I started Talkdesk® right after college. I was 24-years-old and had just completed my Master’s in Engineering. At that time, my life was much different than it is now; I was working from my parents’ house, trying to find a way to make money to support myself.
One day, I heard of a hackathon set up by a cloud-based messaging company giving away Macbooks to people that built something – a new app or product – using telephony. I knew I had to do it.
I went on to win the competition with an idea for a software platform that would allow businesses to set up call centers in the cloud in as little as 5 minutes, helping agents to answer and make customer service calls from their desktop.
Back in 2011, this idea was as disruptive and new to the industry as the industry was new to me, but some years later, here I am, sharing with you the lessons learned on my journey from hackathon to unicorn.
1. Always do your homework
Be hungry to win from the get-go. A winner’s mindset is to plan and prepare ahead of the hackathon. Do your research, get to know the background behind the hackathon, study the judging panel, the APIs, talk to former participants and go through sample applications and materials from previous editions.
2. Teamwork makes the hackathon work
Taking a hackathon by storm is a team effort. A winning team usually has people from all walks of life: design, frontend and backend development, marketing and sales, etc. When building a team, look for the exact skills you need to bring your idea to life.
If possible, team up with friends with whom you’ve worked on previous hackathons and, if you already have an initial idea, be ready to pitch it to your future teammates and see how it resonates. There must be chemistry and rapport within the team, as it will be easier to come up with innovative ideas if you all get along well – even if you’re under the pressure of creating something in record time.
3. Write a list of 10 ideas
Not all hackathon ideas are great. In my case, I created a list of 10 ideas I thought could win. Only one of them — to create a call center in the browser in five minutes — was the winning ticket. I did it in 10 days and officially entered it into the contest.
If the theme or topic of the hackathon is available beforehand, have a brainstorming session with your team to generate (at least) 10 ideas, write them down and list them according to preference, priority or chances of winning.
4. Narrow it down to one idea and keep it simple
I had no experience in the contact center space, but that turned out to be a huge advantage. I was able to build a product – from scratch – I thought people would love. I knew it had to be simple to use, easy to set up and, at the same time, have all the functionality customers required.
For each idea on your list, always keep in mind your time constraints for execution and the concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Narrow it down to the ideas you can build in as little as the hackathon’s duration and then pick the one which has greater practical use and faster implementation time. Socialize this idea with your team and discuss its key elements to further assign responsibilities.
5. Understand the market and your target customer
A hackathon gives you the freedom to work on whatever project you choose, but it’s crucial to decide on the right market and target customers.
To be the perfect market fit, your product or feature should draw inspiration from a given industry. For my hackathon win, I had to decide if I wanted to be in the unified communications market, the contact center market, or both, and understand more about my final pick. Later, I had to make decisions about my target customer segment, meaning if I was going after small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs), enterprises or both. It took some time, but after a lot of practice and some failure, I nailed the pitch. Then it was simply a matter of doing that again and again, flawlessly.
6. Practice makes perfection: Prepare your pitch
In 2011, I was invited to fly to San Francisco and formally pitch the idea of Talkdesk. At the conference, I was approached by investors who loved the concept and offered me $50,000 to stay in the United States to kick-start the company. It was the opportunity I had been looking for, but it took me a while before I could figure out the right pitch.
A flawless pitch is key for winning a hackathon. Here is what I’ve learned:
- Envision your pitch: Start by envisioning your perfect pitch. Explain what problem you’re trying to solve and how your idea sets you apart from other teams and market players.
- Support the idea: Know your data from the inside out and support every assumption with market insights. This will get you prepared for the Q&A with the judging panel.
- Engage the audience: Remember to make your pitch as engaging as possible — nobody wants to hear you read through your notes for the whole presentation — and interact with the audience every time you can (e.g. “How many of you hate when this happens? Raise your hands.”)
7. Most importantly: Have fun!
People rarely succeed in challenging themselves to build something amazing and innovative if they are not having fun. As you take some hours out of your busy schedule to immerse yourself into ideas — that can make you take a detour into the depths of creativity and imagination — make sure you enjoy your time.
It takes more than just a great idea to win a hackathon. Ultimately, it’s a combination of the right people, the right environment and the right approach that takes home the prize.
With so much happening around us and the unpredictability of it all, I encourage you to come together for the opportunity to participate and create something innovative and meaningful. I assure you it will be worth your while.
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