How To Win A Hackathon (or an Oscar)

I had breakfast with a young entrepreneur who was upset that he hadn’t won a hackathon, despite finishing an original, working product with a high degree of difficulty.  I asked him to describe what his team had built.

“We built an app that lets you annotate equations.  Clicking on any of the factors in the equation brings up explanations and background materials.  It could be a huge aid to teaching.”

Meanwhile, the prize went to a simple, almost trivial app that allowed people to watch funny YouTube videos and provide feedback that would help find other relevant videos.

My entrepreneurial friend had made a classic mistake–he thought that winning a judged competition is about producing the best work, rather than winning the most votes.

The analogy I use is the Oscars; the Oscars are actually a popularity contest.  Winners are determined by counting the votes of Academy members.  That’s how travesties like “Forrest Gump” winning Best Picture over “Pulp Fiction” happen.

Here’s what I told my friend.  “The key to winning a hackathon isn’t producing the best app.  It’s making the judges feel good about voting for you.  Here’s how I would introduce your app:

The biggest problem facing America today is STEM education. We can’t get kids to love math and science.  This endangers Silicon Valley, and it endangers the country.

Our product is Rap Genius for teaching math.  We let teachers and professors annotate equations so that kids can figure out these principles at their own pace.  Not only does this free up lecture time, let teachers flip the classroom and focus on 1:1 coaching, but it leverages a format that today’s kids are proven to use and enjoy.

But in the long run, we’re not just limited to math.  There’s also science, engineering, and a whole world of STEM subjects, all essential and all much easier to teach when using our product.”

By showing the broader context, and providing a simple analogy, I was able to frame his product in a way that a) made it important and b) made judges feel good about voting for it.

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