I am not the typical person you would find at a hackathon. I don’t code and would be described in the industry as a “non-technical” cofounder.
As a non-technical CEO I tend to focus on things like marketing, branding, positioning, investors, and customers. I do it because it’s my job and during the early stages of a startup no one else on the team is responsible for those things.
This is all nice and good but it doesn’t build a product. And if you don’t have a product you can’t actually have marketing, branding, positioning, investors, and customers.
So if you are a non-technical CEO what you need is a techie bootcamp of sorts, short but intense periods of learning and doing so you can start to understand what its like to be a developer. And trust me, if your devs don’t feel like you understand the hows and why’s of their work you will soon find yourself standing alone at the alter.
So what is a Hackathon? It’s a room full of developers focused on building the coolest product they can in a 54 hour period. It’s a self-inflicted bootcamp, challenging you and your team to execute on a new idea with little time, resources or sleep.
My team and I participated in the recent Sports Hack Day at the Hub over SuperBowl weekend in Seattle. It was a great experience. Obviously, the focus was building something oriented around technology and sports – two of my favorite topics. While we didn’t take home any of the prizes, we did take home a kernel of an idea we think might actually be something substantial. More on that later.
I want to review some lessons learned over the weekend and possibly help other non-techical CEO’s who are serious about building a startup realize how important the time spent at a Hackathon can be.
Lessons 1. Become part of the community
There is a strange brotherhood between technical people – developers, hackers, coders, designers – anyone who considers themselves one with the terminal. It’s like they just have look at each other, head nod without saying anything and instantly know each is in the club. I have to admit this was quite foreign to me as I began my entrepreneurial journey (uh, what’s that say on your screen?) I credit the few CTO’s I have worked with for their patience and understanding with me being a non-technical person. Yet weekends like the last one spent at a hackathon do A LOT to not only further educate me on technical aspects of software/web development but also include me into the community.
The quote “showing up is half of the battle” comes to mind here. By simply showing up and intuitively saying to others “What’s up? I’m right here on the front lines with you!” goes a long way to gain respect and inclusion from the community. Also, asking questions – lots of questions – about various languages, platforms and API’s tells your fellow technical team-members you are interested in learning about their world. THIS IS HUGE. You will learn a lot and gain respect from them just based on the fact you are taking the time to know what’s going on.
And the coolest thing is I am actually starting to retain this stuff!
Lesson 2. Execute under pressure
A weekend is barely enough time to take an idea and deploy a working product around. In fact, it’s not really much time at all since our code deadline was at noon Sunday and Demos started about 12:30pm. This means you learn to make quick decisions. There is no time to battle back and forth about a specific feature or naming structure. You must decide and JFDI. With less than 54 hours available, Hackathons are all about execution and swift decision making.
You know what? Swift decision making is incredibly valuable in the real startup world as well. Hackathons help you to become agile, testing what works and what doesn’t and quickly make corrections if needed. This is arguably the top advantage of being a startup so being able to polish the diamond during the weekend has tremendous benefits in the long run. Also, it can be crazy stressful as you get down to the deadline. The team learns to work in a “crucible” where intense pressure hangs over you as people work tirelessly to get something “respectable” completed and deployed.
Hackathons are not for the faint of heart.
Lesson 3. Find the value proposition
I’ve written previously about the value of pitch competitions, so I will talk more about the process of how you get there than the actual pitch. During the weekend as you are building out your product you still have to keep in mind what value your product brings to the world. Remember, after the deadline you will be standing in front of the group and a field of judges describing your product and why it should be used. There really is not much use for a product that doesn’t solve a problem or pique someones interest in one way or another. Don’t be the guy/gal who doesn’t even understand how or why their product would be used.
So in addition to building really cool tech you are challenged to figure out the value proposition – both are required to winning a Demo competition. The condensed timeframe places increased pressure on you to figure out what problem you are actually solving. Quickly evaluating the market, determining if there are existing players and what problem they are solving. Finding holes in the market and quickly determining how to meet them. Evaluating potential business models, although not fully required during a hackath0n, will stretch the creative mind farther than anticipated and lead to interesting business developments.
The benefits can be compared to exercise: the more ‘reps’ you accomplish at a higher stress level the better (stronger) you become at that particular activity. Especially for non-technical founders, hackathons provide a great training ground to hone value proposition skills.
Whew, what a weekend!
For all the non-technical founder/CEO’s out there: Don’t shy away from hackathons. Trust me, you need them more than they need you.
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