I've always been interested in trying challenges like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where aspiring authors write an entire novel in 30 days. Most participants never share their novels with anyone, but nearly all recommend trying it.
Building websites is similar, because you can prototype a website or app very rapidly. However, unlike writing novels, web development allows you to shift and iterate and eventually turn the website into a polished product. (This is pretty difficult with novels.)
For example, I have been working with a co-founder on a project that we started almost two years ago that still isn't ready to launch, and we were both burnt out on the project. It's a great project, but it's incredibly technical and the going has been slow. Nobody is to blame for this; it's just the nature of the beast. So last December, we decided we would mix things up a bit and in one day create an extremely simple but working website, live, on its own domain. We each picked Black Friday as our “hack day,” and planned things out in advance and then began collecting materials, tools and ideas.
When the big day arrived, we met and worked like crazy, only stopping for food and to stretch. We ran into some unforeseen technical problems, but after the smoke had cleared, we had succeeded in creating a rough website called Gentlemint, a destination for finding and sharing interesting, manly links. For example: you might find an article on how to dry age a steak, bacon-scented candles, interesting artwork, or even a iPhone case worn by Batman.
Gentlemint won't exactly win us a Pulitzer, but it's incredibly fun stuff. The best part about the project—aside from launching an awesome website—was what we learned as a team.
1. Hack Day teaches the valuable skill of shipping
Shipping–as defined by Seth Godin–is defeating resistance and delivering a product, even if the product isn't perfect.
We managed to actually release something in one day; something we hadn't been able to do in almost two years. The event was extremely cathartic, and it did wonders for our morale.
2. Hack Day is incredibly exciting
The event itself was far more exciting than I thought it would be. Planning the project the days before and the actual event were thrilling, making it almost like a game.
3. Hack Day demands a detailed game plan
When time is limited, you don't want to spend precious minutes or even hours figuring out what to do next. It's really helpful to plan out exactly what's going to be done, who's going to do it, and in what order it’s going to be done.
4. Hack Day is fun
Because we were making a site centered on interesting finds for dudes, we did what any manly developers would do: grew out our beards, bought whisky and smoked pipes afterwards to celebrate our achievement. Mixing in fun can go a long way to making an otherwise boring event fun.
5. Hack Day project scope must be miniscule
If you're going to have a project done in one day, you need to scale the scope back to almost nothing, and then some more. For our project, that meant that at the end of the day, we would only have the ability publish and view links on the site, with a bare-bones design. Because unforeseen issues came up—and they always do—we accomplished even less than we thought we would. But we still managed to ship something in a day. Which brings up the next point...
6. Hack Day projects must “go live”
You absolutely have to produce something. This doesn't mean you have to tell the world about it yet. The act of putting something out there in some form—even if only a handful of people see it—is crucial. When our Hack Day was done, we had something that was, in all honestly, pretty terrible. But that's not the important part. The important part was the psychological boost of knowing that it was out there, and it's driven us to improve it daily.
What about other types of businesses?
Many of you reading are probably wondering how a hack day could benefit businesses that don't develop Web applications. Fair question.
Most likely there's a new idea, or some aspect of your business that needs some serious work. A hack day is a perfect opportunity to tackle it. The important thing is that you take a day to make a minimum viable product and release it. So the question for you is this: what can you do to improve your business in a day? What can you build or re-work in a day that will allow your team to feel the success of shipping?
Glen Stansberry writes at LifeDev. He is also the co-founder of Howdy, a way for small business sites to improve site conversions. You can find more of Glen's business insights on Wise Bread, the leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money.