Hackathons, besides being a place of sleep deprivation and hard work, can be a powerful fuel for innovation. Indeed, these types of events are ideal to validate a product idea and create a startup out of it. In this post, we’ll explore how a startup hackathon can be a fantastic starting point for a company, along with some success stories of startups that emerged from hackathons.
What is the purpose of a startup hackathon?
There are several types of hackathons. However, they commonly happen over a weekend and involve a team who has to rapidly come up with a solution or prototype. The best projects will be later presented in front of a panel of judges.
These events test participants’ creativity and their ability to work under pressure. In a hackathon, you have to fiercely innovate and create a viable solution to a specific problem. For this defining characteristic, hackathons were many times the fuel where a successful startup emerged.
Because at their core, startups are exactly that: an innovative solution to a specific problem. Indeed, launching a product involves connecting with potential customers to make sure its features are really an innovative solution to a problem they are facing. Hackathons help you validate the product idea and work on it fast.
However, successful startups need more than a great idea (a big part of them is having a strong team). Hackathons alone aren’t enough to develop a successful startup, but they can be awesome to expose potential benefactors to your idea, get funding, and further support.
Another big aspect of becoming a successful founder is community. Networking is essential, not only to find co-founders if you want, but also to develop strategic partnerships, meet investors, and make new entrepreneur friends with whom to exchange knowledge and advice.
In this sense, online and offline startups and entrepreneurs/founders‘ communities are fantastic to get accountability and learn how to be a successful founder. Here is a list of top picks from Unita’s directory of communities:
Hackathon success stories: 5 Startups that emerged from hackathons
Wade Foster and Bryan Helmig are Zapier’s founders, an automation tool to improve workflows by using integrations with other apps. Before creating Zapier, they were musicians and played in a jazz & blues band. They shared a passion for creating web apps, and during their day gigs, they found themselves messaging startup ideas back and forth. That’s how the idea of Zapier was born:
So, they built a demo version of their app in a few weeks and presented it at Startup Weekend in Columbia, Missouri, which happened from September 30th to October 2nd, 2011.
The app, which Bryan originally named “API Mixer,” won the competition. Later, they changed the app’s name and applied to the accelerator program Y Combinator. Zapier officially launched in June of 2012, offering integrations with 34 apps (nowadays it has integrations with 4,000+ apps!).
Just two years after launching (and with only one round of Series A funding, totaling $1.3 million) Zapier became profitable. Between 2016 and 2018, Zapier’s ARR grew from $10 million to $50+ million. Nowadays, they’ve grown to $140 million in ARR and a valuation of $5 billion, all while on profit.
Talkdesk is a cloud-based call center solution that revolutionized the call center industry. The idea was born out of a Twilio hackathon in 2011, and its founder is Tiago Paiva. In an interview, he said:
“One day, I saw that Twilio was giving a MacBook Air as a prize to their hackathon. All you had to do was build something using their newly released Twilio Client. I was 24 years old and I had an old PC and no money to spare – I wanted that MacBook. So I spent the next 10 days building what is now Talkdesk.“–Tiago Paiva
A few months later, Talkdesk was presented at TwilioCon and won first prize: a $10,000 investment in this startup. In 2021, the company announced the closing of its Series D funding, more than tripling its valuation in just a little over one year from $3 billion to $10 billion. Indeed, the company is now among the most highly valued private companies in the SaaS industry.
Carousell is a Singapore-headquartered online consumer-to-consumer marketplace that allows users to post classifieds to sell different items. Siu Rui Quek, Marcus Tan, and Lucas Ngoo, three college friends, started Carousell back in 2012. The product idea was validated at a hackathon in Singapore, where they developed the first prototype.
The team ended up winning the Startup Weekend Singapore 2012 hackathon. In 2019, they already won top investors’ support and earned a valuation of $550 million.
Docracy is an open-source repository for legal and business documents (similar to what GitHub offers for code). The founders of Docracy are Matt Hall And John Watkinson, who saw a real problem in how difficult it was to find trustworthy business legal documents online. As a solution to this problem, Docracy was born.
Founders participate in the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in 2011, and their project was one of the winners among over 100 participants. The startup raised a total of $850,000 in funding over 2 seed rounds, one in 2011 and the next in 2013.
PowerWells is a socially-focused Australian startup. They have the mission of changing the quality of life for people living in remote Indonesian villages who have to travel for half a day to have access to electricity. Nick Kamols and Brad Claire, PowerWells’ founders, had the idea to install solar-powered battery packs created from e-waste.
Kamols and Claire took this idea to Startup Weekend and went from a hackathon concept to a full product launch in just four weeks. They embarked on a crowdfunding campaign to install the first 100 PowerWells, and later sought corporate and venture capital investment to keep growing the startup.
Startup hackathon events you can’t miss
Startup hackathons are worth it to participate in even if you don’t win. They provide you with a chance to learn new skills, meet like-minded peers, and work in an interdisciplinary team.
Additionally, hackathons can be really helpful to get advice on critical aspects of the startup journey, such as building in public or choosing stealth mode. These events enable founders to rapidly develop ideas without the constraints of a corporate mindset, breeding innovation.
But, what are some of the best hackathon events to develop a startup idea? Below is a list of top hackathons that happen virtually and in person in many cities across the world.
HackZurich is Europe’s largest and most well-known hackathon. By 2020, they implemented a hybrid setup (the first of its kind in the hackathon world), allowing people to join HackZurich remotely.
Participants are selected from a global pool of 5,500+ applicants that come from over 85 countries worldwide. In the hackathon, participants form teams of 2-4 people and develop innovative web, mobile, and hardware applications in 40 hours. International companies and organizations provide members with the necessary tools and technology to spark the creation of new prototypes.
AngelHack organizes hackathons around the world, creating a setting that sparks innovative ideas and turns them into action. Over the years, they have organized over 550 hackathons in 400+ cities worldwide.
Indeed, AngelHack focuses on being a partner for companies or organizations that want to organize a hackathon to find new talent or accelerate innovation. However, you can subscribe to AngelHack to receive notifications on upcoming hackathons near you. They also have a 12-week pre-accelerator program called HACKcelerator.
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Techstars organizes this well-known hackathon that was mentioned in many of the successful startups we covered earlier. Indeed, Startup Weekend is a three-day program that happens in hundreds of cities around the world. Since its inception, Startup Weekend was organized in 150+ countries, with a total of over 428,000 participants.
The event is a fantastic way to experience the startup life, validate a product idea, and fuel execution with innovation. Additionally, Startup Weekend allows you to connect with like-minded people and meet mentors, co-founders, and even investors.
TechCrunch focuses on discovering and launching early-stage startups. The Disrupt hackathon has a story of creating many future unicorns and allowing big exits. By participating in the hackathon, you will be able to meet other founders, get inspiration, and build your team to create a successful startup.
Additionally, the event features many well-known speakers from top companies around the world. On the other hand, TechCrunch Disrupt includes a startup competition, called The Startup Battlefield 200. From this competition, 20 finalists receive advice, coaching, and the chance to pitch a panel of top-tier investors on the Disrupt stage. Participation is free for all pre-Series A startups, and there is a $100,000 cash prize involved.
Now that you’ve explored some success stories and know what are the best startup hackathon events, the next thing to do is to find a viable idea and bring it to reality. Here you have 15 tech startup ideas to get you inspired!