Why do 48h hackathons work?

    Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Priit Salumaa Co-founder at Garage48 Foundation and Mooncascade. This is somewhat a response to this guest post, My Problem with 48h Startups. This article has been updated after a mistake in drafts.

    We have been doing hackathons for 4 years now at Garage48 Foundation. This means 33 events in 12 countries, with total of more than 2500 participants, more than 750 ideas pitched and nearly 400 prototypes built. Nine of the teams have successfully involved venture capital.

    We initiated Garage48 hackathons in order to boost local startup scene by bringing the Silicon Valley attitude to Eastern Europe and other developing markets.

    We want to show that a small team with a kick-ass attitude can achieve amazing things on a lean budget in a very short time. We believe that one can move from an idea to its first prototype without waiting for an investment. We want to bring people together from different fields with different skills for a larger networking effect at a later stage in their life. We want to give participants the taste how it feels to work in a startup team.

    Short history and overview of Garage48 format

    We began in 2010 as an initiative of 6 members of the Estonian Startup Leaders club. At the time we saw that Estonia needed a hackathon.

    When looking around for a suitable format and analyzing boot-camp style of initiatives we realized that we would need to have a more specific format for our hackathon.

    There were a lot of public initiatives which were just about talking, but nothing practical. We saw that developing new technologies had got cheaper – what previously took years and millions now could be done almost for free in short time.

    As startup entrepreneurs we wanted to create a great experience which simulates a resource constrained startup environment – the team with all of it’s the key aspects.

    In addition, our goal was to show that with strong motivation a lot can be achieved just in 48 hours, resulting in a real prototype and learning from others at the same time.

    We saw that we would have to profile participants and set up the participant based on our experience with startup teams, where each team must have:

    • engineering skills – somebody to build the product;
    • design skills – somebody to make the product appealing for a user / customer;
    • marketing / sales – somebody to sell the hell out of the product;
    • visionary / team leadership to keep the whole team efficiently on a track for the larger goal.

    Thus we require that an idea qualified to be developed at Garage48

    • has to gather a team with the key roles, thus consist a minimum of 4 members,
    • and it can be a maximum of 8 people to keep things nimble and under control.

    The team formation, mentoring, pitching ideas are quite similar to other weekend hackathons with maybe one more exception – on Friday we allow 1 slide to support the 90’’ pitch, for Sunday’s 3 min presentation we have a “no powerpoint” rule. Meaning that only the working prototype built during the weekend can be presented on the stage.

    I’ve always said: One prototype says more than a thousand slides 🙂

    Do 48h hackathons work?

    During 4 years of operation we have seen our fair share of critique (latest of them was published in ArcticStartup). The range of it is quite wide: from pushing participants to think small to the analogy of teaching children to drive a motorcycle without a helmet.

    Much of the criticism is well argumented and also very true (read the analysis by Sten Tamkivi). The only problem for me is that much of it is founded on wrong premises. Or in case of right premises, there are things we cannot influence, but rather tend to bring into attention.

    I want to make one thing clear – although some talk about 48-hour-startups, Garage48 IS NOT a startup factory. The 2-3% successful businesses out of all our teams is a by-product. We all at Garage48 Foundation know that developing a business takes much more time than creating a prototype during the weekend.

    From idea to a prototype

    Garage48 hackathons fill a very important niche in the lifecycle of a startup idea to a startup company. We stick to an “idea to prototype” phase, where people verify the idea – its technical solution, first market research, and first thoughts on a business model.

    After the weekend hackathon, others must take over: acceleration programs, business angels, and incubators.

    In a way a Garage48 team exiting the weekend hackathon is very well prepared to apply for an acceleration program. With a prototype you’ll have a competitive advantage over an idea with just a slide deck.

    Filling the niche has also proven to be successful – we have 9 Garage48 teams accepted to SeedCamp, Startup Sauna, Startup Wiseguys or other acceleration programs. 2-3% of our teams somehow get to a real company, to investments, to revenue models. Very often pivoting or changing the team on the flight.

    A local Estonian example: out of the 7 finalists in Ajujaht 2014 – the entrepreneurship competition broadcasted on Estonian National Broadcasting with a prize fund of 50k in 2013 –  initially 3 were Garage48 teams (GoWorkaBit, Timber Diameter, Photofing). Now 2 more hardware ideas (Rahu, Mimmi) have built their first prototype in Garage48 Hardware & Arts, bringing the total to 5 Garage48 teams out of 7 finalists in Ajujaht.

    Still, Garage48 is definitely no startup factory.

    One night stand vs marriage

    It is a fact that a business idea can be brainstormed during 48h and a prototype can be built over two fortnights. It is also a fact that business development takes much longer time – you cannot build a sustainable business during a weekend. It’s quite obvious and nobody should have illusions of 48h startups. We bring that to attention at our hackathons.

    But as it sometimes happens journalists look for more flashy words in the titles like “startup” vs “prototype”.

    Weekend hackathon can be compared to building a business, like a one night stand can be compared to a marriage. You can have sex with a stranger and leave next morning, but building a family requires long term commitment, trust, and friendship – a different kind of relationship.

    That said, it seems to us that some teams tend to break this kind of thought pattern, though.

    Sometimes for a lucky few, a one-night stand might lead to something greater and bigger. Believe me, I know that. Me and my wife – our relationship started with a one night stand, followed by a coffee the next day, lunch, dinner, and by today occasional fights, two kids, and a mortgage.

    Garage48’s goal is not to produce successful businesses, but it happens sometimes anyway. A successful business after the hackathon is not our doing, but the effort of the individual team-mates, people who decide, find the motivation to go on, and the ability to work together.

    We just happen to be there when they meet.

    From my personal experience – 48h hackathons do work

    When starting up with the initiative, we as organizers took part on our hackathons.

    I personally participated as a software engineer at the first two Garage48 hackathons. I can still remember the adrenaline rush during the event when coding away, the very nervous and even more nervous moments. An overwhelming feeling of success when we deployed on a live environment something what really worked.

    There are some things which were quite unexpected. All teams reach a working prototype during the weekend and the amount of work done is inhuman. The energy and focus level at Garage48 is just astonishing.

    This is amazing and this is fun! It makes you believe in yourself.

    Extreme networking

    We also have a very positive networking effect at the event. Nothing introduces you to a person and verifies his or her qualities, creating trust more than working on the same problem for 48h. It definitely beats switching business cards or having couple of beers on a random mixer.

    This kind of contact base, knowing the real value of people from the event, gives a very good platform to build towards future startup ideas. You will know whom to talk to in the future in case you have another splendid idea. Many people who met at Garage48 have later started working together on various projects. For example, the guys at Margn, the simple to use online accounting software, met at Garage48.

    Intense training

    Garage48 participants get an experience of how is it to work in a startup team.

    Like in a startup, the team will have few resources and even less time, so they have to focus only on important things. In the weekend’s context it means focussing on the idea’s core functionality and getting something working for Sunday evening.

    Teams have to build a MVP (minimal viable product) so to say. They have to divide the work, target low hanging fruits, and hard-prioritize tasks. There is no time for bells and whistles or bullshit like “what if”s.

    We do have a great learning aspect to our hackathons since they are open to everyone. Students can work in a team with startup veterans or great professionals. Jaan Tallinn, one of the Estonian Skype founders participating on Garage48 once said: “It is like a startup-culture bath participating on this event.”

    Ideas have no limits

    We do not produce the ideas, participants do. One can come with a grand business idea to Garage48, with a non-profit idea, or with something to hack on or just to have fun. Everybody is welcome, every idea is welcome.

    We encourage to build something – it can be a tiny, first bit of a grand solution. Something to show on Sunday. We just do not allow any PowerPoint slides on the demo evening.

    The qualities of magnitude or ambition are directly related to the authors of the ideas, their cultural background, education, risk tolerance, and other things far out of our influence.

    The IP belongs to the team

    Garage48 does not take any equity from the teams. We are a non-profit organisation. The whole intellectual property (IP) produced during the event by a team belongs to its members, equally.

    Thus, dropping a team-mate after the weekend is not that simple. We do suggest though, that the teams who want to go on have to have a plan. They should set quantifiable goals and milestones. Plus, the non-active team members should let others go on, should not be a dead weight.

    We have seen teams buying out members who just wanted to have fun during weekend for couple of hundred euros. We have seen team-mates leaving teams because of not being able to commit and thus giving up the IP for free.

    We have also seen nasty fights. This happens in life and is very natural.

    New Directions

    As it happens we tend to be stubborn in a typical Estonian way in Garage48 and do things we think are right.

    This brought us to Garage48 hackathons and Garage48 HUB in 2010 (from idea to a co-working space in 3 weeks).

    But now we have taken on new directions. Beginning of February 2014 saw two of our new initiatives.

    • Student Startup Camp (organized together with Tartu University) – a weeklong special course loaded with lectures, motivational speakers and hacking to reach the similar goals we have with normal Garage48 weekends.
    • Garage48 Hardware & Arts – the very first hardware hackathon in Baltics the (organized together with Tartu University and Estonian Academy of Arts).

    We are also taking on new verticals like healthcare and wellness on our Tallinn 2014 event in April.

    The new initiatives have proven a great success. Thus, we will continue with them, organizing and perfecting the following hardware hackathons and week-long student startup camps.

    These new directions help us to spread the go-getter attitude into different business fields and demographics. We see that it does require changing our event format to achieve the training and networking effects but we are very careful not to change our DNA – what makes Garage48 a Garage48.

    Priit Salumaa is a startup enthusiast and a passionate software engineer. He is the Co-founder at Mooncascade an Estonian mobile software house and Garage48 Foundation.