Hackathon: A massive 48 hour programming competitions for thousands of people
Hackathons are at the heart of entrepreneurship. A hackathon is where a maker or hustler can wipe the slate clean on their startup and build something entirely new in just one weekend, and have the ability to demo it to win exorbitant prizes.
HackingEDU, the largest student run hackathon in the world, has come along to change all of that. They set out a year ago to create the first hackathon centered around Ed-Tech, a booming new field in tech. After the founder, Alex Cory, was discouraged by even his professors in college from creating Ed-Tech apps because there was so many regulations and red tape involved, he’d had enough. As Alex describes it, “I can only build a few Ed-Tech projects in a year, but with a hackathon not only am I bringing people together but it’s for a good cause, because in one weekend hundreds of Ed-Tech products can be built. I really want to bring in a variety of speakers, so that people who aren’t interested in Ed-Tech yet will get interested. So I am growing the community itself.”
While hackathons are definitely not lean businesses, this one is definitely trying to educate its attendees about more than just programming cool hacks. As Alex told me, “We’re fixing the problem of hackathon projects getting abandoned- we are giving those top prizes opportunity to get an interview with 500 startups, GSV labs, Learn Capital, and Draper U, so they aren't monetary prizes. The problem with hackathons is most hacks don’t go forward. My vision is that we will have the best of both worlds to build something that is solving a real problem."
Q&A with Alex Cory of HackingEDU
What were some of the biggest struggles you faced? How did you overcome them?
We had the chicken and egg factor- how can I get money for a venue without sponsors, but at the same time sponsors want to know you have a venue. After we got initial money it was easier to get more sponsors and play on their fear of missing out on a good recruiting opportunity.
You have to be scrappy and cut deals with people to get them in the door- we gave one company a free senior package worth $20k for them to get the venue and intros to other sponsors and speakers. Now as we talk to sponsors since we have created value with these deals for other companies, now we can charge market price.
It’s very difficult because alot of our teams are remote because we work from different universities, and its hard to find people who are dedicated and still dilligent even when remote. Our teams are marketing, sponsorship, technical, operations, and core team (directors) with 35 total team members. Most people need to be hand held and get on a call and work with them regularly, in the beginning I was on a google hangout for 4hrs a day. We found that work sessions work really well, where you will be on google hangout just working so if you have a question it can be answered immediately.
If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
I would have gotten speakers first, because if I had gotten big speakers it would have been easier to get good sponsors and get the ball rolling.
What advice would you give to others starting their own hackathons?
Put together a really strong team and interview people. You need to interview people. When youre talking to sponsors, even if you have no venue or date locked down, come up with one and pretend its final to help you get sponsors faster.
A starting point is imaginary date and location, make a website, then sell sponsors. Differentiate yourself by finding speakers that are relevant to what you’re doing. Do cool activities that arent normal, like a silent disco. Work really hard on the documents, with good graphic design. Make a great video with a recruitment event at your school- that will get you good team members and footage. Here is ours.
How do you know if you should take the plunge to start a hackathon?
If youre considering doing it, then do it. It’s going to put you further in life than anything else you could do, like a club on campus. Benefits I got was insane networking, now I know every recruiter at every company that is sponsoring us. You learn how to raise a bunch of money which is really valuable if you’re going to start a company and learn how to run a team really well. And split second decision making teaches you critical thinking and how to lead the right way. I learned to be results oriented and drive people for results, since people can work a lot but never get anything done. Leadership, networking and fundraising are key.
What is the future of hackingedu?
Our next event is HackingEDU Inspire. It will feature a day of panel discussions with people like Reid Hoffman and Sam Altman and Marissa Mayer and breakout sessions. Its a day where students and business people come together and learn about Ed-Tech then add their own experience to the mix with 3 tracks: Learn, Build, Inspire.
How do you plan to accommodate popular complaints like need for high quality food, blankets, and pillows?
We created a guide called “10 things to bring to a hackathon” that includes things like blanket swag and sleeping bags. We have 600 blankets from google but that won't be enough for everyone. We’ll be providing healthier food but also some junk food too. Instead of always getting pizza we also have a caterer preparing meals all weekend like barbecue and wings.