Flex Your Intellect @NYCSW: 5 Things Agencies Can Learn From Hackathons


Last weekend I attended Startup Weekend NYC—a 2 ½ day hackathon—an open call for entrepreneurs, designers, developers, creative strategists and the biz dev obsessed.


Image representing Startup Weekend as depicted...

Startup Weekend is headquartered in Seattle has been around for 4+ years and is found in over 200 cities around the world. From Mongolia to South Africa to London to Brazil, people come together for weekend-long workshops to pitch ideas, form teams, and start companies (if they so choose).

Some history for you: popular startup tech companies such as Zaarly, Foodspotting and LaunchRock all emerged as a result of Startup Weekend.

All Startup Weekend events follow the same model:

  • Day 1: anyone is welcome to pitch their startup idea and receive feedback from his or her peers. Teams organically form around the top ideas (as determined by popular vote)
  • Day 2-3: a 48 hour frenzy of business model creation, coding, designing, and market validation
  • Day 3: The weekends culminate with presentations in front of local entrepreneurial leaders/judges, with another opportunity for critical feedback

Disclaimer: I’ve decided NOT to recap the entire weekend but rather to explain my POV on how the marketing & advertising industry can learn from hackathons.

Why would I attend a hackathon?

If you are in a creative field of any sort—stagnation is the wooorst feeling. Seriously—it’s worse than being stressed on deadline. Sometimes you need a jolt of inspiration; sometimes you just need to challenge yourself to “get out of the office” and experience how things are done elsewhere in an active and immersive learning environment – and expose yourself to different people, ideas, APIs and technology that really help rewire your brain to work smarter.

Sometimes curiosity and creativity calls. Sometimes I spend my weekends shopping, BBQing, painting a wall in my apartment, writing, chillin’ at music festivals, cooking up an amazing summer menu of freshness, relaxing at the beach—and sometimes, well…I just need to flex my intellect a little.

Hackathon’s do that for me. I feel invigorated walking into them, and inspired when all is said and done. It’s a similar feeling to the one I experienced after having completing my 1st triathlon—but with less muscle aches. That’s my story, anyway.

And… this isn’t my first rodeo, either.

I love business/creative ideation. Unfortunately, this weekend my own time constrains/previous commitments didn’t allow for me to participate on a team, so I opted to maximize my limited time and exposure, to the best of my ability: I met other creative strategists/creative technologists; saw what they were building; learned from their approaches; and listened to their final pitches and the judges’ feedback. Their creativity was inspiring. Their energy was contagious. Their approach was addictive. Instahook for me.

Adam & Vish my wknd buddies. Smart dudes @nycsw @adamsherbell

Adam & Vish my wknd buddies. Smart dudes
@nycsw @adamsherbell

There are many parallels to weekend hackathons and my job at an ad agency; we are consistently asked to uncover opportunities and create insights-driven strategies and ideas to push our client’s business forward.

Traditionally, this has been an extremely tedious process that takes place over the course of weeks, sometimes months. And by the time you’ve packaged your idea with a bow, you’ve drank so much of your own Kool-Aid (diluted of course) and all the chefs in the kitchen have completely butchered your recipe for success. You don’t even remember where you started or what you were trying to accomplish.

What I’ve learned: this is not the fault of people—it’s the process. How we’ve accomplished things in the past are no longer applicable to today’s business environment. It’s really the time factor that sometimes leads to the demise of great strategies & ideas.

Bringing value back to the agency conference room

I enjoy the rapid-fire environment that hackathons provide. Because of the time constraints (usually 48 hours) you have to get smarter faster, validate the customer need and build something (a product, technology, service) that solves a problem for them, can scale and be monetized overtime or planned for an early exit/acquisition.

Gone are the days of massaging an idea to death before it launches. Solid product development involves building an MVP (a minimally viable product)— that something may not be perfect—BUT holds the core offering, features and functions needed for market entrance.

Subscribing to rapid ideation environments based on the Lean Startup Principles force teams to FOCUS ON THE CUSTOMER NEEED, go with their instincts, validate and just get something out there. The success of startup companies/products is largely based on an initial release of something that can grow, scale and refine over time with customer input.

5 things agencies can learn from hackathons:

  1. Work in small teams of core disciplines
  2. Start with solving 1 customer problem/need
  3. Follow the lean startup approach to ideating
  4. Validate through customer research (that does not mean months of traditional qualitative research)
  5. Build. Test. Launch. Measure. Refine. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

I bring these business validation and ideation strategies into my agency everyday—I believe it allows us to focus on the customer, makes us better marketers and allows us to do things for people vs. just saying things to them. It’s definitely a shift in how we’ve done business in the past—but has proven to help us be smarter… faster—a mandated approach for those of us who live on the corner of chaos, at the intersection of marketing and technology.

This post originally appeared on Digilicious.

Editor’s note: Jess was one of the winner’s of our Startup Weekend NYC giveaway and received a complimentary ticket to attend the event.  As a part of the giveaway, she was NOT required to produce this piece.

For full coverage of tech events in New York, visit The Watch.

About the author: Jess Seilheimer

Jess Seilheimer is the Chief Strategy Officer at MWW. She has 14+ years experience in advertising/marketing across brand strategy, product marketing; both in traditional & digital media.

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