How to Win a Hackathon

OCTOBER 21, 2013

My Advice

After winning two hackathons in the last month, I am formulating a theory for quickly hacking together something great. After finding a sweet spot between MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and MVD (Minimum Viable Demo), I think I have a nice way to balance what you can show against what you can build: MVS (Minimum Viable Story). It all comes down to building stories over features, as my hacker-partner (and fiancé) recently put it in her linkedIn profile:

Weekends are for Hacking! Had a great time at the AppHack by AngelHackSF. With 24 hours to build and release a project from scratch, a clear use case makes all the difference. Great lesson for real world product management - roll out use cases not features! - Barbara Tassa via LinkedIn
User stories are what you are presenting at the end of a hackathon. The judges are not expecting a fully featured product. They are expecting a compelling set of stories. Using stories over products or features is giving us the distinct advantage of clear vision to the finish line. It is also making it easier to reliably finish a working hack in less than 14 hours.

Defining User Stories

The difference between user stories and features, or products, is like the difference between a line and a line fragment. A line fragment can be as short as you want it to be, whereas a line must be infinitely long. A line fragment goes only so far as you can see it, whereas a line goes much farther than can be depicted. The difference is that when presenting to judges for a few minutes, they can only see what you present to them: a fragment of a complete product, but nonetheless a fragment that is straight, well defined and which has meaning: just like a line fragment: it is a vector: having a direction and magnitude.

The Best User Stories Point To Need/Money at Medium Magnitude

Judges are usually investors, and they are looking for stories capable of making money. They are looking for something that tells a story other businesses or people are not executing on: so they can sweep in and take the market. If I am telling a story that is not pointed towards money or a persistent need, then investors are likely thinking:

Cool idea, but how am I or anyone else making any money from this? - Random Judge

So, what if I am telling a story that points to money, which doesn't bridge the gap from concept to solving the need? Are investors going to want to get on board? They are likely going to need to hear the right answers before they open their checkbooks. At this stage they are asking themselves: is this team, these actual people, capable of delivering on the promise of this concept for making money? There are a lot of questions at this stage. This is the stage where merely executing on a concept is going to get you a lot of kudos, but delivering value will get you a win. For this you need to demonstrate significant enough magnitude to capture users by fulfilling their need.

Magnitude Means Showing a Complete Sales Cycle

Teams are showing a complete sales cycle when they are showing investors:

  • A need for this concept
  • An ecosystem/market full of money to buy this concept
  • Leadership in the form of expertise, mastery, and enthusiasm
  • Execution on the technological and entrepreneurial delivery

By showing these four traits, teams are proving to investors that they are analyzing the problem correctly, heading in the right direction, creating new opportunities out of demand, and working together as founders. This combination is more about the people in the team, than it is about the product. The product is just the pudding-proof of the pudding-makers: the team.