Hackathons make the magic happen

06/12/2017 - 12:32

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Beyond their obvious value to the startup and tech sectors, hackathons are increasingly being used by big business to drive innovation.

Hackathons make the magic happen
Fiona Stanley Hospital recently hosted healthcare professionals, researchers, programmers and aspiring entrepreneurs at a hackathon-type event. Photo: Attila Csaszar

The sun is shining, summer has arrived and many people are just weeks away from downing tools and enjoying some holiday time with family and friends.

For those of us in startup land, however, there’s the not-so-small matter of hackathon season to navigate first.

To many, ‘hacking’ evokes thoughts of hooded programmers tucked away in dark rooms, breaking down firewalls, trying to get their hands on and manipulate our precious data.

Contrary to that stereotype, what we are talking about here is a group of people coming together, sharing their ideas and trying to develop potential businesses over the course of the weekend.

As someone who was involved in bringing the first event to Perth back in 2012, I reckon Startup Weekend is the original hackathon.

Touted as ‘the ideal environment for startup magic to happen’, what began as a one-off in Boulder, Colorado, has scaled to more than 1,000 cities, with dozens of events taking place each weekend globally.

Perth’s 11th Startup Weekend was held at Spacecubed last month, where almost 100 ‘hackers, hustlers and hipsters’ combined to form 11 teams which, from the Friday evening until Sunday night, pivoted and prototyped, validated business models and ultimately pitched their startups, all in 54 crazy hours.

Once you realise that the output from a Startup Weekend is upskilled entrepreneurs and the project is simply a vehicle for learning, the fear of failure and ‘what if someone steals my idea?’ quickly slips away. Similarly, the post-hackathon challenge of maintaining a team of strangers and trying to revisit that intense level of activity when they have day jobs to get back to suddenly doesn’t matter.

That is not to say real businesses aren’t launched from hackathons. One of my favourites, Simply Wall Street, started at a Perth Startup Weekend with a charismatic pitch from the startup’s costumed founder, Al Bentley.

He has since gone on to raise more than $2 million in funding, and has served tens of thousands of customers worldwide, helping them to make better-informed investment decisions by turning complicated data into simple visuals.

Other successes have come from themed hackathons, typically targeted at an industry segment.

‘Unearthed’ was established in Perth to drive innovation in the resources sector. Since the first event took place with Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Gold Fields in 2014, the resources-specific program has expanded to a dozen events each year across three continents and now includes an accelerator, where standout projects can be further developed with funding and support from industry partners.

It’s not just industry that can benefit from these partnerships and programs. Even government institutions can throw off the shackles and embrace new, creative, outside-the-box approaches to deal with internal challenges.

Western Australia’s largest healthcare institution, Fiona Stanley Hospital, did that in late November, with healthcare professionals, researchers, programmers and aspiring entrepreneurs invited to co-develop creative solutions to public health challenges.

Separately, Spacecubed recently partnered with All Saints College, tailoring the hackathon format for teenagers and giving them a chance to ‘hack the school’ – imagining, through the eyes of today’s students, what a school of the future could look like, and what we need to do to get there.

And then we have ‘Ministry of Data’, where government agencies essentially reverse-pitch their validated, internal problem and then invite developers, startups and data aficionados to deliver a product with the agency as a ready-made customer.

Hacking in the C-suite

With executives and government leaders trumpeting their commitment to a culture of innovation while juggling business-as-usual operations in a challenging economic climate, it can be hard to move a leadership team from talk to action.

Whether internal (for staff only) or opening up your data and problems to external third parties, hosting a hackathon might seem like a good place to start (and it could be). A few words of advice before you plough straight in, however.

• Authenticity

Be clear about what you want to get out of it. Hackathons are a great place to identify talent and, if things go well, start solving problems that have been sitting in the too-hard basket for too long. But if it’s all about you and your issues, then you won’t get the right people in the room in the first place, nor will their creative juices really be allowed to flow.

Motivations need to be aligned.

• Partner

Share, collaborate; it might be uncomfortable, but I encourage everyone to default to openness. Get out of the silos, be transparent about your challenges, share your data and problems, invite people to join you and make a difference together.

You have to give a little to get a little.

• What comes next?

It is my favourite question of entrepreneurs and business alike. If you are going to take the plunge and run one of these events, the last thing you want is to get to the end and have everyone scratching their heads, asking ‘What comes next?’. 

Have a strategy. Be willing to double down on your little wins.

So, what comes next?

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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