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June 12, 2013

Mike Hines

It’s easy to see how hackathons can spawn creative teams and fantastic ideas, but I’ve also seen great ideas die because bad pitches sink good hacks.

In a Hackathon event like AngelHack, developers, designers and entrepreneurs gather on a Saturday morning to mingle and meet like-minded folks, form teams, and decide on a cool project to work on. These teams will then spend all night building the project they design. Sunday afternoon, it’s pencils down time, and the teams get between 3 and 5 minutes to present what they’ve done to a panel of judges, who in the case of AngelHack, will decide who to send to the Bay Area to meet with venture capitalists for potential funding.

To be sure, hackathons are won with great hacks. Liam Boogar, hackathon judge and the brains behind rudebaguette.com, says “For me, people win hackathons with awesome hacks, not thoroughly thought out business models. A business model is a means to justify the long-term growth of an amazing product - without the amazing product, the business model is useless.”

Point well made. No business or presentation wizardry will save your team if you have a worthless hack, but a great hack that understands the business end will beat a great hack that doesn’t. 

Questions You Need to Answer:

The good news is that communicating the business side is as easy as addressing these 5 questions:

  1. Who is going to use your app and what is their need?
  2. How does your hack address that need? (this is where you demo your awesome hack)
  3. How does the user acquire the solution? (if the monetization approach is clever, demo it here)
  4. Is your hack unique? How is it unique?
  5. Can the hack be scaled to be a viable business?

Most teams miss one or more of the points above, and a few teams miss all of them. So even if you copy/paste this list to a document, write the answers underneath, and then read that doc to the judges, you’ll be doing better than most. (Seriously, don’t worry if you’re not a great public speaker. At one event, a team whose speaker read the entire presentation from his laptop still progressed to the finals because it was a good hack and the judges understood the business.)

Building the Demo:

Once you have answers to the 5 questions above, it’s time to build the presentation and demo. This does not have to be complicated, and it shouldn’t take long. Here is some guidance from AngelHack judges:

PowerPoint or not? Some teams use a slide deck, some don’t. I’ve seen valuable and impactful presentations done both ways.  Just make sure you demo what you have built. I was on a judging panel where the team showed only slides. Great business model, but the hack was completely missing. That did not turn out well!

Demo the hard part. Most solutions have easy parts and hard parts. Rendering a simple list on the screen isn’t a hard part. Getting the correct data to render often is. If you try to hand-wave your way around the hard problems, you’re in trouble. Don’t show loading screens or other trivial stuff. Liza Kindred, AngelHack Judge and founder of Third Wave Fashion, says via Twitter: “We don't want to watch you log in! Have it ready to go, your three minutes are too short!”

Tell a story. If you can, weave the points above into a story.   Here is how one team used a story to weave in a lot of points in short time:

One speaker told a story about how his grandmother couldn’t respond to text messages even though she wanted to stay in touch more often (Question 1, time: 15 seconds). He showed the hack, demonstrating how their project removed the barriers that prevent the elderly from using technology (Question 2, time: 2 minutes). The speaker described the ways that grandma might come to own their product (Question 3, time: 20 seconds). 

The only part of their message they didn’t weave into a story was their product’s differentiating factors and how they scale to be a viable business. Whether or not the judges agreed that this was the right solution for helping grandma doesn’t matter. We all remembered the story. We talked about the story. Stories work.

If you can’t tell a story.  Some projects or some teams just don’t work with stories. That’s okay. You’ll just need the discipline to avoid detail overload when outlining your points. Good hacks can get great scores even without a story.

Discuss what you built over the weekend. Rebecca Lovell, CEO at Vittana.org, says: “We want to know what you were actually able to accomplish over the weekend. If it's an existing company and you built a Kindle app, tell us. If you just thought of the whole idea this weekend, we'll be duly impressed with whatever you were able to hack over such a short period of time.  Above all: be transparent with the status of your product development and achievements.”

Presentation Time Management Tips

As long as you end up covering all of your points, you’ll have a good demo. These tips are designed to help you make sure you can get your message across in what seems like no time at all.

  • Practice your presentation. For goodness sake, practice the whole thing, end to end, with demo components. You’ve only got 3-5 minutes to pitch your hack at these events. Many teams fail to complete their presentation due to poor time management. Practicing will help alleviate this.
  • Leave enough time to demo your hack. …and then be sure to demo the hard stuff, not splash pages, loading screens, or login dialogs. I’d suggest leaving no less than half your time to demo the hack. I’ve seen speakers go into so much detail describing how they built the solution that they leave only 30 seconds to show it!  We need to see the great hack if you’re going to win a hackathon.
  • More than your name may not matter. Don’t spend time with introductions longer than your first name unless it’s describing experience directly relevant to the project.
  • Don’t let your knowledge hurt you. When you have a great deal of domain expertise, it’s easy to get caught up in details that may be important, but not necessarily relevant for a short pitch.
  • Be prepared for unmitigated disaster.  At one hackathon, there were some technical problems with the HDMI cable to the room projector, and it flustered some folks so much that they didn’t do as well as they might have otherwise. Be ready to walk a device around to the judges if you have to.
  • Practice your presentation. I’ve seen at least a dozen teams plan how they will do their presentation and call that practicing. It’s not. Rehearsing in your head is not practicing either. Actually finding a place to speak the whole thing quietly to a teammate is practicing. Just 10 to 15 minutes will make a big difference.
  • Have Fun! Rebecca at Vittana.org says: “We know you're sleep deprived and hopped up on Red Bull, but make sure to sell it!  Show your passion!”

So, after all is said and done, you need a great hack to win a hackathon. And the great hack that clearly communicates business basics will beat a great hack that doesn’t.

Before Mike Hines was a Technical Evangelist for Amazon, he founded a financial services company and an education software company. Join Mike Hines and Amazon at the Silicon Valley AngelHack in San Jose, CA on June 15 and 16. You can follow Mike on Twitter @MikeFHines

 

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