Anatomy of Good, Winning Hackathon Ideas

Are you in it to win it?

Anatomy of Good Winning Hackathon Ideas

Before you read this article, I want you to take a short survey to help me figure out what according to you is the most important part to win a Hackathon.


Hackerspaces across the globe organize Hackathons on almost regular basis these days; every now and then you will notice one being organized somewhere around you. Hackathons create the environment to get your creative juices flowing, think under pressure, and teach you a thing or two about teamwork. People with great ideas and those who have the talent to execute them come together and collaborate in an informal setting at a Hackathon. These are, thus also a great medium to find your technical co-founder or business developer.

I wrote about how we implemented a winning idea at a Hackathon in 32 hours a few months ago. In that post, I talked about lessons learned and the overall experience. This time, I was more of a coach to my team than an active member and hence I got to do some analysis on what it takes to win (BTW, we managed to win this time again as well, check out the picture).

Not being very close to the idea allowed me to see things from a bird-eye view. I am going to share the entire process, where we did well, where we could have done better, and how to come up with a good, winning Hackathon idea.

hackathon winning team pro start me

Good Ideas That Win at a Hackathon

Not every idea wins…doh. There are, however, certain ingredients that make an idea “winnable”. Please note that I am specifically discussing about winning a Hackathon. It may or may not lead to a successful startup. You may end up building something that wins at a Hackathon but makes you no money down the line as it is not “sellable”. I am not trying to discourage you though. Everything I am going to discuss today is helpful to build a great company as well. It is just that it is not enough to build next Facebook.

Great Ideas are Easy to Explain

The first requirement to win at a Hackathon is that your idea should be easy to understand. Can you explain your idea completely using a phrase? If you could do that, you have a great idea.

Our idea was called Let’s Find It and the single statement was “Lost Something? Use the power of local crowd to find it”. “Lost something” was written in big font in first line and the rest was written in small letters under it.

Under that we had a text box that said “Start typing item/place name to search” with a search button next to it.

There is no way you haven’t understood everything about our idea already, even without looking at our home page. Rest of it is just bells and whistles that you don’t need to know really. The moral is don’t be vague.

Winning Ideas can be built in 24 hours

Having a good idea is critical to winning. If you don’t have an idea that appears logically right, you are not going to win. However, having an idea only will not take you anywhere. You have to build it. You will need developers for it and designers if you can find.

If you cannot build anything in 24 hours, there is essentially no difference between you and those who did not try anything. Saying that you tried 100 things that failed seldom help.

Before I move on to the next ingredient let me tell you already that building your idea is necessary but not sufficient.

Help Your Audience Perceive Your Idea Right

It is very important to convey your idea easily, but it is more important to sell it right. This is one place where we could have done better ourselves. We spent too much time explaining the features.

We had spent 24 hours coding. As programmers, we wanted you all to see the beauty of our code. We wanted you to see how we took care of every little detail.

However, you don’t want to do it. Not if you want to win. You have 3-5 minutes to present your idea and there is only so much you can present in that time. Therefore, don’t try to impress them with how hard you worked. Show them how powerful is your idea and let them guess what it takes to build something like that.

You only want to sell benefits, not features. When you presented your idea in terms of one or two phrases, your audience has assumed you have all of the necessary features needed for your idea, don’t spill the beans and prove them wrong. You should RT this Tweet.

If you were selling a refrigerator, you don’t want to sell the fact that you could control the temperature at different parts to be different (you know to freeze or just to keep cool). You want to sell the fact that you can preserve your perishable foods for a long long time and that you never need to drink Soda without ice.

Simply put, features make sense when you are filing a patent. For a Hackathon it is TMI.

Prepare Yourself for Questions

It is equally important to be able to answer questions that you may get. Think about the usual questions previously. Think of answers to questions that come to your mind. These are mostly the questions you will likely get from the judges. Brainstorm with your team to come up with all sorts of questions. At the very least have answers to following questions:

1. How did you come up with this idea?

2. How would you market your idea? How do you know people actually need this?

3. What is your business model? If you explained it during presentation you may be asked questions to justify it.

4. Who are your competitors? Why should someone choose you over them?

While there are a ton more questions, these are a few basic questions that apply across disciplines and niches. Here are some plausible answers to these questions:

How did you come up with this idea?

1. Have a great story for this. In our case, our story was to show how one of the team members forgot his Passport when he went to renew it. Fortunately, someone he had a friend who worked at that office. Our team member was able to call that friend to locate and hold on to the passport. We purposefully did not talk about stolen cars as that could be perceived as too big a project for 24 hours. Also, we did not have any plans to replace Police.

There is also a story behind name. When you lose/misplace something and tell your buddies about it they usually say “let’s find it”.

How would you market your idea? How do you know people actually need this?

2. If you could connect the issue with the crowd you are presenting to, you’d do very well. For instance, in our case every person would have raised hands if we asked “Who here has lost something in their life?”. That would have been a great answer.

When it comes to marketing an idea, you can’t say things like “we will start with friends and family and then throw advertising money”. This never helps. Have very specific answers, as you are as good as your growth strategies. To read more on this here is an essay by Paul on Startups and Growth.

If we got the question on how would we market it, we could have said we have built tools like Folwd and TweetFull that put growth on steroids for any business. This will serve two purposes. It will make us credible as startup people and it will help us sell those tools to audience. Seriously though, we could have shown how people complain about their lost stuff on Social media and hence we could connect with them there to get them on board using those tools.

Moreover, we would beg-borrow-steal data from independent lost-and-found websites maintained by institutions across the globe. By aggregating that data we would have a great list to start with. Then we would talk about our practical SEO tips and tricks for startups to use the power of that data to connect the rightful owners with those who have their items.

The idea is to be creative. Hit them with something they did not think of. Make sure it is doable though.

What is your business model?

3. This is also a great question and because it is open ended you are more likely than not to get it. There are a lot of articles and white papers that tell you about Business models and even guides from Entrepreneur Inc and others. You need to do some research on this beforehand.

However, in many cases judges are not going to pick on you (unless it is a management school hosting it) if your business model is not very creative already. You should have some source of revenue to keep your lights on and make money for your investors if you ever get any.

Who are your competitors?

4. Competition is not bad, it actually validates your idea. So tell them how your competitors are currently successful with their basic idea and how yours add everything they are missing. For this, you better have some knowledge of those businesses as well. Don’t trash your competition as they are out in the market before you and know a lot more than you do. Moreover, trashing a business makes you appear like a rude person and nobody likes to see a rude person win.

Dinesh Agarwal is an academician turned entrepreneur. He got his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Georgia State University where he also started his first venture Bookup to help students save money on college textbooks. He is also the founder of Pro Start Me, a service for entrepreneurs to realize their tech based ideas into products. Got a great idea? Let us talk

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