There are two kinds of hackathons that I’m familiar with. The first, of which Evernote produces more than a dozen a year, are focused on one (or maybe two) platforms — like the Evernote API. Companies like ours will set up a space for a 24-hour coding spree, invite a bunch of developers, and parachute in a few engineers and evangelists to help out.
Focused hackathons are fun and productive. They’re a chance for us to bond with young (usually) developers, and to learn what these devs are looking for as they bang on our platform. We always get cool projects from these hackathons, like Context Booster from our recent Berlin hack, and Epicnote from one before that in Sao Paulo.
But I’m partial to the second kind of hackathon: the Messy Hack. These hacks, like the TechCrunch Disrupt weekend hackathons that usually precede the official Disrupt conferences, are massive and chaotic. They attract hundreds of developers — the last TechCrunch hack in New York had about 600 — and dozens of API provider companies. I was at this Messy Hack. It was glorious.
At these hackathons, platform companies like Evernote have to compete with other platform companies (In New York they included Twilio, Microsoft, Box, and others) for attention and love from developers.
I spent more than 20 years covering startups for the tech press, and I’m accustomed to watching new tech company CEOs pitch their hearts out to media, funding sources, and potential partner companies. The pecking order is clear: The startups are the supplicants; the established companies and media are the power brokers. I’m used to being in the power seat.
At a Messy Hack, the dynamic is reversed. The coders are in the audience, doling out attention to a string of platform evangelists who take the stage, one after the other, pleading in their brief pitches for the devs to code up apps using their APIs.
It’s a bracing reversal. Personally, I find it fun to pitch for a change, instead of being pitched. But it’s also a great opportunity to refine your business and your message. You can tell, after a few short hours, if your pitch is successful, and by extension if your company’s platform strategy is working. You tell by the number of developers who come up to your table during the hackathon to ask questions, and then you tell, at the end of the event, by the number and quality of the projects presented.
Another great thing about Messy Hacks: Mashups. With multiple APIs being supported at these events, developers are more likely to go off and build apps that bring different platforms together.
Hacking the hackathon
Now, it’s not hard for platform companies to game these hackathons, by offering prizes to developers who use their APIs. We have done that, and it does drum up interest from hackers who come to have some fun and maybe win a few bucks over the weekend. In New York, some companies with serious APIs offered prizes, and they got some decent projects. But at least one company offered a prize that was too big for the value of its simple API (in my editorial judgement) and it got more projects created than it deserved. Hacks created just to win a prize have a lower probability of moving to the next stage of development; the payout is too much and too early.
At the recent New York TechCrunch hackathon, we offered no immediate prizes, and yet we were gratified to see six teams present interesting projects at the end of the event. My favorite was Squirrel, which is creating a nice-looking reading list that’s made up of the articles users clip to Evernote. We also liked the hacks Everslide, which makes quick presentation slides from Evernote notes; and Evernote-Quick Team Manager, which mashes Evernote together with Highrise or Basecamp for group task management.
It was all the sweeter to see these projects given the competition we were up against and the fact that our only prize was far in the future — well-developed Evernote integrations might win our three-month-long Devcup competition and some of those winners might be invited to our Evernote Accelerator. And, to be fair, there were 183 projects at the hackathon, so seeing six Evernote projects didn’t mean we “won” the event by any stretch.
But the developers who built for Evernote did so for the best reasons: They saw value in our API and our base of users. While we’re not above sweetening the pot a bit to encourage developers who are on the fence to to hack at Evernote, in this case, we didn’t even do that and we still got neat projects.
A competitive hackathon where you don’t give out prizes is a brutal opportunity. But the payoff is sweet.
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