How we built a community of smart individuals using a Hackathon
Every company struggles with attracting top talent. The candidate landscape is changing, technology is rapidly evolving and talent competition is ramping up globally. Because of these challenges, a lot of businesses don’t find success in their initial talent recruitment. Huge organizations spend thousands of dollars in talent acquisition alone. They spend money on branding, free swag, headhunters and lots of advertising. So what can a smaller company like us do to compete against the big guns? We throw a Hackathon.
A what-thon? In simple terms, a hackathon is an event where people (mostly programmers) come together to build products and kick some serious ass. A Hackathon seems to be the buzzword nowadays. Everyone from your neighbor to Facebook seems to be doing it. It makes sense, you organize an event with smart people working on innovative ideas. That’s a ready pool of talent that your company can tap into.
When we made the decision to organize a Hackathon, there were several reasons why we did it. To be honest, finding talented developers wasn’t the biggest incentive. Our most important metric for the Hackathon was to grow a community of passionate like-minded people. You might have different goals. That’s OK, as long as you have clearly defined goals about what you want because this will affect how you will run your event.
In the spirit of our startup culture, we wanted to be as lean as possible with the Hackathon. Our budget was $500. It’s a tough one but we believe that having constraints allows for more creativity. So how were we able to pull it off? Here are some tips:
There are traditional ways that you could market an event - Facebook Ads, Flyers, Google Ads etc. But since we working on a limited budget, we had to think outside the box. We published our free event in Eventbrite. Among the event platforms, it’s the best in terms of SEO. This increases the chances of our event being seen. Next, we had to think about the people we are targeting. We made the decision early on to focus on Junior/Senior CS University students and fresh CS graduates although it doesn’t mean that we are excluding other demographics. With limited resources in hand, we have to be selective where we put our time.
With our target market in mind, we went out guns blazing. We directly emailed CS and any software related university clubs within a 50 mile radius of our event. We ran $25 FB Ads for one week targeting our specific demographic. We posted on networking forums such as HackerNoon, Facebook software groups and Reddit. We reached to our personal friends, posted on our social media, invited everyone that is even remotely close to software. We pushed all our marketing to our EventBrite event page so that we can control the traffic. We used www.bit.do as a link shortener. What I love about it is that it’s free to have a personalized link (for us, it was simply bit.do/novvum) and it allows you to track where the traffic is coming from, like a mini Google Analytics. Lastly, we built a landing page in Webflow that served as a marketing tool. We already had a Webflow account for our own clients and so it didn’t cost us anything to add another one.
Key Lesson: Know who you are targeting and find out where they reside. Use existing resources to market and make sure to track all the different channels you use so that you know which channels are effective.
The biggest cost of events are usually food. You’d be surprised at how many restaurants whether its family-owned or franchised are willing to sponsor events. All you need to do is ask. Drive around and look at the surrounding businesses close to your event space who could be a potential sponsor for different types of food. Coffee is a must have in Hackathons. Each Starbucks usually have a quota for donating coffee boxes. But don’t just look at the popular chains, the smaller mom and pop stores are willing to sponsor if you can tell them it will give them exposure.
Pro tip: Want to look extra professional? Use this free sponsorship template that we used for our own event. Edit it to fit your event needs. When you print it, you can put it in a presentation folder and give it to those restaurants with your business card. Bam, you look like a super professional organization without breaking the bank.
Sponsorship doesn’t have to be in terms of physical goods. Ask sponsors to give you in-kind donations. For example, a tech company can provide skip-of-the-line interviews at their company or a one hour career mentorship session.
Key Lesson: Don’t be limited by just corporate sponsorship, mom and pop stores can give you sponsorship too. Give your potential sponsors options. If you just ask for money or food, this severely limits how people can help out.
You know the saying your network is your net worth? In this case, your network is one way to get access to things you might not normally have access to. So reach out to your network. You’d be surprised at the people who would gladly help out. We asked one of our friends, the CTO of a multi-million dollar startup to be one of the judges. He took time out of his sunday to drive for an hour to judge the event. We also asked one of our business partners, Apollo GraphQL, to give us some free swag for the event. Surprisingly, not only did they give us some swag, they gave us tickets to the GraphQL summit - a $1000 value.
Other creative thing to is bartering for services. In one case, one of our friends printed 100 t-shirts for our event as a giveaway in exchange for consulting services for his business. In the end, it was a win-win situation for everyone. What services can you offer to your network that would be valuable to them? In another case, we invited Tech-in-Motion, a prominent tech event group in Orange County, to pitch their upcoming Timmy Awards during the event. While we didn’t get something tangible for the participants - having their presence raised our own professional credibility as a company to both the participants and also the Tech-in-Motion team.
Key Lesson: Think about what you can offer to your network in return for participating in the event - it could be products/services. Reach out to people who could also benefit by just having a presence in your hackathon.
We initially wanted to host our event at our 1400 sq ft office. It was enough to comfortably hold about 25 people. What we didn’t expect was that we had a lot more RSVP’s than we were expecting. We didn’t have enough space. It was too late to find other venues, and we didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars for a space. If you have a little bit more money to play with, schools and non profit locations have the most reasonable price for locations. Or you can try to partner with a community space in exchange for exposure. Just across our office is a coworking space that just opened up. We approached them if they are willing to partner for the event. Since these types of businesses are just starting out, they could use the extra boost of marketing from partnering with us. It also helped that we pitched our target market (tech people) as their same target market. While they said yes - they could only do it for one day of our event. We eventually decided that it would be a logistical nightmare to move participants from one event space to the other. So back to the drawing board.
We notice that there were some empty office suites in our office building - big enough to hold 100 people if we wanted to. It was a stretch but asked our property manager if they could let us use a vacant suite for the weekend. Surprisingly they said yes. Since we were tenants of the building, they let us use it for the weekend free of charge. We only had to pay for the cleaning fee and provide insurance for the weekend. We got lucky that we were able to use 8000 sq ft of space for the weekend for free. Depending on the building policy, they may or may not charge you so just ask.
Key Lesson: If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
Sometimes event organizers get so caught up in the logistics of the event that they forget to design the event around the experience of the participant. We asked ourselves - what would the participants want? What type of workshops or activities would they find useful? Asking questions like this forces us to design around them instead of designing the event for what we think is best. We asked our interns what worked and what didn’t, what they wish could be better etc. This will help you make better decisions about the event. We asked ourselves if we are starting out in an event having no clue about what to do, what would we want to see? With this framework in mind, we designed the workshops and our mentor office hours to be flexible with the varying degrees of knowledge in the people participating.
Key Lesson: Instead of making assumptions about what the event should be, ask people who attended the event before.
To be fair, our Hackathon was not without its hitches. Our new venue didn’t have any Wi-Fi, the AC didn’t work, projectors weren’t connecting, we lost power at one point and the list goes on and on. This is an organizer’s worst nightmare - anything that could go wrong, will go wrong. There were a lot of ups and downs for sure but as long as you explain the situation to the attendees what’s going on, they would be understanding. Honesty and transparency goes a long way. Logistically, there were things that we could’ve done better. And we will for our next one. But all in all, we were really happy how it turned out.
We had about 20 participants. Side note: If you are hosting a free event, expect a 30-40% drop off rate, and the number goes down further when you’re targeting students. So 20 people was about the number we were expecting. Numbers aside, having a smaller group worked better for us as it allowed us to connect individually with them. The groups were able to bond better. We saw people make life-long connections. We had a lot of hiccups, but in the end we achieved our goal of creating a community around Novvum.
Now that we’ve created a community, now what? Besides offering interviews for the winners of the Hackathon, we wanted a way to stay connected with our community. We’re doing that through a monthly coffee+tech meetup - a one hour roundtable about a topic with free coffee of course. People can network, work with other people or just ask for tech-related advice. Our goal is to continue the community we’ve created beyond our event.
There is no perfect formula for throwing a hackathon or creating a community. But hopefully these tips will help get you started. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you did for your own hackathon?