Breaking stuff at the Big Brand Hackathon

Another weekend, another hackathon in San Francisco.  I enjoy hackathons.  You see teams go from nothing to demo in two days.  You see hackers at their most creative.  You usually see the usual suspects on the developer-focused PaaS or backend API businesses (Urban Airship, Twilio, Retailigence, and others), which provides great intel on what’s going on in the developer market, a good leading indicator in the space.  And increasingly, you’re seeing high school and junior high kids showing up and getting projects done along with the grown ups.

I’m always amazed at what a little beer, pizza or tacos, some schwag, and a few thousand dollars in prizes can do in terms of fueling hackers getting together and getting stuff built.  It’s not the money, of course, that gets hackers together for hackathons, it’s more about just having the opportunity to build stuff quickly.

This weekend, the Big Brand Hackathon was held at Madrone Studios in San Francisco.  What was new and different about this hackathon relative to others I’ve attended is that you had Big Brands (makes sense huh?) Kraft and Home Depot engaging and participating.  Kraft and Home Depot both provided briefs to the hackers on what business problems they were trying to solve for over the weekend.  Examples of business problems included:

  • How can Kraft drive more brand engagement with Ritz Crackers?
  • How does Toblerone become more of an everyday product in the minds of users?
  • Drive more user acquisition of Home Depot’s Garden Club.

With these briefs and some incentives from the brands, and with participation from the API companies,, Mashery, OpenShift, Telenav, etc., the developers got hacking.

2 days later, there were over 40 demos that got shown off.  To my mind, about a dozen of those projects were basically ready to get picked up by the brands, polished a bit and released to users.

This was eye opening, to me and the brands.  The brands, I think, left the Hackathon wondering why they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with agencies to wait for months for stuff to roll out in an orderly fashion to users.  The hackathon model turned this on its head.  Instead, brands could basically post prizes of a few thousand bucks and have hackers just go to town.  There will be some garbage that gets out to users, but the net is that the brands will get better connected with users, and they’ll figure out how to distribute this stuff consistently and on message.

It’s very interesting: Facebook in a sense pioneered the hackathon and the “don’t be afraid to break stuff,” ethos.  Its apparent to me, from this weekend, that this ethos is going to start bleeding beyond Silicon Valley high fliers and big brands are going to evolve.


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