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How To Win A Hackathon (iOSDevCamp 2012)

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Foodspotting, the leading app for rating dishes at restaurants, made its first public debut at iPhoneDevCamp 2009 when Alexa Andrzejewski pitched the idea in search of co-founders and won Best Social App. This year, Alexa returned and led her team, including Foodspotting’s own IOS developers, to win “Best Open Source,” a top honor at iOSDevCamp 2012, for FilterKit. She shares her experience & tips for making the most of hackathons, especially as a non-developer, below.

By Alexa Andrzejewski (Co-Founder & CEO, Foodspotting)

My quest to find a technical co-founder for Foodspotting in 2009 led me to hackathons including iPhoneDevCamp and Women 2.0 Startup Weekend.

The experience of having to pitch an idea in 30 seconds, get a team excited about it and sell the idea to judges and investors helped me hone in on the most important skill a founder can have: Telling great stories that capture the imagination.

As a non-technical participant in iOSDevCamp, here’s how I put my strengths to use this year.

PRIOR TO FRIDAY – KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

I anticipated that iOSDevCamp, like all the hackathons I’ve been to, would begin with pitch night. Everyone with an idea would be invited to line up and, in rapid fire format, pitch their idea in 30 seconds or less in hopes of attracting a team to work on the idea.

At first, I considered pitching a Foodspotting-related project, but then thought better of it because I figured people would see it as self-serving. But then I came up with an alternate idea that would not only benefit Foodspotting but the entire developer community – FilterKit, an open source framework for adding photos filters to any app. I had a feeling this would resonate with the developer audience and decided to give it a try on pitch night.

FRIDAY – COME PREPARED TO PITCH

I spent the 1.5 hour drive down to the South Bay crafting my bullet points to make sure I covered all of the essential parts of a pitch:

  • NAME & CREDENTIALS: I’m Alexa Andrzejewski, the founder of Foodspotting, which debuted at iPhoneDevCamp 2009.
  • THE PROBLEM: Today, one of our users’ top requests is photo filters. Thanks to Instagram, everyone wants photo filters – but it seems silly that so many talented developers are recreating tilt shift and lomo fi and wasting so much energy recreating Instagram.
  • THE SOLUTION: So I’m looking for developers and designers with experience creating filters or who want to learn to create an OPEN SOURCE FILTER LIBRARY to solve this once and for all.
  • WHY IT’S BETTER: I know there are frameworks out there for programming filters, but I see this as a complete package: You can drop it into your app, and you get the UI, basic filters and more filters from an online gallery.
  • HOW TO FIND ME: If you want to join my team, find me by the food!

The 30 second pitch was met with many cheers – validating my hypothesis that this pain point would resonate with the developer crowd (and also reminding me what a supportive and awesome community iOSDevCamp is).

The enthusiasm was even enough to persuade Foodspotting’s iOS developers – Matt and Mohammed – who I told were in no way obligated to join MY team, to join me, saying, “I wasn’t really interested before, but now I actually WANT to join your team.” How’s that for a vote of confidence?

FRIDAY – FIND A TEAM

Immediately following the pitches, it was time to find a few more good people for our team. Although I asked people to “find me by the food,” I realized it wouldn’t be easy to pick me out from the crowd.

I took a cue from another attendee and made a big sign using Dom Sagolla’s Big Words app on our iPad that said “Filters, anyone?” Suddenly, many more people were coming up to me and that’s how we found our other two team members, Scott and Justin. The sign gave people a much needed excuse to talk to me. (Wearing an outrageous outfit or mask could work too.)

FRIDAY – WRITE YOUR STORY

While many teams jump right in and start hacking, on Friday night, one of our team members suggested we start by planning the end result then working our way backwards.

We asked ourselves – “What do we want to present on Sunday?” and began crafting our slides. (I actually recommend doing this for any product or project – for example, when you’re kicking off a new feature, write the blog post or TechCrunch article you’d like to see when the feature is complete. Doing so can both help you refine the idea and build towards it by giving you a “star to sail your ship by,” as Jesse James Garrett always said.)

On scraps of paper (I wished I’d brought more paper!), we mapped out our 5 slide story and figured out how we wanted to illustrate this story and prove the concept through code before heading home for the night.

SATURDAY & SUNDAY – ILLUSTRATE YOUR STORY

Saturday and Sunday are the biggest days for the hackers on the team – they have less than 24 hours to build something viable. The important thing here is not to focus on building an entire app, website or service in 24 hours.

It’s about figuring out exactly which pieces you need to illustrate your story, then focusing on making those pieces awesome. We figured out what those pieces were, then divided and conquered: Matt focused on the developer toolkit, Mohammed focused on the filter picker UI demo, Scott focused on the filter builder demo and Justin and I focused on designing the photo filters themselves.

SUNDAY – SHARE YOUR STORY

I began crafting our final slides as early as Saturday, leaving placeholders for screenshots and demos so that we could drop them in right at 2pm before we presented, maximizing development time. Many teams save the slides for the last minute, if they create slides at all.

Fortunately, back in 2009, iOSDevCamp veteran @EricO advised me back in 2009 to focus on the deck first. And ever since, I’ve realized that being able to tell a great story that resonates with your audience is as important as being able to create a mind blowing demo. I’m not a developer. I’m a storyteller. But I’ve learned that being a great storyteller is the most important thing that a leader or founder can do!

You can find our final landing page and presentation here.

And here’s the video of our final pitch (jump to 27:30).

For more on spreading ideas that stick…

Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Alexa Andrzejewski is Co-Founder and CEO of Foodspotting, a website and mobile app for finding and rating dishes, not just restaurants. Alexa and Foodspotting have been featured on The Today Show, Inc Magazine’s “30 Under 30” and Gourmet Live’s “50 Women Game-Changers.” Before launching Foodspotting in January 2010, Alexa was a User Experience Designer for Adaptive Path, advising on strategy, research and design. Follow her on Twitter at @ladylexy.