I can’t code! What to do at a hackathon?

A hackathon is a focused attempt to build something cool and/or meaningful in a short amount of time, usually a weekend or 24 hours. At the end of the hackathon, all the participants demo (or pitch) what they’ve built.

So, you’ve decided to attend one. Great! You’re in for a fun ride. “This has been the best weekend of my life!” is an actual quote from a participant in a hackathon we were part of organising.

What makes them so great? Well, we at the Startup Studio agree with researcher Jane McGonical that “we, as human beings, are designed to do hard, meaningful work”. And that’s very often what it feels like to attend a hackathon. You work hard to build something meaningful in a short amount of time.

In our opinion, there are no right or wrong way to do a hackathon. There are however many flavours of hackathons with different focuses. Some are very tech heavy, others are more business or design oriented. Before going to a hackathon it’s worth trying to get a sense of what type it is as it frames the entire challenge. Can I build something technically advanced? Can I design something wickedly cool? Can I build a business in two days? That’s the kind of question you need to ask yourself before entering and it’s best if that question is in line with the theme of the hackathon.

So, what can you expect to build in such a short time? I tried to draw a little four fielder to map out the different types of outcomes that are common to hackathons.


The blue axis focuses on what you build. It goes from concept to working product. A concept can be a powerpoint presentation of something, a mock-up or a simple prototype. A working product, on the other hand, is a complete implementation of the original vision of the creator. One example would be Dogstep from a Music hackathon held in Malmö. It remixes music with dogs barking.

The red axis focus is on the proven value for what you built. The way to measure that is on user engagement. No users means low value while users that even chose to pay the product shows very high value. CSS Hat is an example of a product that made thousands of dollars during the hackathon in which it was built.

In one hackathon we organised, the winning team showed nothing but a powerpoint deck but had used the weekend to find potential customers – and perfect the final pitch. Even though they hadn’t closed a sale yet, they clearly showed that there was a market for the product they wanted to build – and that was enough to win the entire hackathon.

Even though the word “hackathon” can sound a little “techie” there are many things you as a non-technical person can bring to the table, especially if the focus on the hackathon is on proven business value rather than technical skills. Can you get customer feedback on your idea or maybe even find paying customers? Can you perfect the final pitch? Are you a great presenter? Or maybe your role is to make sure the entire team works at full capacity – something that can be very hard with the extremely tight deadline you’re under. Every minute spent not moving the project forward is a wasted minute.

A hackathon is an excellent way to meet new people and change the world at the same time. Join one – and just go with the flow. Perhaps it will be the best weekend of your life too.

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