I sort of hate to say it: it’s not your food, it’s not your numbers, it’s not that awesome photo booth you ordered or that 3 AM snowball fight you organized. The most important part of your hackathon is probably your sponsors.

And not just how much they’re paying—although that matters, too—but who’s payingWho are you inviting to your hackathon? Who’s getting access to your mailing list? Remember:

You are selling me. I am your product.

As the overwrought adage goes, “If you’re not paying, you are the product.” As a hacker, I am the product, and you’re selling me, as a potential hire, to the sponsors. It’s your job, then, to make sure that I’m glad I’m the product.

Are you selling me to the companies that I want to be sold to? Am I going to get an awesome internship out of this, or just a bunch of spam from a crappy company that I don’t care about? Think hard about this before accepting a sponsor “just because they pay.”

While we’re at it: Are you selling me well? Do I get an opportunity to show off to recruiters and dev evangelists? Or will I get cut from the final demos? Will I have to battle 600 other hackers in order for my hack to be seen by anyone?

If I’m not happy about being the product, I’m not going to be happy about being at your hackathon.

Your sponsors (usually) determine your mentors.

There are exceptions—hackNY, for instance, doesn’t link its sponsorship to its mentors—but for the most part, sponsors are the only companies who get to send mentors (engineers or dev evangelists) to the hackathon.

Who will your sponsors send in? Who will be helping hackers at 3 AM? (Will anyone be helping hackers at 3 AM?) Will they give entertaining API demos and helpful tech talks? Or will we all be clawing our eyes out after yet another PowerPoint presentation?

Mentors often set the tone of the hackathon. Sponsors choose the mentors.

So what makes a good sponsor? 

In addition to strong mentors, you should be looking for a few things in a sponsor:

  • Interesting APIs. Will hackers want to use their APIs? Or are we going to sit through an API demo that no one’s going to care about? Is the API open, so that we can keep using it after the hackathon? And will it be affordable for a side project? (Example: Twilio’s phone APIs are versatile and applicable to a wide variety of hacks; sometimes they give away free credit for hackers.)
  • Internship opportunities. Is this company hiring? Do they have internship opportunities? Do they have an internship program? (Example: Microsoft has a terrific internship program, but people rarely want to use their APIs at a hackathon.)
  • Good swag. This is, I think, the least important consideration–but nice swag (soft tee shirts, clever stickers, attractive mugs) can be icing on top of a great hackathon. (Example: Github has some of the best swag ever, but they generally don’t take interns and I’ve never seen them send mentors to a hackathon.)

Here’s the bottom line: You choose the sponsors. If you cast your net wide enough, you don’t have to accept every company that wants to sponsor—so you can choose good sponsors, get good mentors, and have happy hackers.

I’m Tess Rinearson, hackathon addict and occasional computer science student. I’ve worked at Microsoft, Valve and a couple of other startups, and in a week I’ll be an engineering intern at Medium. If you liked this post, you might want to follow me on Twitter or post it to Hacker News.



Powered by Facebook Comments