Sara was a project a few friends and I decided to hack on for a weekend in September (Haani, Sumit, Zeeshan and myself). The feedback was great and we learned a lot. We took first place at the hackathon in Toronto (out of 25 teams), and then 3rd place at the Global Judging at MIT (out of several hundred). Here are four tips we discovered for “hacking the hackathon.”
1) Try to solve a Really Big Problem
The bigger the problem, the more likely you will have the attention of the judges and audience. With Sara, we were trying to solve the problem of internet access for five billion people. Identifying a big problem is easier said than done, but it’s important to focus on the steps to take to get there: Pivots. Which is the 2nd tip…
Pivots turn into steps. Hacakthons don’t usually last longer than 2-3 days so these have to be made extremely fast. Before landing on the idea of Sara we were brainstorming “Kasaan,” which means farmer in Urdu. Our idea was to build a simple Android app that would give real-time local commodity and produce prices to local farmers so they would know the true price of their goods. We read about many horror stories of farmers being ripped off by brokers and middlemen who benefited from asymmetric information. However good of an idea we thought we had, a quick Google search into the smartphone penetration in the sub-continent showed abysmal figures. Not only that but we discovered even those with smartphones did not have access to data connection. From there we pivoted to providing pricing data via SMS – which subsequently got us to thinking “why not just add a bunch of integrations to other search engines and web directories?” This is how we pivoted our way onto a “bigger problem.”
3) Try to go last if you can
This is an odd one. We did not do this intentionally, rather this was an accidental discovery. When you have so many teams competing (and usually hackathons have a specific cause or purpose) there could be an overlap of your idea with other teams. If the problem is a big one, your solution may umbrella other problems being pursued by other teams. We found there were several teams that decided to leverage the SMS medium to broadcast or distribute relevant information to rural users. This only validating our value proposition. Not only that but we were also able to position Sara as platform for other 3rd party search engines and directories to integrate with. We believe being one of the last teams to pitch made our service more top of mind than the others.
Most importantly, 3) Hustle to be memorable
We learned the underlying objective of any qualitative competition is to be memorable. With competitions like sports games or races, there is a definitive qualitative measure of success; but with a competition on who has the best idea, it’s a completely different game. Our strategy from the get go was to be memorable. We knew we had to stand out because judging can be influenced by so many tiny foreseeable forces. The tactic we used to stand out was getting application into the hands of everyone in the audience, including the judges, at the same time, during the pitch. This was probably just as time consuming as building the application itself. While our team of wizards were knee high in code during the weekend, I was making the rounds, introducing myself and offering product help to other teams in the space. I used this time to introduce (briefly) our idea and ask for their phone numbers in order for them to help us test and better our service (this was the original sentiment). Getting the phone numbers of the judges was the most important, but also harder. A few weird looks from the staff and volunteers shouldn’t deter you; the judges were happy to help. Once we had all the phone numbers, Sumit programmed a quick script which would blast a greeting from Sara to everyone on the list, encouraging them to ask her any question. The timing of this blast was of critical importance – we did it right at the end of our pitch, applying the proverb: Strike While the Iron is Hot.