Clear the Path for Innovation with Hackathons

Clear the Path for Innovation with Hackathons

This blog post is part of a monthly series highlighting Brightidea’s nine innovation apps. Each month, we’ll focus on one app and explain how it can increase the engagement, productivity, and success of your innovation program.


Mention the word “hacking” today and it’s easy to conjure up images of hoodie-clad evil-doers, working in dark rooms at clandestine locations, relentlessly seeking to penetrate the cyber defenses of the world’s most important institutions. So one might be surprised to learn that some of those same organizations are sponsoring all day events for “hacking” and even actively promoting the existence of those events to the public.

What gives? Are companies asking their best technical employees to turn to the dark side?

Quite the contrary. In recent years, “hacker” has come to mean a strong programmer working feverishly on a project with the best of intentions. And the sort of hacking s/he might engage in has the potential to generate valuable breakthroughs—and not just in information technology, but in any industry. Much like hacking away at vines and brush clears a path through a dense and unnavigable jungle, this type of hacking often upends the status quo by slashing through an established way of thinking to produce something entirely new.

Hackathons: Jumpstarting Innovation With Focused Intensity

Hackathons are at the pinnacle of this type of hacking. As a quick and dirty way to produce a prototype or proof of concept, a hackathon is a marathon work event where participants collaborate in teams to “hack” their way through an assigned challenge. The outcome is then often applied to a product, technology, or entire industry. By clearing the decks of day-to-day distractions and focusing the collective brainpower of a large group, hackathons kickstart—and power through—the innovation process.

Facebook’s “like” button was developed during one of the company’s early hackathons.

As events, hackathons are focused, creative, collaborative—and highly energetic. They’re turbocharged opportunities that often bring together software developers, graphic designers, interface and usability designers, along with subject matter experts in a collective effort to think differently about the challenge at hand. For that reason, hackathons have become a valuable tool of innovation—and in many cases an integral part of corporate culture. Facebook’s engineering director recently said that some of the company’s “most-loved products started at hackathons: video, the Like button, Chat, and even Timeline.”

While they began with intention of advancing software development, and still often involve that goal, hackathons aren’t just for coders anymore. Increasingly, they’re held by organizations in non-technical industries, such as finance, healthcare, government, hospitality, and the life sciences. With a broad range of outcomes, hackathons are used to:

  • Prototype products or technologies in private industry
  • Improve systems or services in the public sector
  • Advance research or recruiting in academic institutions

But regardless of the industry, it’s the speed and intensity of hackathons that makes them so useful—they’re the shortest route to actionable results that an innovation program can take. As a huge proponent, Shutterstock’s chief executive has credited hackathons at his company with “pushing a lot of thinking. It’s pretty amazing what people can get done in 24 hours.”

Running a Hackathon: Research, Plan, and Execute

Hackathons typically kick off with a presentation, both about the event itself as well as the context of the challenge. Based on individual interests and skills, participants will form teams that focus on an aspect of that challenge or compete to develop the best solution or outcome. Then the main work of the hackathon begins, which can last anywhere from several hours to several days. At the end of the event, each team presents a demonstration of their results to the larger group. In hackathons that are held as contests, a panel of judges will select the winning team(s) and present them with prizes.

If you’re thinking of running a hackathon at your organization, it pays to research and plan ahead. At Brightidea, we’ve found that customers with the most successful events have followed the same key steps:

  • Set Clear Goals. Make sure that the aim of your hackathon is in line with your manager’s objectives. While you may be focused on the innovation process, s/he will likely be focused on the results, recruiting/promotion, etc.
  • Focus on a Theme. Decide early on what theme or concentration you will have, overall and in terms of technical details.
  • Solicit Support. Get support for the event from department heads, your manager, and anyone else that can help. You’ll want them to understand why a hackathon is a good idea before proceeding.
  • Plan Logistics. As soon as you can, weeks prior to the event, start planning out logistics. This helps reduce the chance of a mix up. If a new technology is involved, make sure the proper testing has been done to make sure it holds up. Look for an external venue for your hackathon. Look for an open place where wi-fi and all audio/visual equipment is supplied, set up, and well-tested beforehand. Search for a caterer and delegate the responsibility for photographing the event to a volunteer or professional.
  • Recruit and Promote. Developers are the lifeblood of any hackathon; without enough of them progress will stall. Once the event itself has been planned out, get assistance on executing your plan from the hackers themselves—many of whom are likely to participate. If your hackathon is traditionally technical (focused on writing code), make sure that participants are in sync with their frameworks, coding languages, etc. Be proactive in promoting the event to build up momentum leading up to it.
  • Prepare Tracking and Follow Up. Work out ahead of time how and on what you’ll follow up once the event is over. This will maximize the return on time and resources and further drive home the value of the event.
  • Establish a Timeline. Brightidea recommends at least 30 days to research, plan, execute and confirm your event. Use your first few days to research your event, your company’s resources, and possible pitfalls and conflicts that might emerge.

Though a hackathon typically runs for just a day or two, a successful event requires weeks of planning beforehand. A timeline is an important tool in that process.

An App to Manage Your Event From Start to Finish

With everything involved in running a hackathon, it helps a great deal to have dedicated software to assist in the administrative tasks. The Brightidea Hack app is the world’s first all-inclusive app to organize, execute, manage, and track results of your company’s hackathon.

With Hack, you can:

  • Drive event awareness and participation
  • Collect and organize project submissions
  • Facilitate team formation
  • Streamline management and judging
  • Track and follow up on event results

Regardless of the goals or size of your hackathon, Hack lifts the administrative burden of running the event using features that enable organizers and participants to focus on the event itself.

Customizable Microsite. A dedicated website is a great way to advertise your event, provide details about the challenge, and enable participants to register. With Hack, it’s quick and easy to set one up. You can customize the hero banner, navigation, and overall look and feel of the site to feature your company’s branding. The site’s homepage can also be configured with important tools and information about your hackathon: an event schedule that’s easily updated; countdown timers for the registration deadline or the event itself; a Meet the Judges section displaying headshots and short bios for each event judge; and an interactive location map indicating where your hackathon will be held.

Hack enables you to create a microsite for your hackathon, which can be customized in look and feel to feature your company’s branding.

Rapid Team Building. Hack has a number of features that make it easy to build teams for your hackathon quickly and efficiently. Using the Expert Team Builder, Hackathon participants can easily search for people who have the skills they need on their team. The finder also shows how likely a person will join based on their experience, activity in the Hack app, or participation on another team. With robust Expertise Management, employees’ profiles can easily be updated with new or modified skills and experience, maximizing their match to any hackathon team once it’s formed. This also makes it easy to find employees to recruit for a team based on their skill sets. The Similar Event Finder proactively informs you when a similar hackathon is already in the works, enabling you to better plan your event and allocate resources.

With the Expert Team Builder, Hackathon participants can easily search for people who have the skills they need on their team.

A Rich Set of Resources

As a customer, even if you’ve never run a hackathon, Brightidea makes it easy to start. We provide a number of resources to help you prepare, launch, and manage your event.

The Hack App Guide gives an overview of important considerations for running your event successfully, such as budget, timeline, resources, and pitfalls.

The Brightidea Hack App Guide

The Hack App Launch Playbook is a step-by-step manual on how to use the Hack app to launch and run your hackathon. It also provides a list of best practices to keep your event on track.

The Brightidea Hack App Launch Playbook

So You Want to Run a Hackathon is a video-recorded workshop that discusses the benefits of running a hackathon event, explains the use and capabilities of the Hack app, demonstrates how to set up and run a hackathon using the app, and provide a number of insights from other Brightidea customers.

In addition, we offer templates for all printable assets plus hands-on professional support.

Whether you’re running your first hackathon or already have a few under your belt, the combination of these resources with the Brightidea Hack app will make your event significantly easier to organize, execute, and manage. Together they give you more of a reason to use hackathons as a way to jumpstart your innovation and get quick, tangible results out of your program.


Find out how our software can help you run hackathons more efficiently. Learn more about Hack and Brightidea’s other innovation management tools.