Hackathons are a a great learning experience – and a great bonding experience – and I’d encourage every founder to attend one. Don’t worry if you’re a non-technical founder; more than half the attendees at the fashion hackathon were as well.

By Carrie Mantha (Founder & CEO, Indira)

This past month, my co-founder and I participated in our first hackathon. I’d been intrigued by these events in the past but too intimidated to try them out until one came along that seemed to be made for me: The Decoded Fashion Hackathon presented by CFDA and Condé Nast.

The intersection of fashion and technology is my passion: our startup is focused on mass customization of luxury goods through advanced visual rendering and responsive manufacturing, and you can get my attention immediately with any discussion on virtual shopping experiences, improved fit technologies, or the next generation of digital commerce.

So last Saturday I headed to the fashion hackathon with a lot of excitement and just a touch of what-am-I-getting-myself-into jitters. After a panel of fashion luminaries (including Rachel Roy, the head of PR for Donna Karan, and the Digital & Social Media Director for Michael Kors) gave insights into the industry’s biggest challenges, 300 hackers formed organically into teams, and frantic ideation began!

Twenty-four hours and a lot of coffee later, my co-founder, myself and a fantastic back end developer we met at theevent had built Avant Garde: a personalized digital merchandising platform that optimizes email marketing and e-commerce product recommendation for brands and retailers using real-time, advanced visual analysis of customers’ social media feeds.

It turns out my initial jitters were entirely unwarranted. We met incredible people, built something really interesting, had a TON of fun, and in the end were named one of the five finalists to present our hack at New York Fashion Week!

I couldn’t be more excited, thankful, or proud of our team. But I’m kicking myself just a little for being scared away from hackathons in the past. They’re a great learning experience – and a great bonding experience – and I’d encourage every founder to attend one. Don’t worry if you’re a non-technical founder; more than half the attendees at the fashion hackathon were as well.

If you’re still nervous – or you want to make sure you rock your first hackathon – here are five lessons I learned that will serve you well regardless of what type of hackathon you decide to try:

#1 – Know Your Audience

The Decoded Fashion hackathon was sponsored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and the judges expected hacks to focus on their mission of promoting American designers. They didn’t respond well to apps focused on thrift stores, styling suggestions, or closet sharing (even though they were pretty cool!). The consumer-facing apps that made the finals wisely made a point of explaining how they helped designers during their demo. Follow their lead, and make it easy for the judges to see how you solve their problems.

#2 – Listen to the crowds (then run away from them)

In the first cut, 78 team submissions were narrowed to 30 semi-finalists who would get to demo. I saw at least three teams get cut before they could demo because they all worked on similar projects and had a hard time rising above the noise. You can get a good sense for what the most popular ideas are just by chatting with other participants. Give yourself a chance to shine and work on something less popular.

#3 – Ask for feedback early and often

The mentors at a hackathon are an INCREDIBLE resource. Engage them early, and they’ll find flaws in your concept before you waste hours of work. When my team ran our initial idea past an industry mentor, we got a lukewarm reception but also a suggestion for something along the same lines that she’d “love” to see. We knew we could use a similar approach on the tech side, and voila! We had a winning idea on our hands!

#4 – Be nice (karma has a short development cycle)

Compressed time and competitive spirits can make it tempting to focus on your team and no one else. Fortunately for us, my co-founder put his fatigue aside and piped up when he heard the team next to us struggling to understand the (admittedly weird) apparel manufacturing process. The time we spent with them was quickly rewarded when our laptop wouldn’t connect to the WiFi right before our demo (#fail!). Our new friends ran over with their MacBook and saved the day! You never know when you’ll need a little help, and sharing your talents and expertise when you can is always the best insurance plan.

#5 – Keep your eye on the prize

Remember what you came to the hackathon for (hint: it probably wasn’t the shiny trophy or bragging rights among people you’ve never met before).

Stretch your brain a little, listen to the creative ideas and interesting approaches coming out of people around you, and enjoy the rare pleasure of a whole team of smart, dedicated people focused on creating one thing. You’ll be more likely to build something exciting, and your enthusiasm for the process will show through for the judges. More importantly, you’ll be guaranteed to take home something personally meaningful and rewarding!

Photo credit: Patrick on Flickr.

Women 2.0 readers: What have you learned from attending a hackathon?

About the guest blogger: Carrie Mantha is the founder and CEO of Indira, a fashion-tech startup that delivers couture-quality customized bridesmaid dresses, accessories, gifts, and wedding décor via an interactive online atelier. She has a passion for making things bigger, better, faster, and prettier. A former Miss Florida USA, physician, and investment professional, she was responsible for over 500 million dollars in biotechnology investments and is a die-hard Florida Gator. Follow her on Twitter at @CarrieMantha.