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January 1, 2014

Rise of the Hackathon

Posted by Puneet Gupta (View Profile | View All Posts) at 9:14 AM

Wesleyan Senior Week Hackathon 2013 [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24UJulhFo7I]

If only life were as fun and exciting as being a contestant on a television game show!

Imagine that every time you had to make an important decision, a studio audience would be cheering you on. When you answer a question correctly, you would win a fabulous prize. And the show's host would help guide you through life's many challenges.

Unfortunately our lives don't come equipped with the trappings of a lavishly produced game show. But our lives sure would be neat if they did. One result, I think, is that we would all be encouraged to be a lot more innovative. Nothing motivates a person quite like an assortment of cash prizes and the rousing cheers of a studio audience.

Enter the hackathon. These events have taken the world by storm, and one of the reasons for their runaway popularity is because they come pretty close to treating participants as though they were part of a really fun game show. The premise of a hackathon is simple: Lock the entrants in a large room for, say, 12 hours. At the end of that period, judges go around and review the apps they've developed in that short and exciting timeframe.

Some people thrive under pressure and tight deadlines. If you want proof, then consider how many amazing new applications have come out of hackathons. What's even more remarkable is that some of these inventors are barely out of middle school. It's amazing what people can do when you impose the structure of a television game show on a bright and talented crowd (as well as to throw in a lot of coffee and energy drinks to fuel their all-night brainstorming).

An example of a digital innovation that came out of a hackathon is a company called GroupMe. Like many of the world's best innovations, its elegance is found in its simplicity. Anyone can go to the company's Web page, type in her telephone number, and then receive a special telephone number from the company. When the user responds by text to that number, she instantly creates a specialized SMS (short message service) group. All she needs to do is to add more telephone numbers of friends or colleagues in order to build that specialized group. She can also use a conference call feature that will dial up every member's phone so that everyone can chat at the same time.

It's amazing to think that GroupMe was invented during a short but exciting hackathon just a few years ago. Now it's a full blown company. Thanks to the hackathon event, the idea attracted the attention of investors who helped get the fledgling platform off the ground and turned it into a lucrative enterprise. Hackathons might have had their start in Bangalore and Silicon Valley, but they're becoming popular even in the technology centers of Europe. But more on that later.

The structure of a hackathon challenges the notion that everything we do in business can be done efficiently in a virtual manner. A spirited contest like a hackathon brings together a bunch of talented people into one room. They get to meet each other. They bring various toys like water guns and Nerf balls that serve as ways to relax and brainstorm when they're up against tight deadlines. Such camaraderie can't be replicated in an online community.

The world of venture capital has changed a lot since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. Investors don't blindly throw big money at an invention simply because it comes out of a dorm room or is entirely Internet-based. Today, investors want to see the inklings of a revenue stream before they commit big capital to a start-up company. One reason why the people who participate in hackathons tend to be so successful is that they focus on creating economic, value-added innovations. These contests are for real, not show.

A friend told me about a hackathon being staged somewhere in an old, European capital. The event, he said, would be good for the region because it turned its business culture on its head. Whereas people in that region were accustomed to working for venerable businesses that had been around for centuries, a hackathon would encourage the youth of that area to think like entrepreneurs and disrupt their marketplace.

Just think: In a region where tradition and the status quo are valued parts of the business culture, all-night hackathons might produce some exciting new enterprises that transform the world.

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