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How to Win Your Next Hackathon in 6 Steps

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Tell someone your competing in a hackathon and they might think you’re hacken crazy.

After all, the word hackathon, marriage of the words ‘hack’ and ‘marathon’, usually means pulling an all-nighter, for better or for worse and coding until you can’t say /// banana banana banana — that’s technical programming lingo for documentation is in progress or yet to be completed, courtesy of Coding Horror Blog.  

Invites to judge a fintech hackathon are pretty rare; think trying to capture Snorlax and Lapras on Pokémon GO. So imagine you’re me for a second, getting the official invite from Orion Advisor Services to judge their third annual FuseUtah hackathon in Park City. Immediately I think Pikachu, technology, and no sleep.

Naturally and without hesitation I accept the challenge.

FuseUtah feels more like reality tv than anything else. The event draws a record crowd of 90+ programmers/engineers/developers, 30 technology companies, 22 pitches, 7 judges, 3 consecutive days of gourmet catered meals and hand-to-hand coding, with 2 well-stocked fridges overflowing with IPA and microbrew beer (the essential ingredient for any and all hackathons). Several well-known journalists and digital media outlets also pounce on the opportunity to be part of this Silicon Valley-ish meets X-Factor experience in Park City.

Co-Opetition, a term used to describe the convergence of competition and cooperation, coined by Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebuff in a book of the same name, is the master of ceremony along with Orion Advisor Services CEO Eric Clarke and CTO Brad Burgess. Nearly every technology company is here and notable fintech Kardashian celebs like Joel Bruckenstein, Michael Kitces, and Bill Winterberg. Ryan Beach, J.D. Bruce, Billy Oliverio, and I round out the judge’s bench and help determine win, place, or show positions; albeit harder than we imagined, the teams were all great.

Not everyone could make it to the winner’s circle, but the ones who did outperformed the benchmark, received bragging rights along with the coveted FuseUtah awards. Here’s how they did it:

1. Turn problems into opportunities.

Winning teams are opportunity ninjas. They focus their efforts on using technology to solve a problem, carve a market niche, create new monetization streams and drive revenue. They are optimists. In their mind, every problem is a door just waiting to be opened at precisely the right time and they are all too eager to turn the knob to see what’s behind door number 1, 2, or 3.

2. See no box.

Winning teams don’t see boundaries around solution sets. They are problem-solvers by definition, closely examining and considering all angles of the puzzle in order to find an answer. Being relentless and going back to the proverbial drawing board are behaviors they have already mastered. You’ll never hear them say, “That’s not the way we do things here.”   

3. Get input and feedback.

Winning teams don’t profess to know all the answers nor have all information. Their curiosity DNA leads them down a path of exploration and discovery. They do this by stepping away from their multi-screen world, opening themselves up for tough conversations, and engaging all constituents, thereby creating a 360 degree feedback loop.

4. Burn the midnight oil.

Winning teams put in the hustle. There is no alarm clock, no end-time, and definitely no excuses. They come prepared to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means working all night and sacrificing recreation time. These champions of change know their best ideas and lightbulb movements come in the wee hours of the night, after everyone has gone to bed or others have thrown in the towel.

5. Tag-team.

Winning teams leverage the skill sets of each member of the group. They know themselves and each other well enough to recognize who should be working on what. What’s more, is that they give credit where credit is due and are careful to acknowledge the contributions of others to the big idea, even when they are not in the room.

6. Use intrigue and passion in the final pitch.

Winning teams ignite the room with moments the audience never sees coming. They command attention first with passion followed by meticulous execution of a well-rehearsed demo of their product in action. Success is reverse-engineered by incorporating new technologies, new tools, and new ways of applying technology throughout their presentation, so captivating and intoxicating that you crave more.

Following their lead won’t be easy but it may just help you win your next hackathon, with a little bit of Pokémon luck of course 😉 

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