Hackathons are awesome. The rush to get a minimum viable product(MVP) working in the given time, creating a full fledged product from scratch - is amazing and involves lot of learning and fun.
I have won some hackathons and judged some others. If you are looking to participate in a hackathon, I hope some of these might be useful for you! 🙂
Research. Research lots and lots. On the hackathon organisers, on the background of the theme, on your product idea, on any APIs you will be using, everything.
Hackathon organisers: Most college and community driven hackathons often have open themes, allowing you to code up anything you want. On the other hand, most hackathons organized by companies, often have themes that relate to their product(s) or vision. In such hackathons, choose to build a product that is likely to mean something to those organising the hackathon. If it a fintech hackathon, focus on a product that envisions to revamp the world of fintech. If the organisers are into e-commerce, an app that is related to e-commerce in some way is always better than one that is not. Choose the theme accordingly.
Theme: Hackathons usually have one or more themes. Sometimes, a theme may not be very familiar. Don't just skip it, read up on it. It might just be something you like. Sometimes, even when we think we know all about the theme, it is good to still read up on it to catch up on the latest news and market trends.
In a hackathon where my product was based on the blockchain technology, nearly 80% of my efforts were on reading up about blockchain, how it works etc. I spent days on it. It's perfectly fine. Researching and knowing what is out there, is very important.
Product idea: Very important! Hackathons are a lot about ideas. It is about the implementation and the end product as well, but it is a lot about the idea, and how you pitch it. (Coming to the pitch in a minute.) Always strive to implement an original, new and innovative hack. I would go on to say that one of the primary purposes of a hackathon itself, is to discover new ideas. An idea that has not really been tried before would be most ideal.
APIs: If there are open APIs available for what you want to do, always consider using them over a stub API of your own. The closer your app is to the real world, the better.
Tech for the hack: If you have enough time to learn a new technology/language and use it for your product, and you feel that language/framework would be more suited than others, go for it. Otherwise, it is probably best to stick to what you are most comfortable with when faced with a time constraint.
Pitch: Most hackathons require you to make a pitch, or a presentation to the judges. This is very very important. Do not underestimate the importance of having a good pitch. Having a good pitch is nearly as important as having a good product. You can have a great product but if you are not able to convince the judges, it is a moo point. 😛
Try to always begin your pitch with something like a short story. Let me elaborate. Do not directly delve into the amazing features of your product. Not even the motivation behind the product. Open by saying something that helps the audience relate to the product. Put them in a scenario. Bring characters to life.
In one of the hackathons I participated, a participant had an amazing idea that would allow for easy remittances. He began his pitch by saying "Let us have a look at Rahul's life. Rahul is working hard abroad to support his family back in India. For an emergency, he needs to send money back home urgently." and so on. He then mapped this scenario to how his app can really help remittances and help make a difference.
I made my pitch by asking people to think of the 'connection' they share with their loved ones. That a connection is important to maintain any relationship, even one between a bank and a client. And then proceeded to demo my product related to fintech, that focused largely on having good customer loyalty and relationship.
When you begin with a story, you have the attention of every single person in the audience. Why? Because they can relate to it. Because they can now clearly see the reason and need behind the product you are pitching and want to see how it helps. All said and done, the catch: Do not make it too long. Anywhere between 45-60 seconds on the 'story' part of the pitch is good. More than that, not so much. The audience will lose interest, plus you are losing out on time to do your actual demo.
Also, be wary about the time limit for the presentation, make sure you are able to comfortably cover all points and demo in the stipulated time; be sure to plan well. Most hackathons are stringent about presentation and Q/A time limits, and rightly so.
The presentation must overall definitely touch upon motivation, target audience, the technology stack and of course a working demo of your product. The demo could even be a video. I find videos a really neat way to showcase your product.
I hope you find this useful. Would love to hear feedback or help you out if you have any questions. 🙂