Hackathons are one of my passions. They remind me of my student days when I was pulling all nighters with my friends to finish up coding a project on time. Except you don’t struggle for a grade, you’re hacking for pleasure. And if you get a prize it’s icing on the cake.

Don’t be mistaken. If attending a hackathon is good fun, making it through the whole 24 hours is no cake-walk.

But relax. I’m gonna share with you the PAYMILL Hackers’ tricks to survive your first hackathon.

Ok! But what is a hackathon?

Imagine a room where dozens to hundreds of geeks hack crazy stuff within a 24 hours span. In the end a jury chooses the best hack and the winning team gets a prize. Details can vary but that’s the essence of the hackathon.

Anything is possible. Hardware, software. It’s quite normal to see quad-copters flying during such an event.

Before a hackathon

A hackathon is an amazing experience. But getting the most out of it requires a lot of preparation.

First you will need to retire in the mountains for several weeks … Well ok. maybe not so much preparation.

Define your goals

Not everybody goes to a hackathon to win. Some would like to realize an idea with the help of other hackers. Some hope to learn new skills working on others projects. And some simply like this kind of events.

It’s very important that you identify your expected outcomes before the event. Winning with the next big idea doesn’t require the same level of investment than just having fun.

Find an idea

Even if you end up in a team working on someone else’s project you should always come with a couple of ideas. It could interest some people and you would then get a chance to make it come true. There are few things more rewarding than bringing your own thoughts to life.

Get a good night of sleep

Nobody will force you to stay overnight. But not only your chance of having a finished product in the end would be lower, you would also miss a lot of the fun. Attending a hackathon is also sharing these 24 hours with your fellow hackers.

It’s clear that if you had a party until 6AM the previous night chances are you’ll be out of business by 11PM.

If you want to enjoy your event give yourself a good night of sleep before.

Learn you some technical skills

Most of you are developers or makers already. But we often see beginners in hackathons.

I saw most of them struggling overnight to write their first few lines of JavaScript.

I really encourage newcomers to attend hackathons. But they are not a good place to learn the basics.

In this case I would highly recommend that you buy a book or take online courses. JavaScript is a good candidate. It is now a multi-purpose language, from web apps to robotics.

Here are some places online that teach you how to code:

No need to be an expert. Just have enough understanding of how programming works.

During a hackathon

The day has come and you’re ready to jump on your laptop. I understand your enthusiasm but there are a few more things you need to know.

techcrunch hackathon 2013

Build your team

If you’re really confident in the value of your idea you will want to build your own team.

Have your elevator pitch ready to convince hackers to join you. Clearly state the skills you need. You would lose all credibility if you were just looking for people without knowing why.

You can also join another team. Chose a project that appeals you but also pay attention to the team members.

Take some time to chat with them. You’ll have to spend the week-end with them and maybe more if by chance your hack turns into a real startup.

Minimum features set aka MVP

The time when one had to carve cards to build a software is over. Modern language and frameworks allow rapid applications development, devices like Raspberry PI or Arduino make hardware prototyping easy.

Still you will not be able to build a full featured product over a weekend. So define what is your MVP (Minimum Viable Product) first. And guess what. Even an MVP will be too much work. Isolate the most representative feature and go for a prototype of it.

Leave aside all the complicated stuff that makes sense only in a live application. You don’t need a polished user authentication system or a highly scalable infrastructure to demonstrate your point.

Your goal is to build an exciting prototype.

Use third-party services

You really don’t want to take care of anything that is not part of your core product. You should never handle hosting, e-mailing, payments etc … yourself.

  • Hosting? Go for a PaaS like Heroku.
  • Have e-mails to send? Mailjet, Mandrill, SendGrid … just pick up one.
  • SMS? Voice calls? Twilio is a classic in hackathons.
  • Need to quickly accept credit card payments? I guess you already know the answer.

There is no value in building these parts yourself. You are creating something that doesn’t exist yet. That’s where your efforts should go. Most of the providers will offer a free tier which is more than enough to prototype. You have no excuse.

Perfect is great. Working is better

We all love building perfect products! If you’re like me you hate delivering an app that’s not pixel perfect.

However time is running out quickly at a hackathon.

Try to reach perfection and you will end up with half a prototype doing nothing. No matter if your design is just ok or if there are a few bugs. Your goal is to end up with something that actually works.

Eat and drink

Your brain will be working at full pace. It will consume a lot of energy.

Take some time to eat properly. Hackathons organisers usually provide the contestants with food and drinks.

Also drink a lot. Dehydration doesn’t help thinking. Avoid sodas and energy drinks as much as possible. You can have some but they should not be your main source of liquid.


Except the few times you’ll be “in the zone” you’ll need to take breaks regularly.

A study showed that altering highly focused work sessions with short pauses helps a lot with creativity and productivity.

Use a technique like Pomodoro and stick to it. When you feel your head falling on your keyboard, don’t try to push too hard and allow yourself to take a nap. A few 20 minutes naps during the coding session can really be beneficial.

You won’t do anything good being half asleep.


You’ll be working with hackers from different backgrounds. Don’t isolate yourself in your comfort zone.

Ask questions, give advice, talk with your team, work on new technologies.

Exchanging is the best way to learn new skills and get things done efficiently. Don’t miss this opportunity.

Have fun

Because it is all about fun. If you put yourself under stress to win the contest at any price I bet you’re not at the right event.

As I said winning is a bonus. Enjoying your hackathon and learning stuff will be a thousand time more beneficial than being first under stress.

Do yourself a favour and relax!

After a hackathon

What now? It depends.

Maybe you will continue your hack and turn it into a real startup. Or you will do something else with your team. Or just go back to normal life.

Whatever happens you’ll have gained experience. Take some time to analyse your weekend. What you did great. What you did not.

And when you’re done, prepare for the next one.

Now do it!

I shared with you a few tricks based on my own experience.

If you want to give them a try, join PAYMILL at TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in London this weekend. We look forward to meeting you there.

And you? What are your best tips for surviving a hackathon?



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Yann Irbah

Yann is in charge of developers relations and API evangelism at PAYMILL. Before joining the company he was a freelance web developer and took part in the creation of many startups.