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6 Tips to Help You Win a Hackathon… Without Having to Get the Gold

Tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your next hackathon
Louise Velayo
March 17, 2023
Table of contents

So you have a hackathon on your calendar. Maybe it is your first, or your tenth hackathon. Whatever the case may be, if you are searching for tips to help you in your next hackathon, we have got you covered. 

Hackathons are the melting pot of fun, innovation and pressure. It is the ultimate test of both you and your team’s skills and endurance. In this article, you will find six pieces of advice that will increase your chances of winning not only your next hackathon but hackathons in the future as well!

Before diving into them, let’s take a quick look at the different types of hackathons out there.

Types of Hackathon

Instead of splitting them into categories, I like to think Hackathons fall on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is a coding competition and on the other, a business case competition. 

The first ever hackathon was a coding competition. In such a competition, the focus is typically on solving one challenging algorithmic problem, or many smaller algorithmic problems, efficiently and accurately with code.

For a business case competition, less emphasis is placed on code. However, some competitions are still called hackathons as they may want to focus on certain technologies. Participants receive a business case from the organizers and are tasked with constructing a business plan and/or a pitch to explain how to solve the problem presented in the case.

The tips that follow in this article are suited for hackathons that fall in the middle of this spectrum. Typically, this involves making a prototype of the product accompanied by a business plan and pitch to support it. 

Form the Right Team

There are two components to having the right team. Firstly, they must be a group of people who you have good chemistry with. After all, you will likely find yourself having to spend anywhere upwards of 24h with them continuously. A team with good chemistry will find it easier to work under pressure, overcome challenges and build something cool.

Secondly, look for team members with a variety of skills and interests. You may decide to sign-up with your best pals who are all software developers. Sure the chemistry is there, but most likely, there will be a gap in the business aspect of your proposed solution. 

If you want to check if your team has the right composition, you can ask yourself these questions: 

  • Do we have someone to make things look aesthetically pleasing (designer)? 🌻
  • Do we have someone to make a working prototype (software developer)? 💻
  • Do we have someone to figure out how our product will make money (business developer)? 💵
  • Do we have someone to lead and make decisions fast (leader)? 🤔

If the answer is yes to all these questions, then your team is positioned for success! By forming a team with a variety of skills, roles can naturally form in the team which helps with task division during the hackathon. This can save you a huge amount of time and effort. 

❗❗WARNING: approached by someone overly confident and comes off too strong? Be aware of people who are overly arrogant. No matter how good they may be at a certain role, think twice before adding them to your team. Not only could such a character ruin your team chemistry, but it could also spoil the fun hackathon experience.

Now you have your squad, it is time to prepare for the battle. 🤺

"Fail to Prepare, Then Prepare to Fail"

To put this quote by Benjamin Franklin into something actionable, if there is anything that you can already do before the hackathon, do it. 

Of course, the development of your idea can only begin during the hackathon. However, generating this idea can be done beforehand. In my experience, the brainstorming phase of a hackathon is always the most difficult and feels the least productive. But, it is arguably the most important aspect to get right. Why not have a brainstorm before the start of your hackathon?

If general information about the challenges of the hackathon are provided beforehand, take advantage of this and try to have a brainstorming session with your team. You could already narrow down your sea of ideas to a shortlist that you can quickly decide from if further details become available. This will free up more time to prototype and develop your idea 💡.

Sometimes, hackathon communication channels on Discord or Slack may already be set up. Don’t hesitate to ask questions about the challenges or practical details about food and sleeping arrangements etc. 

🔼BONUS: Try to ask about who your judges are. Knowing this, you can keep their profile/interests in mind when brainstorming and eventually choosing one idea to pursue. 

If no prior information is given, there are still other things you can do to prepare. Setting up your team's communication channels, file sharing methods, code repositories, studying certain APIs etc. All of these seemingly small efforts will translate to valuable hours saved during your hackathon ⏳.

More importantly, if you are teaming up with strangers, your preparation may include getting to know one another as well as their strengths and weaknesses. This brings us to the next tip.

Get on the Same Page

After a couple of hours have passed since the start of the hackathon, your team now has an idea to pursue. Time to divide the tasks and get going? Not so fast. 

Note that working alone is not the same as working independently. The former implies that you are isolated and not on the same page as the rest of the team. If members of a team have a slightly different interpretation of a certain detail of the project, this difference can be exaggerated when those members go off to work alone resulting in inconsistencies in the final solution.  This is a problem teams unintentionally create and only realize when it is too late. 

The easiest way to avoid this is to establish a clear goal. A clearly defined goal enables  each team member to have a similar vision of the final product. Taking time to establish this will allow your team to work productively independently 💪.

In general, a clear goal that sparks a consistent vision within your team is typically simple as opposed to something complex. The same principle can be applied to the solution for your hackathon case, and your approach to the hackathon in general.

Simplicity = Efficiency

Tiso Van Ooteghem was part of the aviate labs student team and a five-time hackathon participant. From his experience, he quickly learnt how simplicity enabled him and his team to do more of what matters in the limited time available in a hackathon.

“Hackathons prioritize idea generation rather than a foolproof prototype. Spend time on parts of your project that will be demonstrated in the final pitch” - Tiso Van Ooteghem

Focus on building a minimum viable product. Don’t exhaust your time trying to write long and elaborate code instead, opt for short and readable code. The same for your UI. Design something clean and simple rather than complex. You can apply this to other aspects of your project.

In addition, by choosing simplicity, it will make it easier for the judges to understand your project, and generally speaking, judges give better scores to projects they understand.

🔼BONUS: Having judged a hackathon, I can tell you that the code you submitted does not get as much attention as you would expect. With the limited time we had to decide, it was more important to see a working prototype rather than combing over lines of code.

Having understood the importance of choosing simplicity, you should have enough time to practice and perfect your pitch. This brings us to our next piece of advice.

Don’t Forget the Pitch!

The importance of the pitch can be summarized with the 80/20 rule. This rule states that 80% of your results are due to 20% of your actions. This 20% would be your pitch 🗣. 

I am not saying that having a perfect pitch alone will guarantee success. Hackathon projects are scored on multiple criteria. That being said, the pitch is your main opportunity to leave an impression on the judges. Moreover, the pitch can indirectly affect the scores of other criteria despite them being presented as mutually exclusive.

Your team may have developed the most sophisticated prototype, but if you fail to display all the features to the judges due to a lackluster pitch, they will not be able to appreciate its sophistication. Thus, not only will you score low on your pitch but also on your prototype. 

As a rule of thumb, 20% of the total hackathon hours should be spent developing the pitch. Try not to cram this in the end. If your team already has a clear idea of how to pitch the project, it will also help the team focus on important tasks that will be demonstrated in the pitch. 

When delivering your pitch, don’t feel that all members of your team need to speak. Sometimes a pitch can go smoother when delivered by one person, especially as these pitches typically last five minutes at maximum. Don’t worry, team members can still be involved during the Q&A.

It’s Not Fun to Work With Zombies

Hackathons are mentally demanding, but also fun! Don’t be afraid to take breaks. If you have implemented the tips above, you should have the time to do so 😉.

In all seriousness, do not work yourselves to exhaustion. Sleep, food and water can go a long way. 

Aside from taking breaks for the essentials, hackathons may have some side events, competitions or fun booths. Take some time to unwind and experience everything the hackathon has to offer. Who knows, at the end of these breaks you may come back with a breakthrough 📈. 

Breaks can also be used for you and your team to touch base. Frequently doing this can assure all team members that everyone is still on the same page. Additionally, if any problems have arisen, they can be addressed. 

If you are teaming up with new people, take some time to get to know your teammates. While there is plenty to learn from the hackathon, you may also learn a lot from the different individuals in your team. 

Get to know the organization(s) present at the hackathon. Use it as an opportunity to network with them. You might be able to create opportunities for you and your team in the future.

Long story short, there are many reasons to take breaks. So seriously, take breaks and have fun!

EXTRA TIP: Think Outside the Box

Hackathons tend to have teams focus on the use of specific technologies. Don’t be afraid to add more to your project by implementing the latest technology or trends. Blockchain and AI are just a few examples that you could try.

Essentially, implementing that extra detail will set your team’s solution apart and display your knack for innovation, which is one of the reasons why companies organize hackathons in the first place. While it is not advertised, they are looking for these kinds of things 🔍.


In my opinion, hackathons are there for you to learn something new. If you have done this, then you already won. - Tiso Van Ooteghem

There you have it. Six (plus one) tips to help you win a hackathon without having to come in first place. But between you and me, if you can implement these tips, it will be pretty hard to stop you and your team from getting the gold 😉.