As of now, I have participated in a total of two Hackathons. In my first Hackathon, our team managed to win second place, but sadly, in the most recent Hackathon, we tasted defeat. From these two experiences, I have figured out what it takes to potentially win a Hackathon.
What is a Hackathon?
No, it has nothing to do with hacking into someone's computer and causing havoc. A Hackathon is an event which usually spans from 24 to 36 hours. People form teams within the size limit, and they simply create something great within that time frame. In some Hackathons, they are themed based. By themed based, I mean that they have a particular focus or objective for the creations being made.
People from all over the place come to one place to make great things.
In these Hackathon events, lots of free food and free swag will be provided. Sponsors from companies usually also offer promotional discounts and deals to help you in the development process. You can also checkout some hardware to use for your project and return them at the end of the event.
Near the end before you demo your project, you would submit your project to a site such as Devpost to showcase your project.
Make Something That Grabs Attention - "The Wow! Factor"
Depending on the style of how things are judged, demonstrated, and presented at a Hackathon could determine whether or not you will win the Hackathon.
In my first Hackathon, because it was small, each remaining group was able to go up in front of the entire audience and demonstrate their project and answer any questions anyone has. In the second Hackathon, they changed the way they did things, and had the judges go around looking at different projects.
Chances are, you will face the second scenario. Knowing this, you will need something that pops out otherwise it will be hard to grab the judges attention to come and view your project. This is where hardware Hackathon projects will play a big advantage in.
You need something that catches attention. Not only that, because some of the judges are more business oriented, there is always a marketing aspect to their decisions, and that is where the "Wow Factor" comes into play. If they don't notice your project, then chances are it won't market easily or market at all, which will ultimately cost you the green light from the judge.
Make Something Useful - "The Business Factor"
Don't just make something for the sake of making something, but rather make something that is useful or has some kind of benefit. Make something that solves a problem. Chances are, if you solve a big enough of a problem or issue with the project you make, you shouldn't have to worry about the business factor.
Because when you present your project to the judge(s), you are actually doing a business pitch, especially to those more oriented towards the business side of things. However, since this is a "How to Win a Hackathon" post, teaching you how to pitch your business is outside the scope of this post.
Don't Try to Be Perfect, Aim for Getting Something that Works and Can Be Demonstrated
In a Hackathon, everything is fast paced. You are given a limited amount of time to build the product. If you misuse that time, you will not have something worthy of demonstration by the end of the event. Don't worry about the little things that needs to be perfected. Just get things to work. Perfect things later. Being productive is a key factor if you want to win a hackathon. What's more important during the Hackathon is to get your project to work and to a point where you can demonstrate the important features.
Come Up With an Idea Beforehand
With the limited amount of time provided in a Hackathon, you don't want to waste a good chunk on trying to figure out what to make. Try to form a team beforehand and start discussing ideas to make for your project. For my second Hackathon, I used Google Docs and shared it with my teammates so we can list our ideas out and discuss about them.
Don't Just Form a Team, Form a Great Team
You need people who are great. You need people who knows their stuff. You want people who are willing to stick with you from beginning to end.
What I see Hackathons are potential startups and businesses. The initial team will determine whether the company will sink or swim, but at the same time, don't obsess over it for too long. As long as they can do something and contribute to, as well as depend on, then everything will be all right.
It's good to have a team with technical skills and good communication skills.
Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results. --Andrew Carnegie
So after reading this post, you now know what it takes to potentially win a Hackathon.