"Test Drive" a Startup Experience: How to Win a Hackathon in 5 Steps
July 2, 2021 | By Ryan Decker and Jenna Wilson
Do you have a business idea you’re hesitant to turn it into a startup? Or maybe you thrive under pressure and love solving complex problems. Hackathons are the perfect way to “test drive” a startup. Each year, the University of Arkansas Blockchain Center of Excellence hosts the RZRblock Hackathon—a blockchain hackathon competition where teams of students and professionals build solutions for real world, blockchain-enabled use cases.
What the heck is a hackathon, anyway? -In a hackathon, participants sprint to collaborate on software projects. Hackathon sponsors, usually universities or tech companies, provide use cases of problems for teams to solve in a short period of time, typically 1-3 days but sometimes longer. The annual RZRblock Hackathon focuses on blockchain technology: decentralized, distributed ledger technology that stores information in a growing list of ordered records.
We won first place in the last two RZRblock Hackathons as part of two separate teams. In our first hackathon (November 2019), we used blockchain technology to improve the accuracy, visibility, and security of vaccination records. In the second (March 2021), we developed Inoculus, an app that allows users to own and share their health records, prove their vaccination status, and track their risk.
Hackathons sound intimidating at first, especially for non-programmers, but these five steps will help you get the most out of your hackathon experience.
Go All-in on an Inspiring Use Case
“You need someone that behaves like James Bond more than you need someone that is an expert in some particular domain.” – Sam Altman, Former President of Y Combinator, on Startup Teams
Hackathons are intense. Whether you have 24 hours or more than a week to focus on your hack, there’s no point in picking a use case or challenge you’re not interested in. We picked problems around vaccination records and health passports because it was something we couldn’t not think about. If you’re not inspired by the use case, you won’t want to put in the work required to win (which is a lot, by the way). This lack of enthusiasm will come through in your final presentation. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to work on something inspiring than something you picked just to win a prize.
Around the time you select a use case, you also select a team. Good teams usually consist of people from different backgrounds who can approach the problem from various angles. Cross-functional teams are important, both in hackathons and startups. We also found significant advantages to working with “jack of all trades” team members, or those who have skills in a variety of areas, rather than specialists. In a fast-paced environment with a lot of things going on, generalists can get a lot of different things done, and fast.
That said, the two most important skills for a hackathon are front-end design and business development. Designing a product with a beautiful user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) is incredibly important, since this is usually the judges’ “WOW” factor. Team members with business development expertise can then explain the problem, business model, market, and competitive advantage. Explaining why and how is essential in developing impressive final presentations and getting the judges on your side.
In addition, all team members must be inspired by the problem and willing to put in the work to solve it. Be open and honest with potential team members from the start; this forthrightness will save a lot of trouble once things get hectic. If two people really want to work together but on different use cases, they should carefully consider the alternative and prioritize what’s more important to them. Having a good team is just as important as working on an interesting problem, and you should try your best to accomplish both.
Solve the Right Problem(s) By Talking to Industry Professionals and Potential Customers
“We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want” – Eric Ries, Lean Startup
At this point you and your team have picked a use case and are ready to tackle the problem head-on. Before beginning trying to solve the problem, talk to people who face the problem every day. Understanding a user’s perspective is more important than ever in building solutions that work well and work widely.
In the most-recent RZRblock hackathon, which was a month long rather than the usual 24 hours, our team didn’t even start designing the app prototype until the third week. We spent a lot of our time talking to healthcare and technology professionals to figure out their biggest pain points around the topic. For example, although our use case focused mainly on health passports, our conversations with real users showed the importance of convenient access to health records and how these records are shared between parties. These problems came up because we didn’t try to influence the conversation. Because of this, we got an accurate depiction of what problems we should try to solve. Judges like to see a real-world application of your product and talking to real users helps bring the idea to life. It’s very tempting to tell customers how much they would love your product, but if it doesn’t solve their problem, they won’t use it.
Don't Be Afraid to Iterate
“We all fall in love with our own ideas. The trick is to know when to fall out of love with these ideas…” – Peter Coughter, Art of the Pitch
In his Startup Lessons Learned blog, Eric Ries talks about the importance and difficulty of iterating. “Some startups,” he observes, “avoid getting customer feedback for precisely this reason: they are afraid that if early reactions are negative, they'll be ‘forced’ to abandon their vision.” While a hackathon is slightly different in that the “vision” is more or less [or, alternatively, “basically”] given to you, you will likely (and should) iterate many times. This is why it’s important to talk to customers and users early, so you don’t waste precious time perfecting something that will require future iterations.
We iterated frequently with Inoculus: adding and removing features as we talked to more potential users. These iterations helped us find the value in the ideas and create an app that customers would actually use. In fact, Inoculus, the app we presented in the second hackathon, was an iteration of our idea from the first hackathon. We were able to use what we learned from the first hackathon to develop a better solution for the second one. This is not only a great strategy for winning hackathons, but also for developing a successful startup.
Know Your Audience and Tailor Your Presentation Accordingly
“If you want to create messages that resonate with your audience, you need to know what they care about.” – Nate Elliot, Founder and Principal, Nineteen Insights
At the end of a hackathon, you deliver a presentation to a panel of judges. The makeup of the judging panel makes a big difference in how you choose your idea and structure your presentation. Are they investors? Businesspeople? Engineers? Each of these judges will expect something different, and you should modify the presentation accordingly. We discuss some strategies for presenting to investors, businesspeople, and engineers.
Investors are driven by high growth potential. Think of the sharks on the show, Shark Tank. They ask founders about business metrics (sales, profits, growth, etc.) and market size. When presenting to investors, focus on how your product could fit in the market. How quickly could you scale? What revenue streams do you have? What’s your business model? All these questions help investors see the high growth potential of your hack.
Businesspeople care about many of the same things as investors, but for different reasons. While investors want to see high growth potential, businesspeople want to know how your app could solve real problems they see in their daily lives. Since businesspeople usually think in terms of finance, sales, and marketing, you should highlight customer feedback and explain the business model. While investors may be wowed by idealistic visions, businesspeople may prefer familiar business models.
Engineers, or those with a technical background, care a lot more about the ins and outs of the app than other judges. While businesspeople may be impressed by a simple app or prototype that is validated by customer feedback, it may not excite a technical judge. Teams presenting to technical judges should have engineers on the team who can field questions about the product’s backend.
Most of the judges we encountered fell into the second category. Because of this, we focused on the business model and customer validation. Blockchain technology can get complex and confusing, so we spent much of our presentations walking the audience through how it works and why customers would use it. Some other groups focused instead on presenting their code, and, while this may have been valuable to an engineer or technical judge, the impact was lost on many of the judges. While our strategy paid off for us, all hackathons are different, so know your judges and tailor your presentation accordingly.
Build an Engaging Presentation by Pairing Storytelling With Great Design
“Just spend a bit of time bringing the same level of creativity to selling the work as you brought to creating the work.” – Peter Coughter, Art of the Pitch
No matter how great your idea is, if you can’t sell it to the audience, you will usually fail. Focusing heavily on the presentation set us apart from other groups and impressed the judges. Good pitches are also good stories: the old adage that “facts tell, but stories sell” rings true. Pitches should have an obvious structure – a beginning, middle, and end – that engages the audience throughout. Putting together a good pitch in a short amount of time isn’t easy, but here’s our secret formula for creating an impressive pitch:
- Problem Statement
- Unique Solution
- Demo & User Story
- Hidden Slides
The purpose of a hackathon is to solve a problem using technology. While the creator of the use case is familiar with the problem to be solved, they may not be the ones judging. Tell the audience the background of the problem and your motivation to solve it by discussing current pain points and inefficiencies that your solution will address.
Especially in hackathons centered around an emerging technology (like blockchain), explaining how it works in your product or app is essential. Don’t make this section too technical—people with little-to-moderate knowledge on the subject should still be able to understand how it works. Animated diagrams that compare your solution to alternatives tend to help everyone understand the advantages of your app.
In a hackathon, showing is better than telling. You will need a prototype or proof of concept to walk the audience through a user’s experience. The prototype should work (of course) and look great. We used a mockup tool like Adobe XD to create a working prototype that looked amazing. To establish a connection with your audience, introduce a potential customer and show how they would use it. In short, tell a story about how your app solves an important problem for the user. If the audience sees how they could use the app, then they will be more likely to buy into the idea.
So, you have a compelling demo of your unique solution to a pressing problem. Now you need to explain why people will use it. Who are your customers? Why would they use it? What are the barriers to entry into the market? How will the idea make money? Judges will ask these questions, so be sure you have an answer for all of them. Along with implementation, you should also introduce your team and explain why you are equipped to solve the problem. A lot of people have good ideas, but does your team have the expertise, skill, and experience to put your plan into action? Prove to the judges that you do, and you’ll stand out.
While this is less important for virtual presentations, hidden slides are essential for presentations with Q&A sessions. These hidden slides, while not always shown during the pitch, are useful in answering judges’ questions. These slides may explain your business model in more depth, answer backend/database/algorithm questions, or discuss future enhancements to your idea. They may be shown or stay hidden, but it’s always good to prepare them in case.
Winning a Hackathon…What’s Next?
It’s exciting to win a hackathon and receive positive feedback about your idea. Potential investors may even reach out to learn more. After winning, you’ll need to ask yourself if you want to turn your idea into a reality (i.e., a startup). If you worked well with your team and believe strongly in the idea, a startup may be the logical next step. The resources and visibility you receive from competing on a big stage can help you take your idea to the next level.
So, what about us? We were amazed by the excellent feedback and support we received from the RZRblock Hackathon. As for the future of our app, Inoculus, we’re investigating our options right now, and we are excited to see where it takes us!