Ready, Set, Hack - The Benefits of Hosting a Hackathon

By Geoff Wilson, 352 Inc.

Staring at a dimly lit screen for hours on end, the sound of silence interrupted by the blaring industrial AC habitually exhaling every eight minutes makes the three o'clock fatigue become all too real. It happens ... work environments can become stagnant and monotonous, quashing creativity and forward thinking. It hurts morale, but ultimately a boring workplace makes it difficult to unleash the inner entrepreneur within your employees.

Every once in a while, even the best of us need to be reminded what brings us to work every day. We need to be energized, excited and empowered. 

Cultivating creativity in employees and preventing burnout ensures the success of our digital agency and our clients. No matter how cool the commissioned projects that come through an agency's door are, providing the opportunity to work on innovative projects that employees select and develop themselves awakens their passions and sharpens their problem solving skills. That's why every year, we host our own hackathon we call the Race to 3:52. Employees generate ideas and each  team takes full entrepreneurial control over projects. We pause all client work, and teams have three days to develop the product and build a marketing plan. Beyond creative ownership of a project, we reward employees with revenue sharing if the project reaches market. 

Big companies like 3M and Google often give creative time to their employees, but smaller companies often struggle to commit to events like a hackathon. These events do require extended hours away from paid client work. To do it right, you have to suspend all company work so that every employee can participate in the process. Disrupting the normal work schedule is daunting, and it's easy for this to cause concern among managers, but overcoming this hurdle is essential. 

Why a Hackathon?

Hackathons originated within the development community, but employees of every job type should be included. Marketers, DevOps, sales people, administrative assistants, etc. - all have roles in daily business, and they can reach beyond those roles in a hackathon. Ideas can come from any employee, and you just may discover the best ideas originate from unlikely sources. Combining the skills of two different types of employees -, like introverted developers and extroverted marketers -, develops new bonds and a deeper chemistry within the office. You can imagine how handy tearing down those silos can be when the office returns to normal work. 

Liberating employees from their routine client  production allows them time to flex their creative ideas; however, the most tangible results of a successful hackathon are the innovative products produced. Many companies have seen their signature products created during hackathons; some actually shift the entire company business model. Supporting employee passions and developing ideas on work time reinvigorates the entrepreneurial spirit within, mimicking the vigor often present in fresh young workers hungry to prove their worth. Age and repetition tend to decay that drive, but the combination of control over the entire process and the internal competition that develops between teams reanimates it. 

Employees also have the opportunity to flip their perspectives, placing them in the client's seat and helping them understand and empathize with the other side of the coin. We saw some fascinating new products with market potential from this hackathon. More importantly, our teams develop deeper levels of business acumen that pay massive dividends when it's time to go back to servicing the needs of clients. 

Incentivizing employees with a final reward for the best projects adds elements of urgency, fun, and friendly competition to the hackathon. Our Race to 3:52 winners are rewarded with further company time to develop their products, a share of all revenue their product produces, and of course, bragging rights. Rewarding hard work and innovation shows employees that their company trusts and believes in their work. Clients also see the value in it, especially when they understand employees come out more mentally rejuvenated and inspired, resulting in more productive client work. 

Winning Culture

Increasing company morale, developing innovative new products, and reigniting employees' entrepreneurial spirits make hosting a hackathon a valuable endeavor for any creative company. Aligning competitive fire with creative initiatives incentivizes employees to produce their best work and reinforces their commitment to your company. Whether you call it a hackathon or something else, consider giving employees time to themselves. Inspiring cooperation, competition and creativity in employees builds a winning culture that yields direct results on client projects. 

Geoff Wilson is the President and Founder of 352 Inc., and an evangelist for his Barely Manage to Lead leadership philosophy. 352 is a digital product development agency specializing in product strategy, user experience design, custom web development and digital marketing. 352 turns ideas into successful digital products for companies like COX Automotive, Microsoft, and YouCaring.