Why You Should Probably Host A Hackathon

PayPal is hosting Hackathons around the world for the second year in a row. Here’s why a 24-hour programing session may be just what your company needs to inspire innovation.

Why You Should Probably Host A Hackathon
[Image: Flickr user TechCrunch]

What do you get when you let a group Red Bull-infused programmers loose for 24 hours?


PayPal is finding out. From now until November, the company is hosting Battle Hacks in 14 cities around the world, calling on the most talented developers to assemble teams and work for 24 hours to create something magical that incorporates the PayPal API and solves a local problem.

This year is the company’s second worldwide Battle Hack. Last year a Battle Hacker created an app to help puppies in shelters, connecting users with dogs available for adoption and allowing donors to use PayPal to contribute money towards vaccinations and vet treatments.

One of this year’s regional winners created an app that allows a group of family and friends (up to 11 individuals) to create a savings circle where money is deposited into an account each month and gets distributed to a different member of the circle each month. The winners of PayPal’s city Battle Hacks go on to compete at the world finals for a three-day hackathon in San Jose, California, for the $100,000 prize and a battle axe trophy.

Some of the most innovative companies have embraced hackathons to promote innovation. A hackathon is an event held within a finite amount of time (typically 24 or 48 hours) where creatives get together in small teams to design, build, and demo a new product or feature.

What’s in it for you

Brandon Kessler, founder of ChallengePost, a digital platform that hosts the largest number of public hackathons globally, says there are many ways a company can benefit from a hackathon; whether you’re an established organization and want to see your product leveraged in a new way, or a startup looking to meet area developers and receive valuable feedback on your product. Asides from party-size pizzas and an endless supply of caffeine and energy drinks, Kessler recommends these hackathon hosting tips:

Entice software developers with prizes that inspire them. Prize money is great, but you don’t have to have deep wallets to grab the attention of developers. Think beyond money for incentives that developers will find useful, such as a meeting with someone in your organization who can further the developer’s career, or an introduction with one of your company’s investors.


Make it a learning experience. Hackers want to flex their creative muscles and learn new skills. “[You want] the developers, designers and product people come out of the hackathon feeling as though they’ve learned something,” says Kessler.

Match your hackathon to your company’s culture and strategic goals.Mixbook, a Palo Alto, California-based company that creates custom, photo books recently hosted a hack night, but unlike PayPal’s ultra-competitive hackathon, Mixbook sought to create a holistic learning environment that mimicked the company’s culture and served their primary motivation, which was to network with potential new recruits.

“We’re always looking for great engineers and we’d been thinking about ways to meet more technical talent [so] the hack night approach [seemed a good fit],” says Scott Bonds, Mixbook’s VP of engineering.

Don’t forget to promote it. One of the most common obstacles Kessler says companies face when hosting hackathons is getting attendance numbers up. To connect with local developers, he recommends reaching out to local universities, speaking at classes, attending local meet-up events and making use of social media to help spread the word.

Decide on a theme. Having a structure or theme for the hackathon gives participants some guidance, which can be especially important in shorter hackathons, such as Mixbook’s three-hour hack night.

Hackathons shouldn’t end with the winning hack. “One of the biggest mistakes that organizers make is thinking [the hackathon] is a one-time event,” says Kessler. He encourages companies to think about the hackathon as an opportunity to build a long-term community which means keeping in touch with developers, updating them on your platform and encouraging them to continue working on their software.


Because of their goal of using their hack night as a recruitment tool, Mixbook has kept in touch with individuals who attended their hackathon. “[For us], it was about meeting talented people in an environment that’s pretty relaxed, people who we’ll eventually get a chance to collaborate with or who end up working here,” says Bonds.

Hack internally.
Give hackathons a try by encouraging employees to tap into their creativity and produce something new. Companies such as SumAll and Shuttershock have hosted internal hackathons that have resulted in real-world products.

While Kessler says these internal events can also be valuable, he notes opening them up to the public allows the company to reach new developers and get other ideas from outsiders that those inside the company may never have thought of.


About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction.