Students speak out

What hackathons have taught me about entrepreneurship and startups


CarlosHackathon’s are the breeding grounds of software-based entrepreneurs. To anyone who’s never heard of a hackathon: it’s a short, 24 to 48 hour, competition where dozens of hackers come together to build something “awesome” overnight. It’s the startup experience equivalent to trying to paddle your way down heavy rapids while your partner continuously punctures your raft. It sucks, it’s hard, but if you can survive it, no one in the entrepreneurial world can stop you.

by Carlos Gil, aspiring entrepreneur and passionate hacker, electrical and computer engineering major, graduating 2014

My first time hackathon was for Yahoo! my freshman year at CMU. I came in ready to make the next Facebook. The experience felt closer to Paul Graham coming and giving me a roundhouse kick to the face. About a dozen of these competitions later and after having won a few I’ve learned a few things about entrepreneurship and startups that I’d like to share with you.

hacking awaySmall goals, big checkpoints.

A hackathon is hard. You get little to no sleep in over 24 hours, you’re thrown into a world of technology you rarely fully understand, things break, and there’s constant failure. The best way to keep yourself from throwing your hands up in the air at 4am and giving up is through a large collection of tiny wins. Make small achievable goals and congratulate yourself as you meet them. Good job buddy, connecting that backend was hard but now we can finally keep track of our users. Make big checkpoints known to yourself and your team, and know what you need to reach them and by when they should have been met. When you fail to meet these checkpoints on time, and most of the time you will, you’ll be prepared and motivated enough to handle them. This leads us to the next point.

Recognize when you have to pivot.

Be adaptive, be agile. Small minded people are often too set in their ways to notice when change is necessary. In a hackathon and very much in a startup your initial idea will probably not be your final product. From lack of research, technology problems, or lack of market, change will force itself on you and you will need to be receptive to it. I was not always this way. Like most entrepreneurs I have a lot of ideas and I think most of them are chocolate covered golden nuggets of magic sauce. “How could anyone possibly not like this awesome xyz I’m making, it’s fantastic!” Get over this mindset as soon as possible and you’ll instantly be more successful in your endeavors. I came into a Microsoft-hosted hackathon with the idea of creating 3d models of locations in real-time. At 2am our team hit a technology barrier and we discovered we had no chance of finishing in time. So we packed our bags, called it a night and went home. No of course not! We had made a lot of progress on 3d layouts, with our infrastructure setup we were able to quickly pivot and develop a platform to form 3d feeds of events through a live video feed. Had we not been open minded to change, we would not have made something we were all proud enough to put on our resumes and we certainly not have won the award we received the next morning.

Pivot early.

I won’t go too into detail on this point but it’s crucial to understand the importance of pivoting early. In a hackathon and in a startup, resources and time are extremely limited. The more time you waste trying to get something to work and failing, the less time you have to tackle other problems. At a startup one of your first pivots would come very early on after your due diligence and market research. I can’t stress how important this is but at a hackathon you don’t usually have time to do market research. So instead I encourage you to very early on ask yourself: This is cool, but who cares? If you don’t really have an answer to this or you’re forced to make up something just to justify this even being remotely useful, it’s probably time to rethink your strategy. At the same time, if you try, try, and still can’t succeed, move on. It’s not quitting; it’s being intelligent enough to manage your tiny pool of resources effectively.

Build towards a demo, don’t try and make a full product overnight.

So many teams fail simply from lack of managing their time effectively. They end up spending all night being perfectionists and are disappointed when they find themselves presenting little more than a fantastic login system. Enforce the 80-20 rule: get 80% of the reward for 20% of the effort. You can later come back and get the other 20% of the reward when you become the next Facebook, but, chances are, no one will really notice when you do anyways.

Show, don’t tell.

At some point you’re going to present your creation to someone. At a hackathon it’s usually in front of a panel of judges and an auditorium full of peers. For a startup, it might be in front of potential investors or customers. In either case, give them a show. Make them say, wow.  So many times I’ve spent my night writing amazing algorithms that fall short of solving world hunger and excitedly go to present them to an auditorium full of judges and peers. I explain my methods, show them how it’s done, and await my standing ovation. And then I look into the crowd and notice that half the auditorium is either asleep or on their phone checking Facebook updates.

For the love of all that is good, put some effort into design.

Most developers avoid design like the plague, or treat it the same way they would entertain a distant aunt they haven’t seen in years. Don’t be that person. Pick up a book on graphic design and familiarize yourself on the concepts. The first design book I ever read was The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice by Robin Williams and I would recommend it to you as well. Don’t let your creation go unnoticed, show the audience how amazing your product is.

stressed hackersSo I didn’t win, was that the biggest waste of my time ever?

Failure is powerful. Don’t let yourself get put down just because a few judges didn’t see or understand your vision. If you’re making something you believe in then don’t let a few rejections stop you from building something amazing. As an entrepreneur you need to build a strong shell against rejection. Stay open to critique, listen to your customers, listen to investors, but don’t let a little muck slow you down.

Networking is for chumps; I can do everything a lone.

Hahaha, no. It’s great to be confident in your abilities and a little arrogance will actually get you pretty far but if you ever find yourself saying those words, I declare you need a time-out from humanity. I’ve found that the most important things I’ve gained through hackathons are the relationships that built through the experience. There’s something about spending an entire night hacking with a group of people that really builds a lasting bond. Network like no tomorrow. I’ve made many friends with a lot of smart students from different universities that I still rely on, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of companies and potential investors as well. When you meet someone who you view as an investor, get to know them, don’t just try and go straight for their wallets. I’ve met angel investors at different hackathons all over the United States from Los Angeles, to Philadelphia. Some of them I still chat with, I’ve grabbed lunch with, or have even visited me while they were in town to hang out. Angel investors are people too, and making friends with them will make them much more willing to invest in you in the future once you’ve established a relationship and presented yourself as a confident, fun, and intelligent person.

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