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How to Win a Hackathon Before It Even Starts featured

How to Win a Hackathon Before It Even Starts

By Author: William Du In Developer

William Du is the Developer Program Manager at Agora. He leads and manages multiple global developer community programs, including Agora Superstars, Agora Student Ambassadors, and Agora Certificate Program.


So you think you are ready to enter a hackathon? Whether you are still a college student or a seasoned hackathon enthusiast, you likely want to build something cool and learn new technology. You’ll have the chance to meet some new people or make a team with your friends. You’re stocked up on red bulls and ready to pull all-nighters if needed. But the most challenging part of your project is answering this question: “what do I want to build?”

Decide on the right project for the best chance of winning 

Everyone who enters a hackathon wants to win. But few know that the secret to taking home the grand prize is determining what you should build, not just what you want to build.

How do I know this secret? I have participated in a lot of hackathons, and won a couple of them. I have also organized, sponsored, and judged at many hackathon events. I have seen both simple projects that won thousands of dollars and initially glamorous-looking projects that failed miserably. It all comes down to winning over the judges and ultimately, the sponsor of the event.

I’ll walk you through the steps to developing a winning project:

Understand and analyze the prompt

The hackathon competition actually starts long before the actual event. Before you step into a hackathon or even decide to attend one, you need to research the specific event to craft your winning strategy.

In general, there are two types of hackathons, problem-oriented and open-ended. The problem-oriented hackathon usually provides very specific problem statements for the participants. For example, a prompt might ask you to figure out how to solve the abandoned bike-sharing bikes on the street. You have to fully understand the requirements and address the issues directly. 

For open-ended hackathons, your prompt is generally to use the sponsor’s technology to build something. Usually, the open-ended hackathon is easy to start but hard to excel at. If you do not follow the prompt or requirement directly, you can be immediately disqualified, no matter how cool your project is.

For instance, Agora’s RTE2020 open-ended hackathon prompt was:

Build a mobile app or web app that uses the Agora Real-Time Engagement Platform to create a shared experience and living the “now” moment.

There are three key points here in this short prompt, web app or mobile app, Agora platform, and a shared experience.

First of all, you are challenged to build an app, which requires both the functionality, flow, and UI/UX design. Developing a specific feature may not be the best idea for this competition. The second hint is the “Agora Real-Time Engagement Platform”. Whatever you are building, you have to use Agora’s product, which is very intuitive. Last but not least, shared experience means that judges are looking for solutions that will involve users’ interaction with other users.

Research the technology and the unique selling point

Hackathons are often sponsored or organized by technology companies such as IBM, Amazon, Google, and Agora. It’s essential to fully understand the technology and its capabilities which can usually be found in the platform’s documentation and tutorials

Your research should answer the following questions:

  • What does the SDK/API do?
  • Who is the target user on the client-side? (business or consumer?) 
  • What framework/language does it support? Do I know how to use the framework?
  • What are the limitations of the technology? 

After you answer all the questions, your research should not end there. You should ask yourself, what is the unique selling proposition (USP) of the sponsor’s technology? Understanding what is unique about their technology compared to competitors can help you strategize on how to appeal to the judges. If your project makes the sponsor’s technology look good compared to its competitors, the judges will be more likely to pick it. Makes sense right?

For example, Agora emphasizes on the low-latency, live-engagements and flexible SDK use case. It can achieve ultra-low latency compared to other competitors because it runs on its proprietary SD-RTN network. Then you should think about how I can create a project to address these unique selling points.

Understand what the judges are really looking for

In the end, judges are the ones who decide if you can bring home the prize money and have a little celebration. In reality, judges have their own KPI and goals. If your project can hit on their goals and make their lives easier, there is no doubt that your project will stand out from the crowd. 

Some hackathons tell you their judging criteria, while others do not. Either way, I would recommend thinking about the following question. What do the company and the judges really want from this hackathon?

Sponsoring and hosting a hackathon is a large investment for most companies. If you consider the monetary sponsorship, personnel resource, work hours, prize, etc, the hackathon’s cost ranges from a couple thousand dollars to hundreds thousand of dollars. So you need to think about why would a company spend so much effort and resources on the event? 

There are a few main goals for all tech companies to sponsor a hackathon:

  • Brand awareness (hard to measure) 
  • SDK/API adoption
  • New use case exploration
  • Product feedback collection

There are a few ways you can find the answer. 

  1. Talk to the judges/organizers
    Are they looking for feedback for their product? Or do they want to find the new use case of their technology? Find out what are some very popular use cases of the technology.
  2. Check out the company’s tutorial resources
    Tutorial resources can be blogs, YouTube videos, GitHub repo, etc. Most sponsors have a large repository of tutorial articles. For example, Agora’s blog site is full of tutorials.from basic implementation to advanced features like AR/VR. Identifying an interesting use case or feature that is NOT in the company’s tutorial resource repository can provide the inspiration for your winning hackathon project if you can determine how to build it.
  3. Check out the company’s documentation, especially the advanced features
    The advanced feature of SDKs is usually the shortcut to make your project look complex. Agora Documentation, for instance, has an advanced feature section listed on the left side.
  4. Check out the company’s press releases
    This is an unusual research method but press releases can be the best way to uncover recent successful use cases of the technology, latest product, etc. For example, if you find the sponsor company just launched a new product and you used the new product, your project will immediately get a lot of love and attention from the judges.

Set your expectations

Set up your correct expectations. Many people attend the hackathon expecting they can build the next Uber. You have to realize only 1 out of 100 hackathon projects will become a successful startup. It is incredibly hard to start a business-viable project within 24-48 hours. I have seen so many teams which aim really high goals and are trying to implement so many features. Eventually, the project is just too large to handle and ultimately fails at the hackathon. 

You have to realize that you are participating in a hackathon to learn something new, build a cool project, and challenge yourself, instead of starting your company. Once you have that expectation, you can narrow your scope and identify just ONE to THREE key differentiation features to build a minimum viable product (MVP) around. 

Trust me, most judges know that your hackathon project will probably not be a long-term project. If your key differentiation feature is so creative or quirky, you will win the attention from the judges. And yes, that means your feature doesn’t have to be 100% practical.

Conclusion

Win or lose, a hackathon is an excellent opportunity for you to step outside of your comfort zone, meet new people, and try out technologies that you are not familiar with.  That said, taking home thousands of dollars and a cool gadget will definitely make your experience more enjoyable. 

The key for a winning project is to understand the event from an organizer and sponsor’s standpoint. You need to understand their intention, goal, and motivation. The ways to do that are:

  1. Analyze the prompt
  2. Do research on the technology and company
  3. Understand the judge’s goal

And don’t forget to set a realistic event expectation. You only need to focus on one to three key features and let them tell the story for you.


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