A “Brief” Behind The Scenes Look at the Food+Tech Hackathon
Up until a week ago, the largest event I had ever organized were dinner parties for 10 in my apartment. Then the Food+Tech Hackathon came along.
With 12 days of lead time, a $100 budget from Gojee, and big aspirations, I joined Danielle Gould (founder of Food+tech Connect), Marc Alt (CEO of Opensourcecities), and Steve McGrath (CTO of Gojee) to figure out how to create the first ever food-themed hackathon in human history. Our goal was to register about 45 people for the event.
As it turns out, we had:
- 139 people register their interest
- 117 people registered (along with a 22 person wait list)
- 59 registrants reported for hacking, another 10 or so came in just out of curiosity
- 13 ideas were generated (9 before the event started)
- Out of the 13 ideas, 9 teams eventually developed prototypes to demo. My favorite two are:
Needless to say, the Food+Tech Hackathon was an astounding success. We had more participants than we imagined possible and we didn’t even need to use the $100 budget from Gojee.
How did we do it? Below I try to summarize the 8 steps that we took which lead to a successful hackathon. I am not saying this is the only successful formula, but it is one that worked for us. This article is focused mainly on the organization work required BEFORE a hackathon happens. I leave the best practices during the hackathon for a different piece.
Step 1: Find a theme
First and foremost find a unique and intriguing theme.
Food and technology are two very sexy topics in New York City. Even though that is the case, foodies and techies don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on things. Techies often adhere to a strict diet of pizza, hotdogs, and fried rice (*cough* yes… you), on that alone, a purist foodie is unlikely to go near a techie. Without an agreement on food, we might as well all go home.
In our case, we promised good food to our foodies, and a good ole hackathon for our hackers. I suspect there was a degree of curiosity for the two groups as well. Foodies saw hackers as mystical wizards who could solve all their wild technology dreams. And the hackers saw foodies as their end users and a great source of food insight.
Step 2: Assemble the Dream Team
Right from the onset we had a great organization team. Right along with the theme Food+Tech we had a good mix of foodies and techies as organizers. We weren’t just foodies and techies, we were expert foodies and techies.
The industry experiences and networks we brought alone (Danielle in food and media, Marc in food and non-profit organizations, Steve and I in technology and operations) were crucial in all phases of the event planning and execution process. The long-term investments we’ve all made in our respective fields were what made a 2 week execution possible.
Just as the three musketeers weren’t complete without D’Artagnan, we wouldn’t have pulled it off without the help of Dominic Difranzo from RPI’s Tetherless World Constellation. His experience with previous hackathons were very helpful.
Step 3: Agree to Goals and Roles
The first thing we all did when we met on Skype for the first time was to figure out what our goals are for the hackathon. We agreed that
1. The intention is for foodies and techies to meet so we want to invite a large number of participants from both groups.
2. We would like to see demonstrable products at the end of the day, which meant the need for plenty of hackers.
3. To encourage participation and idea generation, we would not have many restrictions on the types of ideas that people can work on and we would direct people to generate ideas before the hackathon.
With common grounds established, we went on to make a checklist of things to do and assigned responsibilities for everyone. Everyone was responsible for marketing, because we had different groups of people we intended to attract. The rest of the task just became a matter of personal expertise.
Step 4: Find an Event Management Site for Ticketing
We first started with Facebook group. We quickly realized that while Facebook groups is great for smaller, less formal events events, for a hackathon something like EventBrite is much better. It helps to manage ticketing, check-in of attendees, and looks much more professional and official.
Step 5: Marketing, Marketing, Marketing
First, I just want to say, I now have a newfound appreciation for marketing professionals!
This is probably the most important step in ultimately determining the success of the Food+Tech Hackathon. It’s also where the real work began. Aside from Dominic who isn’t based in New York City, we all tried to spread the word about the hackathon as much as possible. We had two problems, at the onset:
1. We didn’t really know what the format of the event was just yet, so how can we spread the news?
2. It was Thanksgiving week and we had to get the word out by Tuesday before people check out for the holiday (the organization started on Monday)
We decided that problem 1 wasn’t really a problem. If we got the word out and enough people showed up, we would be able to figure out sponsorship and event organization fast (as long as we don’t overcommit to the capacity of Soho Haven — Thanks for letting us use the space Chris and Erik!).
Problem 2 though was a real problem. We decided that we needed to leverage mailing lists and our personal networks to get the word out. We:
- Posted to some of the largest tech and food mailing lists in New York City: New York Tech Meetup, NextNY, Tech4Good.
- We also followed up on those mailing lists’ messageboards
- Contacted the editors of well subscribed NYC digests: Gary’s guide, Charlie O’Donnell’s list to get the event listed
- Reached out to NYU, Columbia, Cooper Union, CMU, and MIT mailing lists and professors (Thanks @mplavalle and @okaysee!)
- We then sent personally contacted people we knew who would be interested in the event (I think Danielle sent direct messages to everyone of her followers on twitter. That’s what I call commitment!)
- Twitter became a huge marketing engine, as we were giving everyone in our network event updates.
Not everything was perfect though! We actually failed to check if some of the emails we sent to the mailing lists went through. As a result, some of the emails didn’t get sent out until AFTER thanksgiving holidays. Lesson learned: always follow up on your email outreaches sometimes it takes 3 or 4 tries!
Step 6: Figure Out Your Budget
Once we got the word out, we started figuring out our budget. Because we weren’t quite sure about sponsorship until very late, we had contingency plans in place.
For breakfast, instead of Bagels and Cream cheese (which is at best $1.50/person), we went with Chinese pastries. They’re super delicious, have a lot of variety, and were only about ($.70/person).
For lunch, we figured a $500 budget would suffice for everyone. For contingency plans, we would have gone with a place called “5 Combinations and 1 Soup” in chinatown, which is the best deal in NYC. It’s a buffet that cost $4 for about 2 Lbs of delicious (but not necessarily MSG free) food.
With materials cost for the event running another $100 or so, we quickly realized that making the event free, yet still maintaining a high enough standard for our everyone’s standards would have been impossible. That was when we decided we needed to charge a $5 fee for the event.
It was a tough decision, because we’d already sold 10 tickets. But we knew that it was better to offend 10 registrants before an event, than to disappoint 50 people the day of. The proceeds would allow us to not only fund the event, it also:
- Increase the likelihood that people who signed up actually care about food and technology
- Improve attendance rate the day of event (though $5 doesn’t quite hurt that much I guess…)
Step 7: Secure Sponsorships
Once we did figure out that we were going to be able to deliver an event that met our standards. Danielle and Marc went about figuring out how
The monetary and food sponsorships that Danielle and Marc secured for the event were one of the biggest reasons why the Food+Tech Hackathon was a success. I really don’t know the details of how they worked their magic as much, you’ll have to talk to them!
If I had to guess a combination of 1) a unique theme, 2) a large attendance, 3) masterful negotiation skills, and 4) a large network to try out 1-3 made the difference.
Sponsorship really is something that we worked on but wasn’t as worried about. Regardless of what happened, the show would have gone on.
The alternative would have just have been sponsorship through Gojee and the Bank of Marc (Marc, thank you for generously offering your own support for the event). And we knew of cheaper alternatives than 4food around Chinatown as an option.
Step 8: Figure Out Logistics for the Event
I cannot emphasize this enough. Don’t stress about the logistics for the event. Many of the factors are controllable, especially for a 12 hour hackathon. I think we spent a total of about 2 hrs talking about hackathon logistics 1 day leading up to the event. It wasn’t until the night before when we had our final debrief meeting.
During the meeting, we did realize we had shortage of supplies and materials, like a projector, large papers, etc. But it is amazing how resourceful people can be when they are given constraints.
Sure the event could have been better if we had a projector the morning of to show everyone Dominic’s presentation, but we did have it for the more important afternoon sessions.
And yes we could have provided name tags for everyone at the very start of the day, but teams formed naturally without (thanks in large part to a combination of 1. emails and messages to our participants that encouraged them to think of idea before the hackathon + 2. the right organization and people placement day of the event.)
The most important thing that we focused on was to make sure people had the essentials needed for a hackathon: Food, Internet, and Ideas.
Now: Take a deep breath and have fun
With steps 1-8 taken care of, the day of the event was a breeze.
Helping to organize the Food+Tech hackathon was a crazy fun experience. It’s no cake walk, but it was well worth every bit of time and stress that I put in.