Hackathons – should your company sponsor them?

Posted By Sid on Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

I’ve participated in over a dozen hackathon-type events in the past 2 years and continue to ask myself “Is this a good use of my time and the company resources?” To try and answer this question I created a survey about hackathons and put the word out to other developer evangelists, advocates and community folks. The results were interesting and I’ve added my own analysis and opinion on them.

Who participated in the survey?

Only 28 people participated, so please don’t expect these to measure up to rigorous scientific standards. My biggest hurdle was finding those who don’t participate in hackathons to complete the survey. I want to know why they don’t. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s proceed.

What type of companies did they represent?

How do companies participate in hackathons?

82% responded they had participated AND sponsored a hackathon. Participation and sponsorship logically go together. Showing up at a hackathon as a non-sponsor and “hacking” the event is dodgy. Your exposure is limited and without prizes your main motivator for people to use your technology isn’t available. You also run the risk of upsetting the attendees or organizers if you are come off as “pushing” your technology. As a sponsor, you are given permission to talk about and promote your technology. 96% judge the hackathon projects and offer a prize to winners. 74% pay for food and drinks and 61% provide a location for the event.

How much does it cost?

I guess the answer is as much as you want to spend. 28% spent less than $500, while 21% spent more than $4,000. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t factor in the time your team spends planning, promoting, organizing and attending the hackathon, the prizes alone tend to be $500 and up. One company spent $35,000 on a single event, while several others fell into the $15,000 to $25,000 range. Obviously, this amount is for the entire event and not necessary just prizes.

Is it worth it?

What is the return on investment? At this point, we need to connect the dots between several questions. 25% of respondents have participated in over a dozen hackathons in the last year, and 43% plan on doing the same in the coming year. 46% chose adoption of their technology as their primary goal and 82% find hackathons an effective way to meet their goals. My primary goal is adoption of StackMob technology but could not justify spending $25,000 on a single event. I would be lucky if 10 to 12 apps adopt our technology at a single event. The number of apps built with your technology depends on how many developers participate and how many sponsors are offering prizes. Developers tend to look at the available technologies, focus on one or two and try to win the prize offered. So, why would those surveyed indicate an 18% increase in the number of those who plan to participate in 12 or more hackathons in the next twelve months?

This got me thinking about levels of engagement that occur at a hackathon. While adoption of technology is my primary goal, creating goodwill in the developer community, brand awareness and seeing first hand how developers experience our product are all valid secondary goals. If you expand your vision to include secondary goals, you start to see a much bigger return. The key is be prepared to pursue these secondary goals.

Maximize your sponsorship at the event.

If all you do is offer a prize, leave Friday and return on Sunday to judge, you’ll miss out on those secondary goals. I’ve heard several stories of angry developers who couldn’t find help during the event. Don’t be that sponsor! Watching developers at hackathons I’ve had usibility and technical issues revealed through their frustration. Seeing your product through fresh eyes can be priceless.

Final Thoughts

Last week, at the San Francisco Developer Advocate meetup, the topic of hackathons came up and I took away a few interesting points.

The size of the prize influences your event. For example, the Big Brands hackathon, which recently took place in the Bay Area, featured over $45,000 in prizes. The theme was unique and the prize amount was substantial. As one evangelist put it “the money brought out the assassins” (read professional hackathon attendees). This may have increased the quality of the apps built, but also may have discouraged those who saw the “ringers”.

In the Bay Area, there’s nothing wrong with an honesty tax. A small entrance fee, roughly $10 to $20 is appropriate. You’ll greatly reduce the no-shows which translates to less food being wasted. You’ll also weed out those more concerned with the beer being served than the technologies being showcased. I value quality over quantity when it comes to hackathons.

Sponsor hackathons outside the Bay Area. We are spoiled with events in the Bay Area. Every week are meetups, conferences, hackathons, etc. So many, that I can’t keep track anymore. Venture outside the bubble. The events will cost less to sponsor and the attendees will appreciate the effort you’ve made to visit their neck of the woods.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about hackathons in the comments below.