4 things I learned from participating in (and winning!) a hackathon

by Tatiana Solodko, Business Development, Amadeus Scandinavia

We at Amadeus have been looking at various opportunities to organise a travel hackathon in Stockholm for quite some time. We believe there is a lot of untapped potential in travel tech and we wanted to draw the attention of the startup community to it. So we agreed with Startup Weekend to organise an event in May. Come and join us! I can totally recommend it.

Never been to a hackathon and think it is not for you? Neither had I – but I decided to throw myself into it a few weeks ago. And my team ended up winning, too! Here is what I learned.

To be able to support our event in May in the best way, I decided to participate in the Fintech hackathon organized by Startup Weekend in the end of January. I will be honest with you, the perspective of spending 54 hours “hacking” was a bit scary for me, but I signed up for it anyway. And I loved every single moment of it! It completely exceeded my expectations.  I learned so much, got to work with a super cool team and in the end we even won the whole thing!

So – what are my main take-aways? 

1. Always, always, always support an idea when it is just born

I came to the hackathon with no idea in mind and hoped to join somebody else’s team. When I noticed there are not enough ideas presented during the kick off, I tried to think of any money related problem I have and I pitched one. Several people liked it and we formed a team. Boom!

My teammate told me later that I was lucky I didn’t have time to think about my idea, because I would probably have talked myself out of it thinking it was not good enough...which is true!

However, everybody at the hackathon - mentors, organizers, judges and other participants - were very supportive and all provided great tips on how to develop our idea further. We heard a lot of  “Yes, AND…” instead of “Yes, BUT…”. And honestly, it was the main reason why we kept pushing. Saturday evening we were so tired that we were ready to kill our idea ourselves, but we stayed up until 07:00 am developing the prototype.

I think we all need to be aware of the fact that the "Yes, BUT…." is our default in most cases. Criticism might sometimes make you look smarter than the other person, for instance. However, in case of new-born ideas, it is like telling an infant baby that she sucks because she can’t walk and talk yet. So hold your criticism in the beginning. Instead, encourage and help develop it further. 


2. Chaordic (chaos + order) is the way of working for innovation

“Chaordic” is a new term I learned during the hackathon. Apparently, innovation happens most on a border of chaos and order, and that is exactly how we worked in our group - switching roles and tasks all the time. One would start to work on creating a paper prototype for our app, then another would pick it up, while the first one would be doing something else and so on. We also constantly switched “leader” roles, depending on who had the best idea of what to do next. What helped us to navigate through this chaos was to constantly keep a list of our top priorities for the moment, having a good atmosphere in the team with a productive level of conflict, and being open to switch roles, tasks and ideas. It was probably the best team work I’ve ever experienced - except for improvisation theatre. 


3.  The importance of collecting customer feedback early and easy prototyping

One important advice we got from mentors is that investors are primarily looking for a problem worth solving and a solution that customers would love. In such a short time frame as we had, it was much more important to validate the problem as soon as possible, get very early customer feedback and then adjust our idea and solution accordingly, than to write code. Luckily, modern technology allows you to do that very quickly. Let me introduce you to Facebook, phone, paper prototyping as well as stalking people in the shopping mall ;-)

First, we asked people general questions about relationships and money, as our idea was around that issue. Then we created a very simple paper prototype using Marvel app and tested it with friends, hackathon participants and people on the street. Finally, we created a beautiful prototype that looks like a real app with the help of Marvel and Adobe.

This is how just within the first 24 hours we moved from a vague idea to a prototype that looked like a real app, as well as got a list of people who wanted to use it once it would be available. 


4. Creative and positive energy are fuel for innovation

Finally, I was really impressed how organizers kicked off the event with several creativity and energy boosting games. They also helped participants to get to know each other in an entertaining format before forming our teams. It set a great tone for the whole event!

I think we so often forget about the importance of our mental state, when we try to accomplish tasks that require creative thinking... You can’t ask people to "think outside the box" and be creative, if they have just spent two hours working in Excel, or they sit in the same conference room year after year. Creativity and innovation need play time, new inputs, but most importantly you need to plan and prepare for it.

I would say that participating in the hackathon was one of the most exciting experiences I have had in the past year. Definitely something to remember! So, if you are curious about it, want to start your own business or would like to understand how to make your company more innovative, I highly recommend you to join such an event. And why not Startup Weekend: Travel Edition?