by Palash Taneja

A simple checklist to help you win (and have fun) at hackathons

After attending over 10 hackathons and winning 4 of them myself, here are a few common characteristics I observed in winners.

1. They solve a big problem

Now I know what you’re thinking, it sounds like the most repeated hackathon advice ever, but there’s a reason for that. Most hackathons have a real-world impact as a big judging criterion. This can be up to 25% of your total score. Would you pick a cat pictures platform (no matter how polished it might be) or a hack that changes the lives of its users?

To get an idea of what big problems look like, check these projects out:

Dubit — a video dubbing app for making education accessible to children from developing countries.

MLSI — a sign language interpreter for people who have hearing related problems.

TalkToMe — a virtual assistant for visually impaired Chrome users.

2. Have a demo that makes the judges go wow

In addition to having a big impact, you need a demo that shows the core functionality of the product. It’s even better if the audience can interact with it in some way themselves.

With my most successful hack Dubit, we were able to translate a YouTube video from a judge into their native language on the stage. It even got us a backstage chat with them because of it.

3. Spend 25% of the time on ideation — or better yet, try to have a few ideas before you come

It’s no secret that no matter how impressive the demo, your efforts don’t amount for much until they’re a well-formed and coherent idea. A lot of hackathons have API prizes that encourage you to use sponsor APIs and form ideas around them.

Most people don’t pay attention to smaller API prizes. That decreased competitiveness make these prizes easier to win. You have to plan correctly.

For example, BPatient is an NLP solution to search for symptoms in a disease database. It is a fairly common product. Yet, they were able to bag a prize because they utilized an obscure API to make it.

4. Sleep for 3–4 hours

While some people can get by without sleeping, I found that sleeping about 3–4 hours gave me the best balance between feeling fresh without spending too much time. While it might seem coincidental at first, most top teams I observed including my own weren’t coding all the time. As a developer, I found it helpful to sleep on a big bug and then, upon waking up, and I’d instantly solve it.

5. Don’t fret too much over design

Now, this is controversial for many reasons, but the context matters here. Having great design is always helpful. But if you have to choose between getting your core product functionality finished and improving on your design — I would pick core functionality 9/10 times.

6. Learn from others and have fun

Devpost has a great collection of hackathon projects from all big events. It is an amazing resource for inspiration and for looking at what other people are doing at these events.

Even though winning is definitely pleasant, hackathons are more than that. At my first hackathon, I couldn’t get my project done in time and had to go with a half-baked demo to present. I took that as a learning lesson and made it into one of my best projects after the hackathon was over. It’s important to know that at the very least, you’re learning something. You probably going home with some ideas and possibly a working prototype — and that is no less than a victory.