Can a hackathon foster innovation and thrive your entrepreneurial adventure?

The concept behind hackathons

Before digging deep into the core question of this article, let me explain the concept of a Hackathon!

Hackathons, a double word created by combining “hack” and “marathon”, have gained enormous popularity over the past years. The original idea behind is that computer programmers and others involved in software development collaborate intensively on software projects. The goal of a hackathon is to create functioning software or hardware by the end of the event.

Hackathons typically start with one or more presentations about the event, as well as about the specific subject, if any. Then participants suggest ideas and form teams (mostly with people they haven’t met before), based on individual interests and skills. Then the main work of the hackathon begins, which can last anywhere from several hours to several days. For hackathons that last 24 hours or longer, especially competitive ones, eating is often informal, with participants often subsisting on pizza, energy drinks and sleeping bags (sounds cool!).

At the end of hackathons, there is usually a series of demonstrations in which each group presents their results (like a start-up pitching competition). There is sometimes a contest element as well, in which a panel of judges select the winning teams, and prizes are given.

This workflow also explains why the words “hack” (implication of IT people to work on a new software technology) and “marathon” (because you work quite intensively on a specific subject during a fixed set of hours – mainly on a weekend) are used.

Over the years, the concept of a hackathon has evolved, and it can now also serve not only IT organisations and communities. Music Hack Day, a hackathon for music-related software and hardware applications, Science Hack Day, a hackathon for making things with science, “TV Hackfest” focusing mainly on social television and second screen technologies are some examples of new events that have been launched. Even the Vatican hosted its first-ever hackathon back in 2018 to encourage technological solutions for social inclusion and interfaith dialogue (who would have thought?).

The use of hackathons to quickly crowdsource digital ideas and solutions demonstrates the possibilities of open innovation. They stimulate the creative juices of participants and foster problem-solving and risk-taking in a casual environment.

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Sounds interesting! But how can a hackathon thrive and help your personal entrepreneurial project? 

The diversity of participants guarantees a multitude of perspectives and the time limit on hackathons creates a uniquely productive atmosphere that forces participants to distil their visionary concepts down to actionable solutions.

Regardless of the outcome, your participation is key to the creativity, focus and drive for your own project. Outsiders can bring a fresh perspective to business challenges, as well as give an outside-in view of products and organization. Engaging with participants during the hackathon is an excellent way to get feedback.

You get help from coaches and mentors during a hackathon. Research shows that it takes most companies years of learning before they can effectively take on new ideas from external partners. However, most initial collaborations between startups (and hopefully your project will become a new company one day) and big companies are developed in accelerators, hackathons and incubators.

If you happen to be one of the lucky winners of the competition, the price (if there is any) will allow you to continue working on the project.

The key to your success is combining your deep knowledge of your project and your industry with an openness to learning from others about new trends and technologies. At the beginning, ideas and business models often need to be reversed or adapted in response to new information. And this is a strength, not a weakness.

Understanding one’s natural tendencies is an important first step. Where is your comfort zone? What is your default position? New entrepreneurs can gain insight about themselves from real-time feedback hackathons where members of their community post comments and provide assessments.

Becoming a more effective entrepreneur means not only developing one’s current idea but knowing where to focus more based on feedback. This requires both self-awareness and emotional intelligence (it is never nice to get negative feedback but it’s for free and it can only help you if the feedback is constructive) sourced directly from the coaches and mentors of the hackathon. Through such initiatives, entrepreneurs can rely on the diversity embedded within the hackathon community to give them advice on when it is appropriate to favour one approach more than the other.

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Are there hackathons happening in Luxembourg?

Since 2012, 10 editions of the “Startup Weekend Luxembourg” have been organized. Startup Weekend Luxembourg is an intense 54-hour event in which local entrepreneurs, developers, designers, marketers, product managers, startup enthusiasts and anyone interested in building a business can come together to share ideas, form teams, and potentially launch a startup.

In 2020, Docler Holding in collaboration with Farvest, the House of Startups and Junction organized “Hack the Crisis Luxembourg” which is an online hackathon and a call to action for each and everyone to participate in the fight against COVID-19.

Game of Code: organized by IT One, this hackathon consists in developing an innovative digital product in 24 hours and exchange with other coding enthusiasts.

The House of Startups also accompanied several established companies to launch internal hackathons. Company internal hackathons flaunt many of the same benefits as external competitions. Internal hacks can unshackle some of the corporate bureaucracy that hinders creative thought and help big brands overcome the struggle of accepting innovation within the company. Interested? Please have a look at the social media channels of the engineering company “Schroeder & Associés” who held their first hackathon in 2020 in the House of Startups.

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