Launch Hackathon 2013: Not an Experience I Would Repeat

Participated in Jason McCabe Calacanis ‘s ?#?launchhack? . While the networking was good, the “prize” advertised as $1.6M was false advertising. The fund was $800k, so even if you had the greatest Hack of all time and all of the fund was given to you, that wouldn’t leave any money for the second grand prize winner.

Just because you have a $20 bill doesn’t mean you can buy two things that cost $20 each.

We also got the least qualified judges I have ever had at a hackathon. It has been a while since I did a hackathon, but our judges left comments so stupid that when the fellow hackers read the comments more than one said in unison, “what retards”.

Retard is not a term I would normally used or endorse. It is on the list of words I banned my YouTube Subscribers from using.

But when the Hackers know that the judges are clearly stupid, it doesn’t inspire them to value the feed back. Or to be inspired to come back to future events.

That said it was was not the case with all the judges, I heard very good feedback from teams that were taking advice from David Hamilton, and Josh Goldman to heart, and mentioned how they would be making changes based on their feedback.

Our Hack was an animatronic stuffed bear that read with your child, not “to” your child. It would read a story and then ask questions about the story and the pictures. It could also do flash cards. To my knowledge it is the only such toy that actually used voice interaction to work with in world books.

I took names of 12 people who want to order our bear, one was a security guard, and one was part of the cleaning staff.
To me that was success. When a large mean looking gentleman who has spending all day checking wristbands tells you he would part with $150 if he can get your product in the next year you are doing something right.
When hackers around you are more mad at the feedback from the judges of your hack than they are that their feed back was critical you know you did something right.

With no clear rules for judging, judges gave such helpful feedback as “You can’t do hardware startups with $10k.” Well then maybe there shouldn’t have been an award for best hardware hack. And who the Frak said anything about doing a startup for $10k I have more than that in my wallet. 

The feedback on our hack was “This is better suited to kickstarter” that’s not feedback. That’s stupidity. Why would anyone do a Kickstarter and give up 30% of the gross unless their idea was stupid. You can sell on Amazon with full fillment, but Khol’s standing right there does a single order larger than a Top KickStarter result.  (I get kickstarter for niche products things like table top games and unique special case hardware so I’m not saying all kickstarters are stupid, just the ones that are mass market hardware)

Several VCs told people who used Sponsor API’s there was no use case for the API. Someone should have told them that they shouldn’t say bad things about the sponsors.

A few quick observations…. There were probably 12 people reading Shel Israel and Robert Scoble ‘s Age of Context. There were about 3 wearing glass.

The Finalists were almost all groups that did one of two things, started their hack weeks in advance, or were an exact knock off of other companies. 1 had even mentioned they do the same hack at every hack a thon and just change which API they use (they do gamified shopping apps that resonate with the API providers but no one would actually use which is why they keep financing their life with hackathons not with their awesome apps)

Venues for Hackathons should have showers or something. The place stank at the end of Sat, and was awful at noon Sunday.

While the Devs were vetted, the API’s weren’t. I hate to bash the API guys, because the API I am thinking of the people were nice, but The API 500’ed all weekend, was documented wrong, and was “Down” most of the weekend. They ended up manually giving us data so we could fake doing full data. Turned out their API only went live the day before.

Did I get what I wanted out of the Hackathon? No. I met some great people, but a good hackathon has a lot more press than were present, and a lot more opportunity to meet with industry leaders. There was basically no press. Which I attribute to the fact that the event made it hard to get “by stander” passes.

A good hackathon gets you infront of investors, advisors and though leaders with domain experience in your space. The two judges per table assigned at random didn’t get most hackers access to people who knew anything about their space. This lead to things like Judges telling people who did amazing things with domain specific API’s feedback like “there is no usecase for this” when everyone at the Hackathon knew that the the hack was actually a brilliant use of a slightly overly niche WiFi Api.

Am I a sore loser? No. I had no design on winning. I wasn’t going to quit my day job to take $50k and start a new company. That’s not enough to make it worth while. I did hope to get better networking, and to be able to tell a good story to the press.  Our hack was meant to have broad appeal to tell a story about the future of voice recognition, and Natural Language Processing. We wanted to capture imagination, not money.

Overall, I would not do this event again. I would not recommend it to others.