DIY Toolkit: How To Win A Hackathon, From Pitch To Presentation

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YR Interactive's Storm White and Lo BenichouPhoto Credit: Johnathon Henninger
YR Interactive’s Storm White (left) and Lo Benichou  (right) at the My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon in 2015.
Photo Credit: Johnathon Henninger

*The top half of this toolkit was written by Storm White, 19, a member of Youth Radio’s Interactive Team, and winner of the January 2015 My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon.

“AS YOUTH OF COLOR TODAY, WE ARE NOT EXPECTED TO ACHIEVE GREATNESS.” That’s how Kalimah Priforce, the Co-Founder and CEO of Qeyno Labs, started off the 2015 My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon in Oakland, CA. Yet, here I was, in a room full of professionals and young people of color, ready to build apps for social change over the next three days.

I had never attended a hackathon before. I had imagined a bunch of experienced, and mostly white, programmers and designers building Instagram over a weekend. To my surprise, the attendees were people like me: young people with not too much tech experience and who too often aren’t expected to shine. Going into this competition, I wished I had had more guidance from somebody my age. So I am sharing these seven tips to help you win your next hackathon.

Following these important steps helped my team and me win first place with our app, MyStudyBuddy.

Screenshots of the app's prototype
Screenshots of the Study Buddy app prototype

1- Buck up and pitch.

At first, I was reluctant to get up on stage and share my idea in front of dozens of people. It’s not because I didn’t feel prepared. Rather, I didn’t feel confident that my app could win. Then I asked myself: “So what?” The whole point of a hackathon is to challenge yourself. Why participate if you aren’t going to push yourself? Suck it up and just do it. You will most likely do better than you think.

2- Sell your idea. Find the right team.

No one expects you to know how everything works. That’s why we build teams! All the people at the hackathon want to use their skills to support you. So sell them on why your idea is awesome and why your team is the one they should join.  Also, make sure you cover all areas of expertise. Find at least a developer, a designer, a project manager and a business person. Keep your team small and efficient. Too many people can lead to a longer decision-making process and, let’s be honest, you don’t have time for that.

3- Simplify, simplify, simplify. 

This is the hardest part: making your idea as simple as possible. It might feel counterintuitive at first, but I’ve learned that less is more. It’s difficult to stick to one idea when you begin to explore all the possibilities that could stem from it. Clearly define the problem you are trying to solve. For MyStudyBuddy, we wanted to help community college students succeed in school, even with a busy schedule. Talk in circles, brainstorm, draw on your white board and create an easy app that can do exactly what you want it to do.

4- Do your research.

By the end of our brainstorm, we had several solutions to our initial problem. Finding the best one was going to take extra input, and that’s where research comes in. Market and user research are the most important parts of building an app. If you don’t know your audience, then you won’t know the best way to build your app. We were lucky enough to be surrounded by the audience we wanted to target, so we built an online survey and walked around, laptop in hand, getting people to answer a few questions. Even if your audience isn’t readily available, try your best to find as much information as possible. The data you’re looking for might even be available online. In our case, we just had to look for government data about community colleges.

5 – Work smart, not hard.

Relax. If you prepare in the right ways, your research and sketches will do the work for you. We didn’t make a full website or app, we built a functioning prototype to show how the app would function. It was fast and easy to build and it gave us extra time to test the app, do more research and practice our presentation.

6 – Present like a boss.

Here goes that confidence thing again! If you made it this far, then you obviously have an idea worth investing in. You know all your material, and you know why your app is important. So go up there and slay your competition! Practice as much as possible. Make sure you slides are sleek and simple and write down some notes. If you can, pitch to people outside of your team and get a fresh pair of ears.

7- Buy yourself ice cream. You’ve made it this far.

Whether you win or lose, honestly, a hackathon is about building confidence, proving to yourself that you’ve got what it takes, and learning from everyone who participated. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either. At the My Brother’s Keeper Hackathon, I walked away with a worthy experience and more proof that young people of color can succeed

iPhone Apps

Tips (And Activities) For Teachers

As you can see, winning a hackathon (or coming up with a great product idea) isn’t just about technical know-how. Communication and confidence are also essential elements for success. Here are a few activities we’ve come up with at Youth Radio to support the tip list above.

Activity #1: Guess That Pitch

Created by Teresa Chin, Youth Radio Interactive designer and Newsroom producer

When it comes to pitching and presenting, coming up with an idea is only half the battle.  You also need to explain your idea in a way that is clear, concise, and exciting! In this sort-of-like-Taboo activity, students will flex their public speaking muscles by pitching existing (and popular) apps in 30 seconds or less.

Split the class into two groups – these are now your pitching teams.

Similar to the brainstorming phase of charades, have each team write down names of popular games, apps and websites (the idea is that everyone will be familiar with these products) on individual pieces of paper (one product per piece of paper).

For example, your lists might include:

  • Facebook
  • Snapchat
  • Instagram
  • Google
  • Soundcloud
  • Twitter
  • Angry Birds
  • Words With Friends
  • YouTube
  • Pandora
  • Netflix

Have each team take their pieces of paper, fold them in half and put them in a container (a bowl or a hat) and mix them up. Then have each student choose one from the opposite team’s container. This will be the idea they need to pitch.

Each team alternates having individuals pitch their assigned ideas to the rest of their team. Each student has 30 seconds to pitch the selected site, app or game to the group.

  • If a student isn’t familiar with the product they drew from the lottery, they should be able to redraw a new product or consult.
  • Students cannot say the name of their actual product during their pitch.
  • Students should present their product as a good idea (even if they don’t actually like it).

Students should explain in their pitch (in the most dynamic way possible)

  • What the product does
  • Who is the audience for the product
  • What need/problem it addresses
  • How it is different from similar products
  • Why it is awesome/exciting/different
  • Make sure to assign a timekeeper to limit the pitch time to 30 seconds. Each student should pitch at least once to the entire group.

At the end of each student’s pitch, their team has one guess as to what product they were talking about. If their team gets it right, they get a point. If they get it wrong, they get zero points.

The team with the most points wins! Consider having a prize (or at least a round of applause) at the end of the game.

Activity #2: Understanding Team Strengths (I am good at/I want to learn) 

Adapted from a lesson plan developed by Asha Richardson for Youth Radio’s Interactive Team

On a piece of poster paper, make a list of skills that might be helpful in a hackathon. For example:

  • I am good at coming up with ideas.
  • I am good at designing or making ideas visual.
  • I am good at talking to people, even if I don’t know them well, and asking them what they think.
  • I am a good communicator and keep track of what needs to get done.
  • I am a good at recording what is going on and keeping track of ideas.
  • I am good at coding or problem-solving – I like figuring things out!
  • I am a good listener – I know when to step back and play a support role.

Ask students to share one thing they know how to do well, and one thing they would like to learn how to do better.  If they are comfortable, have them write them down on a piece of paper so people who want to learn know who they can ask for help. Emphasize that teams need people in all of these roles in order to succeed.

Activity #3: Coming Up With a Mobile App Idea

Want to go through the entire ideation process yourself? You’re in luck – we’ve got an entire lesson plan with handouts just for you! Check it out here.

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