Tech City Life: How to use a hackathon to grow your business

A way to ignite creativity, boost team morale and produce long-term results – Flubit founder and CEO Bertie Stephens explains why he’s a big fan of hackathons…

As I write this, I’m watching the results of our hackathon in the Flubit office.

For the last two days it’s been teams crowded round their machines, frantically jotting ideas on notepads, scrawling the whiteboards whilst chewing on takeaway food, oh and typing on their computers too. It’s hectic, for sure, but also very cool to see staff so enthusiastic about bringing an idea to life.

What is a hackathon?

For those that aren’t familiar with the term, don’t worry – we’re not actually ‘hacking’ in a cyber-security sense of the word. A hackathon, also known as a ‘hack day’, is a period of 24 to 48 hours where programmers, developers, data analysts and others from within the company are invited to work in teams and take a unanimous technology idea from its initial concept to a fully fleshed-out (hopefully) working demo.

The benefits of such an event are widespread and, in our experience, have a positive impact company wide. Besides being awesome fun for staff, it helps to ignite an internal innovation amongst the company. Today on Flubit.com we have a button that appears above the ‘buy’ button of any major website – if you click it we create you a better deal than the one you’re looking at. That idea and project started from a 2014 hackathon idea, and became a real product within four months. Hackathons are also great because the individuals get to look around at their colleagues, often from within other teams that they don’t always get to work with, form a team that overhauls the usual group structure, each spread their creative wings and interact with peers in new ways, working together on a mutual interest.

Hackathons: Not just for techies

We haven’t limited the hackathon to just the in-house techies. Gillian from our merchant account’s management team joined the ‘Barcode Busters’ team as the idea interested her. Barcode Busters is an Android app which allows users to scan any item’s barcode and place an instant offer demand on Flubit. Gillian felt she could contribute in the brainstorming of the idea, the design and UX, and quality testing of the hack.

Why run an internal hackathon?

Hackathons at Flubit bring different roles and parts of the business together to work collaboratively on something that will benefit the whole company. My vision of success is seeing teams working collaboratively, forming initial concepts and building those ideas out together.

Hackathons are also a great way to get your head out of the roadmap model for a minute and think of other cool things you could do, and other ways you could enhance your product in a way that has not yet occurred to you.

Hackathons give us the chance to imagine what could be far beyond the end of our current product roadmaps, just like the Flubit button. That said, it can be a hard sell to the board and investors. In bare-bone monetary terms it’s 48 hours where your coders aren’t coding on core projects, on an excel spreadsheet it’s hard to get the numbers to add up. But that’s where you have to realise that life at a start-up is more than a spreadsheet, and the innovation and enjoyment people get out of it. It’s a hard sell sometimes, but the short and long-term results are always worth it.

With seven different teams working on seven different concepts today, the results I’m seeing so far are awesome. The hacks are being judged for some competition and prizes will be awarded for ‘best overall hack’, ‘most promising development for the platform, ‘most innovative hack’ and ‘best team work’. There’s also a ‘favourite project’ award where we will ask all the participants to vote for their favourite hack.

If a team doesn’t get a prize, they’ll have contributed to a revitalised feeling in the office – a creative oomph (technical term) so to speak, and the chance to enjoy being plied with food and drink, work with some people they don’t usually, and dedicate themselves and their time to exploring something that they think is worthwhile.

Bertie Stephens is chief executive of demand-driven marketplace Flubit.com.

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