Tech Tuesday: How To Win A Hackathon, Even If You Don’t

CareerDigitalEntrepreneurshipInnovationSTEMTech Tuesday 3 Comments

By Anne Gordon, Founder, Kinderloop – I am not your typical hackathon attendee. I am a woman, over 30, with kids, and only a few months ago, I was a criminal lawyer. Yes, I felt a bit out of place at a two-day festival of booze, computers, and testosterone. But I knew that as a non-technical startup founder, a win at a hackathon would give my nascent kid-tech company some credibility. I knew I’d need 1) a great team, and 2) support from some big players to make it to the grand prize: entrance to the AngelHack startup accelerator.

My first (and best) move of the weekend was introducing myself on the Meetup and going to the pre-hackathon networking event. This allowed me to get my idea out there so people would have a reason to come up to me, and indeed they did. All in all, I met my entire team, including my technical co-founder, either at the pre-event or through the Meetup. We were off to a great start.

Once at the event, woah Nelly, it was a madhouse. I have two kids under four, but even the yelling and screaming at my house does not compare to the chaos, the wide-open space, and, oh yes, the music at the hackathon. (This would continue for the next 30 HOURS.) I felt out of my element. This was kicked off by the two dudes who sauntered up to my co-founder and me with a, “hey, girls, whatcha workin’ on?” our first morning. Oy. But we soldiered on.

SF AngelHack 2013Then: I sat. In the same chair. For two days. Honestly, this was the hardest part about the whole thing. I don’t know how developers do it – by the end of the weekend, my whole body felt like it had just run a marathon, instead of the EXACT OPPOSITE (see: chips and pizza). But, while trying to walk off my pain, I met a person who volunteered to do some design work for us. Score!

The sitting also takes a toll on the brain. Hackathons are air-and-light deprived environments, where time and space are continually closing in. I can’t overstate the effect that having a great team had on my psyche. We laughed together over YouTube videos during breaks (that Taylor Swift goat-remix is extra funny at 3am!), made fun of each others’ cuisine (cheese-only Papa John’s is not a health-conscious decision), played with babies (my co-founder was nursing – how’s THAT for a rockstar performance?), and generally had a great time.

“Out of 80 teams, we were one of 10 sent forward to the finals… Did we dare to dream of the win?”

Skipping the gory details (some of what happens at hackathon stays at hackathon), suddenly it was Sunday morning and the pressure was on . . . me. The techies had done all they could to produce a great hack in 24 hours, but without the pitch we’d never win. Once the adrenaline was pumping, I was psyched, despite my three hours of fitful couch-sleep. Power Pose! The first pitch was before two judges. The most recent email we had gotten said we had three minutes for pitching and five minutes total (including Q&A). But just outside the room we found out that it was in fact two minutes of pitch and 30 seconds of Q&A, so okgoaheadhavefun! We rushed it a bit, and didn’t say everything we wanted to, but by putting the most important info in the front (outline the pain, describe the value, describe the product), we made it through. Out of 80 teams, we were one of 10 sent forward to the finals, and we had some enthusiastic judges on our side. Did we dare to dream of the win?

The final pitch (3 minute pitch, 2 minutes Q&A) in front of all 500 attendees went great, in my opinion; we got out our whole presentation, had a really smooth demo, a nice-looking slide deck, and – thanks to my awesome co-founder – a cute .gif at the end showing our team dancing around (we’re talented and fun!). I flubbed the final Q&A by: 1) not having a more detailed answer about security, and 2) being vague about our distribution plans. I know the exact thing to say to each of these questions now, but the moment got away from me.

They called our name: we were in the top two for the win . . . and we lost. But we won. And here’s why. First, the grand prize was entrance to the accelerator, which would have been 10 weeks of mentorship, but no money on the line. 10 weeks of my life is a long time in startup-land, and with a percentage of my company on the line, that’s a big decision to make while delirious from lack of sleep. So the goal looked less awesome in the light of (Sun)day. But the things I needed to get there – big players who believe in our product, a great team, and the confidence to go forward – remain, and were worth every slice of cold pizza.

AnneGordonAbout the author

Anne is a lawyer by training but an entrepreneur at heart. In January 2013, after making yet another list of New Year’s resolutions about businesses she wanted to start, she decided to finally make it happen. She quit her job and began working on the idea that would become Kinderloop. She attended AngelHack in San Francisco on March 4-5, 2013. You can follow Anne on Twitter @annedgordon.

About AngelHack

AngelHack organizes hackathon competitions for web developers and entrepreneurs, where they can learn developer tools, meet new friends, and receive funding and mentorship for their startup ideas. In 2013, AngelHack will organize 100 hackathons, bringing together 15,000+ developers in 50+ cities.

  • Hannah

    I have never even thought about a hackathon… this is incredibly inspiring.

  • Tara

    Totally fascinating. I had never heard of hackathons, but I am sure that they must be totally hectic, and totally inspiring at the same time. To have so many developers in one spot at the same time has got to get your heart pumping and your brain working overtime. Good luck, Anne.

  • Dejuitsi