Hackathons, those passels of engineers fueled by megadoses of caffeine, all in the name of releasing the next great app, have become the lingua franca of Silicon Valley startups. Which leaves some in the business world with noses pressed to the glass of innovation, or attempting one themselves, only to discover it takes more than Chinese takeout and a keg to create something that will scale.
That’s where ChallengePost comes in. Founded in 2009 by Brandon Kessler, the Silicon Alley startup was born out of a bright idea he had while cramming for his business degree. Stumbling across an online software competition, Kessler could see that creating an eBay-like platform to facilitate innovation challenges could be huge. And it was. In its first two years, ChallengePost’s platform played host to over 200 challenges—mostly based on software development—from the likes of the Samsung, Eli Lilly, the USDA, and New York City’s MTA, and raised over $4 million from investors.
But even with the cachet of Michelle Obama’s Apps for Healthy Kids challenge, a business can lose its focus. "The first competition we powered was a software competition," Kessler tells Fast Company. But from there, ChallengePost branched out, handling all kinds of competitions, from creating recipes for the First Lady to coming up with videos to encourage people to move medical records online. So Kessler pulled a Steve Jobs in order to grow a more focused business. "The biggest mistake I made was not focusing on software earlier," he says. "Now, we just power software competitions for companies, government agencies, and individuals who want to get software developers building stuff for them." Which means hackathons will take their place alongside virtual software competitions that happen globally for several months from here on out.
Because even though hackathons seem like a fast track to innovative new technology, even big companies—and whole cities—find the task daunting. Take the city of New Orleans. The Big Easy hosted a 48-hour coding marathon to develop a collection of apps aimed to make it easier to visitors to navigate the city during the Superbowl and Mardi Gras. But just using the word "hack" inspired suspicion instead of support. (They changed the name to Codemkrs Super Challenge). And despite the challenges, everyone wants in on hackathons: even old-line department stores are getting in on the action (Sears hosted its own in August). So Kessler decided to shift the business.
The problem that ChallengePost aims to solve is to make hackathons more accessible to both organizations and to programmers. Kessler explains that with independent hackathons, the most that was available was a Google Doc at the end of the competition that would provide a snapshot of who designed the software, with a bit about its functionality. "There is no way to experience it," he contends, even though the entire purpose of creating software is to showcase how it works.
Then there’s the promotion. ChallengePost’s platform will provide a place for the competitions to be broadcast to potential contestants as well as businesses. And it’s free to post and promote.
Beyond that, Kessler says this also feeds independent developers’ needs to be recognized—and not just with cash and prizes. "They get exposure," he says, "Getting discovered is difficult. Engineers don’t want to build a house that no one lives in." Kessler runs down a list of winners’ accomplishments. "One guy was on the Today Show," he recalls. Though he admits it’s a chance to earn status and recognition and "a chance to make something cool," Kessler argues that it is a win for the developer no matter what. "It’s not spec, you own your software; even if you win you never have to give it up," he underscores.
It’s catching on. So far, MIT, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania have held competitions that attracted more than 1,000 developers, using ChallengePost. The stakes are getting higher as Salesforce is set to hold its own next week offering more than $1 million in prize money.
With everything from the car you drive to the books you read turning into software platforms, Kessler feels like he’s on to something big. "I don’t want to jinx it," he says, but believes that organizations need to pay attention to software development. "It’s a wakeup call," he adds. "If you are not engaging, then you are at a disadvantage."