The clock is ticking down. A small team—a couple of developers and a single designer—huddles around laptops, rushing to put the finishing touches on an application user interface. They haven’t slept all night. As the morning light filters into the San Francisco event center, 25 teams work side by side to “hack” together new and innovative apps in a single weekend. This may not sound like your typical app development workflow—and that’s the point.
When done right, hackathons are an innovative proving ground for new ideas and a chance to position your organization as a technical leader by engaging in the social coding movement. Leading enterprises, including well-known brands like 7-Eleven, Home Depot and Walgreens, are already joining the trend by hosting or sponsoring major hackathon events.
In fact, recently hosted a million-dollar hackathon (the largest prize in hackathon history) at its annual Dreamforce conference. The motivation was clear: A million-dollar prize generates media buzz and jump-starts third-party development on their new mobile platform. Unfortunately, the results were less than stellar. What hoped would impress potential developers backfired into a storm of bad press, leading the company to name a second winner—and award a second million-dollar prize.
It’s no secret that developers’ time is valuable. If you use hackathons as a source of low-cost labor, participants will walk away, feeling they have been taken advantage of. To get hackathons right, hosts need to make sure that the event is a win for everyone involved, including those who leave without a prize. In new research, my colleagues and I outline four keys to a successful hackathon event:

1. Start with a budget of US$10,000, and revise to your unique circumstances. Hackathons attract intrinsically motivated developers who love to compete. Hosts should make sure the atmosphere is competitive and fun, with plenty of entertainment and opportunities to socialize. In addition to food, other expenses to consider include entertainment, security, space and furniture rentals, and marketing and promotion.

2. Aim for a hackathon that’s just the right size. Participants join hackathons for a variety of reasons. Some come in search of prizes, while others want to build a prototype and promote their app in front of an audience. Many developers go to play with new technology and socialize with other developers. In fact, a recent Forrester survey found that 71% of developers spend their own time developing personal or side projects not related to their day jobs. Enjoyment of programming and a desire to learn new technologies were the top two reasons they cited.

Think about what types of developers you’re aiming for, and adjust the marketing and budget to match. A good hackathon is similar to a good bar or club on a Friday night: Aim for a crowd that’s not so large that individual developers will feel lost or cramped, but not so small that it’s a boring scene.

3. Provide clear guidelines to participants ahead of time. Hackathons based around a specific design goal work best when the sponsoring organization provides guidelines to participants. Distribute a design brief before the event that lists specific information about business goals and defines rules and constraints. Steph Habif, a behavior designer and lead organizer of the Aetna design challenge, recently told us, “The narrower the requirements given up front, the better the quality of prototypes we got.”

In addition, hosts should be clear about what happens after the hackathon. Who owns the ideas that were generated? How will they be put into use? If any ideas get picked up for development, follow up with developers to let them know what became of their designs.

4. Follow through after the hackathon. The weeks after an event matter just as much as the pre-event planning and the event itself. Organizations should view this period as a golden opportunity for measurement and improvement. For example, look at metrics like the number of people joining your developer community, API calls, and apps going live.
Hackathons are an especially good tool to stimulate the creative juices of developers, in a social context that fosters problem-solving and risk-taking due to a low cost of failure. In fact, companies should approach a hackathon as the developer equivalent of an executive strategy retreat or a musicians’ jam session. Outsiders can bring a fresh perspective to business challenges, as well as give firms an outside-in view of their products and organization.

Vivian Brown is a researcher at Forrester Research.