Posts Tagged ‘how to prepare for a hackathon’

Getting the most out of hackathon sponsorship

Sponsoring a hackathon can be expensive and time consuming, but it’s a great way to reach new developers. In this post I’ll outline the critical success factors to hackathon sponsorship.

Define your goal

There are typically four reasons to sponsor a hackathon:

  1. Get developers to try your tech
  2. Recruiting
  3. Contactability
  4. Brand awareness
  5. Collect feedback on your product and documentation

You may want to do all of the above, that’s fine, but if you do, rank those goals! It is difficult, almost impossible to do all of them well.  Pick one as a primary goal, and another as a secondary goal.

1. Get developers to try your tech

If your goal is getting developers to try your API, or use your software here are some options you may want to consider in your sponsorship agreement:

  • Hackathon prize category: The best way to get hackers to try your code is to bribe them with a prize! Be specific, e.g. use *this* API in your hack and you qualify for our prize category. Just watch out for hidden costs which I cover later in this post.
  • Workshop: Hosting a workshop during the hackathon is a great way to help hackers be successful. They have a lot of prize categories to choose from, if it’s too hard to get going with your API, they may just give up and try for a different category.
  • Pitch in opening ceremonies: This is your best opportunity to make sure all the hackers know about your prize and how to win it. But keep it short! I’ll share tips on how to pitch at opening ceremonies later in this post
  • Booth: You need a place for mentors to hang out if coders are having trouble with your tech and have questions
  • Pre- and Post event emails: Can you provide a customized email to hackers before or after the event pointing them to great learning resources or upcoming events and competitions where they can try your tech?
  • Social: Can the hackathon promote your hackathon prize and learning resources on their social media

2. Recruiting

If your goal is recruiting here are some options you may want to consider in your sponsorship agreement:

  • Resumes of all hackers:  Some hackathons provide hackers with the option of providing their resumes to interested companies
  • Interview room: Do you want the ability to do interviews on site with interested parties?
  • Booth: it may be helpful to have a booth where recruiters can hang out and talk to interested hackers
  • Time to talk in opening ceremonies: This is a tricky one, because hackers usually get pretty bored listening to one company after the other present during opening ceremonies. But if you can be short, concise, and deliberate it’s your best opportunity to present to all the hackers at once.
  • Prize sponsorship: hackers are there to hack, so offering a prize is a great way to get their attention. It also gives you a chance to get a sense of their technical skills. But, it comes with a lot of extra work and costs as I explain in the section on hidden costs.
  • Pre- and Post event emails: Can you provide a customized email to hackers before or after the event to let them know about job opportunities and how to apply?
  • Social: Can the hackathon share recruiting messages and links to application pages on their social media?

3. Contactability

With the new data protection rules, having the ability to email or otherwise contact a new developer is a becomng a more and more common goal. If your goal is the ability to contact hackers here are some options you may want to consider in your sponsorship agreement:

  • Booth: Can you have a raffle or premium swag at the booth that requires signing up for communications?
  • Pre- and Post event emails: Can you provide a customized email to hackers before or after the event to with a request to sign up for communications (and something that makes them believe it’s worth it to sign up for the communications)
  • Social: Can the hackathon share messages and links with the Call to action of signing up for communication or some other follow up to get them in your funnel

4. Brand awareness

If your goal is brand awareness here are some options you may want to consider in your sponsorship agreement:

  • Logo placement: hackathons offer many opportunities to display your logo. There are the obvious t-shirts, signage, website options. Consider other options such as Lanyards, attendee badges, water bottles for all attendees
  • Swag bag content: Hackers love swag. You may be able to provide swag to the hackathon that will be given out when hackers register. (short rant: I have a love hate relationship with swag, so much ends up in landfill, how many fidget spinners does a hacker need, so please think creative on the swag, methinks I may have to write an entire post on swag!)
  • Spot prizes: this probably doesn’t require any extra $ but what if you gave out prizes to people wearing your shirt or hat during the hackathon 🙂 I’ve done it at conferences. Just make sure it’s something really obvious, we once did spot prizes for people wearing our temporary tattoos and it was harder than we expected to walk around and spot the temporary tattoos without being creepy!
  • Booth: a booth is great for having conversations, but you need a reason for people to stop at your booth. If you aren’t sponsoring a prize or recruiting they need another reason to stop by and talk. Maybe some premium swag or a raffle for a good prize
  • Pre- and Post event emails: Can you provide a customized email to hackers before or after the event to raise their brand awareness
  • Social: Can the hackathon share your brand message on their social media channels?

5. Collect feedback on your product and documentation

The great thing about hackathons is it gives you a chance to see what happens when a developer tries your product for the first time. This is an opportunity to find out whether  your documentation is complete, whether there are features missing, or whether you ahve the right tutorials to help a beginner.
If your primary goal is to get feedback here are the sponsorship package options you should consider:

  • Hackathon prize category: The best way to get hackers to try your code so you can get feedback is to bribe them with a prize! Make sure you tell them you are looking for feedback
  • Workshop: Hosting a workshop during the hackathon is a great way to communicate with interested hackers.
  • Pitch in opening ceremonies: This is your best opportunity to make sure all the hackers know you are looking for feedback and about how you are bribing them to try it with a prize. Consider feedback on the product as part of the judging criteria or swag for those who provide feedback too.
  • Booth: You need a place for your team to talk to developers and collect feedback

Don’t be afraid to order off menu

Is there something you want to do that is not listed in the sponsorship package? Do you want a combination of the bronze and silver package? Talk to the organizers, explain what you want to do and negotiate a price. They prefer sponsors to order off the menu, but chances are they are willing to accommodate custom sponsorships.

Budget for the hidden costs!

Sponsoring a hackathon will cost anywhere from $500 to $50,000 depending on the prestige, size, and sponsorship level. It’s easy to look at a sponsorship package and say ‘we can afford the silver package’ but don’t forget all the hidden costs both in terms of time and money!

Booth costs

  • Signage: How will hackers know which booth is yours. This might include anything from banners, to backdrops or balloons.  Prices vary greatly as do shipping costs. Tip: If you bring a tablecloth ask the sponsors for the table size, those new stretchy tablecloths in particular don’t always work if the table is too big or too small
  • Swag: Giving away swag can accomplish two things. It can draw people to your booth, and it can also get the hackers advertising your brand
  • People: If you have a booth, you need people to talk to at the booth. You need to decide whether or not to have people at the booth overnight at the continuous hackathons. Typically you would only consider staffing overnight if you are providing code mentors for a hackathon prize
  • Travel costs: will people attending need to pay for fuel, parking, rental cars, flights, hotel? Tip: Ask the hackathon if there is free parking for sponsors

Sponsoring a hackathon prize category?

If your goal is to get developers to try your tech, chances are you are sponsoring a prize category. Don’t forget some of the extras that come with it. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  • Do you need to purchase prizes? Most of the time you as a sponsor provide the prize
  • How many people can be on a hackathon team? Can your prize be divided among the team members or do you need to purchase multiple items to award as prizes?
  • Is your prize good enough to get hackers to enter your prize category? Ask the organizers what types of prizes and how many sponsors they had last year. If you can’t afford a premium prize, you might want to make your prize category more open-ended so hackers can enter your prize category and other prize categories with the same hack
  • Who will be onsite to provide help to coders who get stuck trying to use your technology?  Typically you provide mentors at the booth. If the hack runs overnight, will you have mentors on site overnight? Not everyone does, but the hackers appreciate those who do
  • Who will judge the winner of your prize category? You can get your mentors to help with this, but make sure someone is on point to co-ordinate. How many judges do you need? Ask the organizers how long you have for judging (then assume you will have 30 mins less than that because it almost always starts late), and ask how many entries a typical hack category receives. Then do the math 🙂
  • Will you need to pay for travel, car mileage, parking, or accomodations for anyone working at the hackathon? Ask the hackathon team about parking arrangements
  • Any legal stuff you need to do? When I worked at Microsoft we had to prepare Terms & conditions for every hackathon and sometimes there was paperwork winners had to complete before we could give them prizes. WE had a legal team who would help us, but this took time to get done
Hacker looking for late night help

Where did everybody go?

Rocking the opening ceremonies

Opening ceremonies suck. As a sponsor they are invaluable. They are our one chance to talk to all the hackers at the same time when they are awake, eager and ready to hack. The problem is they are all ready to hack. The last thing they want to do is spend 2+ hours listening to executives and recruiters drone on about the size of their company, or the parameters required to use their API.

Keep it short

Even if you have a sponsorship level that gives you 15 minutes to speak, please don’t! Think of opening ceremonies as a pitch competition. Give yourself 2-3 minutes to pitch to the audience. If you can’t win them over in 2-3 minutes you probably need to re-work your pitch. You are one of 10-30 companies who will be presenting one after the other, as the hackers sit there thinking, how many more of these do we have to listen to before we can start hacking. Keep it short! Sponsoring a prize category? All the hackers want to know is what’s the prize and what do I have to do to get it. Recruiting? What sort of person are you hiring (e.g. new grads vs first years) what are the pre-reqs (specific skills, degree type), why is your company awesome (in ONE slide with max 3 bullet points!) and who do I talk to to learn more.

Get creative

I was tempted to leave this out, because it’s sort of my personal secret to success. I love being sponsor 8 of 15. I love being the next presenter when the audience is getting restless and bored. That’s my opportunity to be the person who wakes them up with something memorable. I’ve done it by taking 30 seconds instead of 4 minutes. I’ve done it by singing a song, I’ve done it with a parody of We will Rock You getting the audience to clap and stomp along (You need, You need Azure!) . What can you do that will a) wake up the audience from their stupor and b) stand out from the other sponsors? Do you play the accordion? Do you juggle or do cartwheels? How about a skit? (no-one expects the Spanish inquisition! our primary weapons are APIs, Python code, and cloud! if you don’t get the reference, then I guess I am getting old 🙂 ) Throw swag into the audience before you start. Make the opening ceremonies more fun for everyone including yourself!  Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone a bit (trust me my legs always shake when I sing but I get hackers at the next hackathon ask if I am singing another song)

Presenter 9 of 16 at opening ceremonies

Presenter 9 of 16 during opening ceremonies

Make it as easy as possible for the hackers to use your tech

You want the hackers to use your tech, help them!

  • Have mentors on site
  • Monitor the Slack or Discord channel for questions about your tech
  • Run a workshop to help them get started
  • Have online resources readily available for those who miss the workshop
  • Have a shortened URL or QR code at the booth or on swag to direct hackers to those online resources

Have a plan for judging

Judging takes more work than you think. A little work ahead of time reduces stress when you have a fixed amount of time to pick your winner.

Pre-define judging criteria

Some of the hackers are just there to win! So let them know what you are looking for in a hack? Creativity? Technical complexity? User experience? Originality? or is there a theme such as social justice, diversity, or thinking green that affects scorting? Your judges and mentors may appreciate having the criteria ahead of time as well.

Communicate the judging criteria

Let the hackers and your judges know the criteria. You can post it to the Discord or Slack channel, or have it displayed at the booth or on the hackathon website.

Do the math

How many entries will you receive? How much time do you have to judge? How much time do you need between project presentations to take notes and move to the next team for judging? You may find that you need to split your judges up to get to all the hacks with enough time to evaluate and score them.

Set a time limit and stick to it

To be fair to all hackers, once you have done the math, set a timer to determine exactly how long you spend with each team. Otherwise you might spend too long at the first projects and be rushed at the later projects. Ideally everyone should have the same amount of time with your judges. I tell the hackers how long they have and I put my phone right on the table with the timer running so there are no surprises.  Decide if that time limit is for the presentation and they get extra time for Q&A or if Q&A needs to fit into that original time limit.

Ask about judging logistics before judging starts

  • Will teams sign up for timeslots and come to your booth to present? or will teams go to numbered tables and you receive a list of teams whose tables you need to visit?
  • If it is a numbered system what is the layout? I was at a hackathon with teams on two stories, it would have been useful to know ahead of time tables 56 and higher were upstairs.
  • What time does judging start?
  • How and when will you receive the list of teams to judge (table numbers to visit or timeslots teams signed up for?) – I ran into an issue where one of our program managers did the sponsorship negotiation and sorted out all the shipping, and they emailed the list of teams to them instead of me during the hackathon, since they had been the primary point of contact. We lost 30 minutes of judging time.
  • Do you need to provide the name of the winner to the hackathon organizers before you present the prize at closing ceremonies? If so, who do you notify and how?

Use ranking in addition to scoring

If you have to split up the judges (i.e. not every team is seen by every judge) then absolute scores may not be the fairest way to select a winner. Think back to school some teachers just mark tougher than others! The same is true with judges. I found the quickest way to identify a winner was to have each judge use their personal scores to identify their top 2. Each judge or judging group presents #1 hack, and we decide on a winner as a group.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry… roll with it

For some reason, something ALWAYS goes wrong when it gets to judging time. It starts late, you don’t receive the email with the list of teams to judge, You go to the assigned table and the team you are meant to judge is not there, or a different team is there. A couple of helpful tips:

  • Stay calm. I guarantee you the person organizing the judging for the hackathon is aware that they are late or that things are messed up. They are stressed out trying to solve whatever the problem is. Even when I am angry with them, I don’t yell at them. I ask ‘ so when *can* we expect the list of teams, okay, and will closing ceremonies be delayed so we still have the same amount of time or judging?’ and deal with it. I can complain later in a feedback email post-event.  Remember, the hack organizers are probably exhausted, and you may be as well, not the best time to get angry (my co-workers will tell you that I have been known to vent to them when things are really messed up)
  • Before a team pitches to you, confirm the team name and whether they actually entered your prize category.  You don’t want to accidentally give the prize to a team that didn’t enter your category just because you read table 38 when it was actually table 39!
  • Find out who at the hackathon is in charge of judging and how to reach them (Slack and Discord don’t count! you want a room number, a cell phone number, or instructions like find one of the organizers in a pink shirt with a walkie talkie). That way when something goes wrong like you cannot find a specific team, its 30 minutes late and you haven’t got the list of teams to judge yet, or you need an extra 20 minutes because you got more entries than expected, you don’t have time to spend running around trying to find out who can help you

Be prepared for closing ceremonies

We are often so focused on the hacking time or judging that closing ceremonies are an afterthought. Here are a few questions you can ask ahead of time to make everything run a little more smoothly:

  • Where are the prizes stored during the hackathon itself? I do NOT recommend putting them under the table at the booth. We have had Xboxes stolen 😦 Ask the hackathon organizers if there is a locked room where you can put the prizes
  • If the prizes are in a locked room who can let you into that locked room before closing ceremonies so you have the prizes to give the winners? How do you contact that person if you can’t find them?
  • Where are closing ceremonies? Will you need help carrying the prizes to the location? Ahhh yes, memories of lugging four Xboxes across a university campus in sweltering heat to a different building!
  • Who announces the winners during closing ceremonies? You or the hackathon organizers?
  • How much time do you have on stage when you announce or congratulate the winners?
  • Will there be a chance to take a photo on stage with the winners?
  • If you need the winners to fill out forms, where should you meet them or take them to fill out the paperwork so they can have their prizes.

TIP: If the hackathon is running late and you are freaking out because you have a flight to catch, talk to the organizers, they can usually help you out by either announcing your prize earlier or getting someone to present the prize on your behalf and send you the pictures afterwards.

Packing up and heading home

Hey everyone around me is packing up their booth, I guess I should too! Packing up the booth is usually pretty straightforward (assuming you didn’t accidentally throw out a box you should have kept and you have packing tape), but what happens with those boxes now?

  • Is someone taking them home in their car?
  • How do we get the stuff from here to the car, is there a cart we can borrow? a freight elevator we can use?
  • Are there shipping labels somewhere we stick on the boxes? Where are the shipping labels, oh in an email, how do I print those out now?
  • Where do we leave the boxes so the shipping company can find them tomorrow?
  • When the shipping company shows up and can’t figure out where the boxes are who can they call? I’ll be in another city so I can’t help!

It’s a good idea to figure out as much of this as you can before you pack up the booth, especially since you are probably doing this at the same time as you are about to start judging.  Ask the hackathon organizers if there is a specific shipping company they work with for post-hackathon pick up. You can pre-purchase and pre-print shipping labels (but make sure you have packing tape to attach them!)

To sum up

Wow, Susan that was a really long post!

Yes it was, I have been to many, many hackathons, and I have seen many, many things go wrong. I was famous(infamous?) on my team because I always created a hackathon guide to distribute to all the people supporting me on site letting them know all kinds of logistics: parking, phone numbers, swag distribution rules, judging criteria, maps, hackathon schedules, etc…  Sponsoring a hackathon is a lot of work, especially if you are sponsoring a prize, don’t underestimate the effort. But the payoff of seeing new developers discover your technology and building amazing hacks using your tech can be worth every minute and every dollar and gosh darn it, it can be fun too!

Happy hacking and hey in addition to my work at AI Gaming, I do some developer relations consulting, so reach out if I you need help! (though to be clear, I do not want a full time job managing all your hackathon sponsorships :))

Check out other Developer Relations posts such as Setting goals for your evangelism and advocacy teams.