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May 09, 2005

Keeping Innovation Alive - The Hackathon

It's May 9th... Must be time for my freakin' every-two-months blog post :-)

Startups have many disadvantages over established companies -- they have fewer people, they have fewer customers and they have a whole lot less money. They are supposed to have two advantages -- speed and innovation. But, do most startups really have either of those?

I know at the startups I've been involved with, because the company is short staffed and the company is trying to get customers in as many ways as possible that it's very easy to squeeze innovation out of the system and instead get focused exclusively on customer-driven development. You go from a company with a lot of great ideas and big visions, to a company with a year-long roadmap and no real sense of "I-came-up-with-this-great-idea-which-I-built-over-the-weekend-and-look-how-cool-it-is".

My sense is that innovation can, in reality, get quickly lost in a start up -- especially once that startup is launched.

I mention all of this because at JotSpot, we've been experimenting with ways to continue to bring in breaths of fresh air (e.g. innovation) into the normal process of getting a company off the ground.

After a bunch of different attempts, I think we finally found one that works and I honestly believe that every company could benefit from it (hence this blog post).

We call it a "hackathon" and we got inspiration from the good folks at Atlassian. The idea is that you make a day-long event (at whatever frequency you want) where everyone works on something that is:

  • valuable to the company
  • but not what they're "supposed" to be working on and
  • that can be taken from idea to working prototype in one day

We started our hackathon at 9:00am and ended at 8:00pm. From 8:00-10:00pm we did presentations where each team member or group showed their work.

We did our first hackathon last Thursday and the results were amazing. It's unbelievable what you can get done in a day with a focused, motivated and creative team.When you give people the time to do the thing that always seems "just out of reach" people's creativity cracks wide open. Check out the specific results here.

What was particularly cool was the energy it brought to the team. People felt envigorated and recharged. In fact, one of our engineers was so excited he exclaimed (during the presentations) "Dude, I just want to crawl into my hole [his cube], grow a beard, a build shit!". I couldn't have put it any better myself.

Google does something like this with their "20% of people's time is supposed to be on projects that aren't related to what they're working on" but for us, in a startup, we found that allocating time is not the same as taking it. Essentially, we would allocate time but it would get taken up by something urgent that came up at the last minute. Making an event out of it added enthusiasm, anticipation and stupid antics that make this kind of thing fun (air-horns, stupid hats, lots of pez, etc)

So, in short -- do a hackathon. It will do you good.

Next time (late may), we're going to take the idea a step further and involve our community of interested JotSpot users (consider it like the game show "home game"). We're going to see if hackathon's aren't only a great way to stoke innovation but to also tie in customers and community.

May 9, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

That's a great idea! It's so true that startups are ideally nimble and maneuverable, but that really only seems to happen in two stages, the very beginning and times of dire straits. I definitely like the idea of putting aside a day and just hash out ideas. I beleive Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com does this, except at retreats. He calls it the pizza method, where people can get into groups where 1 large pizza will feed them. This keeps the groups small and able to go through more ideas quickly to get to the best one.

We're trying to do the same thing, but right now we are definitely in the "lull" period where we are trying to get as many customers as possible so we can keep stay in business and grow.

Keep up the posts and I can't wait for the hackathon to us jotspotters.

Are we going to be notified by email?

Posted by: adam | May 10, 2005 12:13:56 AM

That is EXCELLENT Joe! I have also heard of some other companies do it as well. The other BIG advantage apart from the ones you stated are that it makes the employees think of the company as a whole and not just their 'job description'. I see ownership and excitement for the whole company - which leads to an excellent 'sensation transfer'!

You not only make them think 'outside the box' but you also moved the box for them with the hackathon! :)

Posted by: Mrinal | May 10, 2005 8:39:03 PM

Hello Bnoopy . Who ever comes with this method is really great. I mean i see a stanford barin nehind this thing. Its really economical to the company at the same time stimulating to the Employee. There cant be a much more fun method of gettingteh work done . i am sure that teh same work wouldhave been took a months time in any other circumstances.. You people are really great ... I am looking forwards to more of this... vijayvijay@gmail.com

Posted by: vijaychandran | May 11, 2005 10:58:14 AM

Yeah this hackathon is a really cool concept. We did this at LEGO long back when I was there, tho we didnt call it this. Basically all of us from different teams, designers, engineers would gather in a room and think of some toys we would like to have and then go about building a prototype.. Was amazing fun :D

Posted by: Vibhanshu Abhishek | May 12, 2005 7:08:38 AM

In game development, there are things like Game in a Day (http://www.gameinaday.com) or 42 hour competitions. It's amazing what can be done within a short period of time.

Posted by: GBGames | May 12, 2005 8:41:18 AM

Great site.. thanks!

Posted by: Dave | May 23, 2005 10:05:26 PM

What a great idea!, Thanks, that will really jumpstart what I'm doing.

Posted by: hoop | Jun 5, 2005 11:01:04 AM

This "hackathon" idea should really be attributed to Apple Computer. What Joe is talking about is rehash of the old school "Mac Hack" series of events that cut loosee the innovative developers to trick out their own systems and play pranks on each other, then with a little tweaking and refinement that were responsible for a good many of the innovations you eventually saw become a regular part of the Mac OS.

Posted by: zac | Jun 10, 2005 12:00:17 PM

Cool idea, thanks. I'm fully charged to start once in a month/week.

Posted by: Venugopala Rao Moram | Sep 8, 2005 9:25:33 PM

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