« March 2005 | Main | June 2005 »

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 | Comments (9) | TrackBack