackathon ends. 

But that’s not necessarily what the hackers want to do. Developers attend (either online or in person) usually because they want to build something cool and maybe meet like-minded folks. They’re often full-time employed, and so they don’t have the capacity to turn their caffeine-induced, sleep-deprived project into something long term.

Unless they had the financial incentive to keep going.

The Other Hackathon Problem: Investors

It has been a trend for VCs to host their own incubators or accelerators as a way to add value while also claiming their piece of a promising pie startup. It seems, however, that this method of capturing deal flow has been less popular during the bear market. Venture studios have also become a popular-ish model: folks with an idea join the venture studio, which helps people become founders and build startups. 

Either way, running an accelerator requires a lot of work and resources from a fund that’s also trying to support their existing portfolio, raise for their next fund, and manage their operations. While I’m sure any fund will tell you that their quality deal flow is not a problem, they often appreciate any and all access to alpha.

From what I understand, investors aren’t particularly keen on attending hackathons or the projects that come out of them. I asked the venture capital channel on Farcaster for their thoughts:

Based on the (limited) feedback, it seems that investors will only be interested if the team is A) committed to solving the problem; and B) an amazing fit for each other and the problem.

The Other Other Hackathon Problem (sort of): Well-Rounded Teams

Some hackathons invite non-technical people to participate as well, with the hopes of delivering a viable product. However, based on feedback I’ve heard from devs, having non-devs around to form a business plan out of their project can really suck the fun out of change the whole building experience.

But without the marketing, business, legal, and operations skills, the product won’t become particularly viable. So if I want to organize a hackathon that produces viable (read: investable) products, we somehow have to balance between an attractive hacking event and delivering a refined product.

The Hackathon Solution: Break It Up

After a few beers and hours of conversation, I landed on an idea: a hackathon in two parts. The first stage is for the building, and the second (optional) stage is for the business-making.

First stage: Buidl the damn thing

The first stage of the hackathon is the vibe-y, in-person event for everyone to build and chill. This is where the manic energy can thrive and be channeled into a project. Hackers focus solely on building, and partners reward bounties to the best projects.

Non-technical folks in marketing, business development, operations, and legal can attend the last day of the hackathon to see the projects and meet teams. However, meeting in person is not required—just encouraged. Non-technical folks can also follow or join the hackathon community to connect with teams that want to continue working on their products.

The primary purpose and focus of the first stage is to channel the magic into the bare bones of a deliverable. The end of the hackathon will have all the traits and trademarks of a traditional hackathon—presentations, judging, awards—but it will also serve as the transition point for any teams that want to pursue their work further.

Second stage: Make it work

No hackathon projects are required to participate in the second half, and any project (regardless of whether they won) can participate.

The second half is where hackers can connect with business folks to make the project into a product. This part starts in person at the hackathon, but continues for another three to six months.

The second stage is a bit more open-ended, but likely consists of:

  • User testing

  • Iteration

  • Branding

  • Market research

Everyone—hackers, non-hackers, and partners—will still have access to the hackathon community to share ideas and possibly host additional workshops as needed. There is no deadline for deciding to participate in the second stage, but the deadline for submission will be the same date regardless.

Final products will be presented online (most likely), and additional bounties will be rewarded by the same partners or additional partners. This is where investors (angels and VCs) can get the first look at upcoming teams that were formed in the initial hackathon, but refined afterwards to create a viable product. Partners can also take this opportunity to hire the team and incorporate the product into their suite.

And that’s it!

Final Thoughts

By breaking up the hackathon into two parts, the event can attract multiple players in the ecosystem to participate and benefit. I understand that business and profit aren’t everyone’s goals. And not all hackathons need to be about any of that. But my hackathon will be.

If you also want to see this hackathon come to life, let’s talk.

Sidenote: I’m super excited about Salon’s wallet conversation on 28 March. If you’re interested in talking about crypto wallets and wallet design, I think you can still join the March session or the one on 11 April. (I'm not paid by or partnered with Salon. I just think they're cool.)

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