So, it’s been a few action-filled weeks since the Tech Crunch Disrupt Hackathon. It was my first ever hackathon, and it was pretty great, considering our hack got covered by TechCrunch. Violating the “one meme per post” rule I’ve stuck to since it was first posited by cdixon, I’m going to go ahead and give a long and meandering account of whole experience. Skip directly to the bottom for THE TAKEAWAYS.
Initially, my partner Sam and I were deciding whether or not we should participate in the hackathon at all, given that we had just launched Kangaroost three days prior, and it needed a lot of work. We didn’t even have a good idea for a project to work on, but we thought the exposure would be good. Sam’s friends Evan and Sean joined our team at the last minute.
Our team spent the first three hours generating and debating different hackathon project ideas. These ranged from Wikipedia Mad Libs, to a mashup of Instapaper and ShelbyTV for your twitter feed, to some jokey hack about the startup bubble, to a service that would automatically claim your username at new startups—thus insuring you wouldn’t ever miss out on, say, grabbing @PaulGraham as a handle for a nascent service called Twitter. We had nine different index cards with ideas written on them, which we successively ripped up after nixing each idea. The index cards are a part of the Pivotal Labs agile process, fully internalized by my three Pivot teammates even into their recreational time…I’ve found this process fascinating and will write another post on that in the future.
Ultimately we settled on a version of a locational services aggregator, a startup idea that Sam had mentioned to me privately weeks earlier. She said that her friends sometimes complained that they weren’t sure which service to pull up or check into: Foursquare, Instagram, Facebook Places, Color, Gowalla, etc. Riffing on that idea, we decided to do a mashup of a few different simple APIs for geotagged content.
At Pivotal, engineers pair program (again, more on this later) and my teammates fell into their familiar rhythms. Sam and Sean began pulling out data from the APIs, and Evan generously offered to pair with me, which meant I “drove” (typed) while he painstakingly dictated commands. I can’t tell you how thrilling this was for a non-engineer that spends a lot of time with software startups. Look, you type in a command and stuff happens!! Amazing. We did a little combinatorial hack to come up with a domain name: Nerd Nearby (rejected options included: “Dork Spy” “Nerddar” “Geek Voyeur” “Local Nosy”). Friends drifted in and out throughout the evening. Pam stopped by our table and whipped up our logo in ten minutes, and then Sonali sat with Evan for a couple hours designing the feed layout.
By about 4am, we were tired enough to cut the remaining features and head home, promising to be back at 10am for the demos.
Unsurprisingly, we all slept in and were late. But lo and behold, after a relatively unremarkable 60 second presentation amid over a hundred others, TechCrunch gave our hack a writeup!
We were giddy. Sam and Sean raced to increase the site’s capacity as it got slammed. We were bombarded with tweets and congrats and general nerdnearby love from people. We went to a late lunch together and plotted improvements to our hack. In the weeks since the hackathon, we’ve met up on a regular basis after work to make a bunch of improvements and build an iphone app.
THE TAKEAWAYS :
Amid over a hundred TechCrunch Disrupt Hackthon projects, TechCrunch only gave writeups to ours (Nerd Nearby) and another project that went on to win the hackathon before eventually providing obligatory coverage of the winners. Why? My thoughts:
1) Live on a production site with a URL. This was probably the most important thing for getting a writeup. When demo-ing, we could tell the audience to visit our site on their browser, and it worked. Many of the other hacks were cool, but were deployed from their creators’ local machines, or if public, had the haiku-esque Heroku addresses, like stark-dusk.heroku.com or cold-stream-78.heroku.com —imagine getting the audience to try an address like that.
2) Fully populated with usable content. One of the benefits of building an aggregation service is that you can piggyback on someone else’s content, rather than needing your users to generate your content (oh, Marketplaces).
3) Easily graspable idea. Pretty basic design and concept here: Share your location and get a stream of geotagged content. The reporter didn’t have to worry about explaining it incorrectly.
4) Did not require login. This is another basic logistics-y thing that makes a huge difference. People hate logging into stuff. Nerd Nearby is great for completely passive consumption, no thinking required.
5) Zeitgeist-y. A mobile app that enables local photosharing…how many more hot buzzwords can you cram in to a description? Maybe we could fit “Social” in there somehow. It’s almost as good as this gag deck that went around when the funding for Color was announced.
Based on this one admittedly overwhelmingly positive experience, I highly recommend participation in hackathons. But it would have been totally fun and worth it even if we hadn’t been covered in TC. Great things about it:
-Very social. We met countless new people all around, and cigarette breaks proved an ideal spot to strike up conversation with random participants. If you are a non-tech person, you’ll meet a lot of engineers at these events, and you probably won’t be the only non-tech person there.
-Good way to test group dynamics in a low risk environment. Thinking of starting a big project with some people? How well do you work well together? Do you have fun together? Can you make project decisions that everyone’s happy about? Can you get work done?
-Free stuff. We were feted with countless cheap plastic knicknacks and promo items, tshirts, the Mashery was giving away 1G flashdrive bottleopeners, plus free tickets to the TC Disrupt conference for all participants.
I also admit I would have been pretty shy to attend it if I weren’t going with a crew. But when I got there, I realized I knew many more attendees than I had expected to. And even though I didn’t know how to do anything but some basic HTML/CSS, I still could have worked on something completely on my own, without a team. I went to a hackathon presentation once where a kid had just used the time to teach himself jQuery and presented a messy little project he hacked while learning it the night before. So if you don’t already know how to code, you can use the nice substantial block of time and studyhall-like environment afforded by these hackathons to teach yourself something new (you’ll be surrounded by potential tutors). Again, highly recommended.
UPDATE: Check out this post by Sam about staying productive and avoiding procrastination at the hackathon and every day.