How to win a Hackathon

My team Beaconmaker recently won the Sydney Opera House hackathon. We were also the 1st runner up of the Appiness hackathon organised by Telstra a few months ago. We had around 24 hours to deliver either an iOS, Android, or HTML5 app. How did we do it?


The number 1 deciding factor - a good designer. You will only have 5-10 minutes to present a demo of your app. With only a limited amount of time, people really do judge a book by its cover. Having a good designer on your team will give you a jaw-dropping demo and also clarity on the user experience of the app.

Next is to join with a game plan. While it is possible, it is highly unlikely for teams formed on the spot to win. Well prepared teams win. Before the day of the hackathon, my team and I got together to brainstorm app ideas and strategy of attack. We planned all the UI elements that we were going to use, created a list of open-sourced libraries that can be used, and also the best way to get a backend for the app up and running in a flash.

The next most important factor is to have a highly technical team that has good overlaps. What do i mean by this? - Designers with some coding skills and coders with some design skills. If the person is not a product person, you probably don’t need them on your team. No businessy/entrepreneurial talent needed. There is no time to waste for ideation/brainstorming when you have only 24 hours to ship an app.

Ok, enough with all the philosophical guidelines, time for some actionable tips.

  1. Recruit a good designer (only one needed).
  2. Recruit good iOS/Android developers (for mobile app hackathons).
  3. Recruit good frontend developers (for web app hackathons).
  4. Recruit good Ruby/Python developers (for instant backend).
  5. If there is no Ruby/Python developers, PHP with MVC is fine.
  6. If no backend developers, use BaaS like Parse/Apigee.
  7. Max team size of 3. Any more creates communication overhead.
  8. Pre-design UI modules / Use twitter-bootstrap.
  9. Pre-make backend / Use something like rails-composer + Rails admin.
  10. No enterprise engineers needed.
  11. No BD/entrepreneur needed.
  12. Select one team member who is the most articulate to pitch/demo.
  13. Rehearse pitch/demo x99.
  14. Win.