For founders of early stage startups, the only hackathon you might be considering participating in is one ran by another organisation. But as your startup grows and you begin to hire more staff, it might be worth considering an internal hackathon.
In short, an internal hackathon is where a company’s employees form teams and participate in a hackathon that’s run within the business, usually with the intention of solving a particular problem or developing a certain solution for the business.
The winning teams often go on to develop the solution into a feature or program for the company. Hundreds of businesses, large and small, use internal hackathons to kickstart creativity in their workplaces; Facebook has been running them since 2007.
“Every couple of months, a few hundred of our engineers unleash their talents in epic, all-night coding sessions and often end up with products that hit the internal and external versions of the site within weeks. These are Facebook hackathons,” Facebook employee Pedram Kayani once explained in a post explaining the social media giant’s hackathons, from which the concept of the “Like” button spawned.
Internal hackathons can not only give your startup with fresh new products or features; they also do wonders for staff morale and company culture. As Kayani explained: “the camaraderie, productivity, and occasional insanity of hackathons have helped make Facebook what it is”.
So where do you start?
Kris Larsen, head of business innovation at financial services and consulting firm KPMG told StartupSmart the Australian arm of the “big four” got serious about running an internal hackathon last year, and successfully completed its first in May.
“We’d ran similar things to hackathons over the years, and we had made a commitment to innovation and doing things in the digital space, which hackathons lend themselves nicely to,” Larsen said.
When pitching the idea to his senior executives, Larsen expected some may be skeptical about the process, but he found KPMG’s leadership was “very positive and very interested” about kicking off internal hackathons.
“Not everyone knew what they were, but after I talked them through it they could see the benefits,” he says.
The team gave themselves plenty of time to prepare for the hackathon and set a goal of getting 50 employees participating in the initial stage; “we didn’t want to overstretch ourselves”, explains Larsen.
Developing a clear objective for the hackathon was also important and Larsen recommends companies make a hackathon objective it as narrow as they can.
“You want to think carefully through your objective and why you’re doing it, and it’s great to get any leadership input you can get when it comes to that. If everyone in the company has input into the outcomes from the beginnings they will be more oriented around the end result,” he says.
“We had a narrower focus on improving our client’s experience through the use of digital.”
The company ended up having 65 participants in its first ever hackathon, and while Larsen says the idea was not to invest in every idea put forward, KPMG currently has two of the concepts from the hackathon “in the pipeline” and another two in “various stages of investment”.
“People might think you do a hackathon and then it’s finished, but really the program runs from anywhere to six months afterwards,” Larsen says.
“We’re doing another on in our Sydney office in October. It’s mind boggling to see what people can put together in such a short period of time.”
Larsen speaks highly of KPMG’s experience with internal hackathons, labelling it an “extremely flexible” format that can be applied to a number of different businesses in a number of different ways. He believes there’s “lots of potential” for businesses of all shapes and sizes to adopt the practice, but recommends getting a bit of inside advice first.
“People working in innovation are quite open, so if you’re thinking of doing one, find someone who’s done one and buy them a coffee,” he says.
“Additionally, be clear on your objectives for both participants and leadership.”
This is part of a 12-part series into hackathons SmartCompany is publishing in association with GovHack.