Hackathons have traditionally been seen strictly as part of the technology sector's subculture. When you step into one, it's like your entering a different world.
But as the world turns increasingly to digital, it's becoming evident that these programming events aren't just for tech companies anymore. Small business owners from any industry can now get involved and find some helpful ways to improve their businesses.
We stopped by the Reinventing Local hackathon this weekend at the General Assembly campus in Manhattan for a look behind-the-scenes at one of these things to see what they have to offer.
So, what is a 'hackathon' anyway?
Hackathons are events where a bunch of programmers get together for an intense period of programming, which can range from a day to a week. There are judges, and the winners typically get some sort of prize.
At the Reinventing Local hackathon, a bunch of companies were there with their APIs (application programming interfaces—it's what the programmers use to help create stuff). Foursquare, Etsy, OPEN Forum, Meetup, NYC.gov, Constant Contact, ordr.in, Yipit and more were all in the house with their platforms.
"It's the epitome of community," explained Josh Scherman of e-mail marketing firm Constant Contact. "It's about coming here to build something cool, together. And for the ones that pull it off, it's all about street cred."
What really happens at one of these things?
The Reinventing Local event kicked off on Saturday morning with pitches. Various developers stepped up to the microphone to share their ideas. A lot of the programmers come solo, just looking for others that are interested in collaborating. Others were teams, coming from established companies.
Right after the pitches, the programmers scurried around the room, talking about their ideas and looking for folks to work with. The energy was amazing, and the room became frantic and filled with chatter as clusters of collaborators began to form.
After about a half hour, things settled down a bit. It was time for the fun part—hours and hours of continuous programming. They'd stay huddled around their laptops (which were about a 50/50 split between Macs and PCs) until 2 a.m., breaking only for dinner.
The next day, the programmers woke up bright and early to finish up their projects (which they call 'hacks'). By noon, the place began to fill up with small business owners—who were also there to attend classes at the venue—and tech folks eager to see what the legion of programmers had come up with. American Express vice chairman Ed Gilligan even stopped by for a while to see what was going on.
Then came the big moment: the demos. Each team (there were 27 total demos) had two minutes to present their hacks to the crowd gathered in the General Assembly. It was obvious that some had worked on their presentations more than others, and for every successful demo, one bombed right there with it.
After they were done, the four judges in attendance—bit.ly chief scientist Hilary Mason, Thrillist managing editor Richard Blakely, OPEN Forum VP Scott Roen and Mashery president and CEO Oren Michels—headed to the back to score the hacks, while the small business owners filled out their ballots.
Wander Mapper, an app that creates a visual illustration of your Foursquare neighborhood, took home the judges' choice award. Buildingly, which finds the best deals around your building, won multiple other categories. Most of the prizes were $2,000, along with a quirky trophy like a Sonic the Hedgehog or Mario figurine.
Why do all these developers flock to events like Reinventing Local?
Hackathons attract all sorts of developers—both freelance and full-timers. But what's in it for them, besides the potential the win some cash?
Jeff Novich and Andrew Pinzer won the prize for the best small business app with PoorSquare, a site that helps organize free deals using FourSquare's API. They come from two very different backgrounds, but show up for many of the same reasons.
"I come because it's fun." said developer Jeff Novich, who's working on a ton of independent projects like the web service Patient Communicator. "Plus, it gives you a reason to focus on one thing. I'm juggling a couple other startups at the same time. Here I have a deadline."
Pinzer's job is in strategic management for BBC Worldwide. "At some level this is really more a hobby for me. I really like the idea of showing up, starting with nothing, and ending up showing something that's really cool," he said. "It's not something I'd ever be able to do at my job."
And it's not a complete loss if you don't come out with a prize. "You still came to hang out, eat food and everything. It's good to be a part of the community, and anybody can do it," said Novich.
What's in it for small businesses?
This particular hackathon was tailored to small businesses, and made it obvious that there was real value to be gained for companies that want to extend their reach into the digital world. Small businesses were really integrated into the Reinventing Local hackathon, and even had their own say in the judging.
It's a new way for small businesses to get new ideas from the tech-savvy crews of developers, said Roen, who played a big part in putting the event together, along with judging. "Take the ingenuity of the developer community and put that together with the small business community. They're not that different, when you think about it. These are all people that want to get things done to put themselves to work and make something interesting."
And the business owners that showed up recognized that value.
"I came down because I run an e-commerce business and I'm having problems in the tech world relating the quality of my product to the outside world," said Amanda Sromek, who runs a greeting card business called Text Talks. "[The people here] are up to speed on everything that's relevant right now. They have new ideas and great insights—they can help open my mind."
Though this hackathon had a local theme, there's certainly value to be found in similar events. Hackathons exist for programmers to get together to fix problems and fill gaps. No app that comes out of a hackathon is perfect, because of the limited time frame. But they present an opportunity to see some amazing ideas, and see that many of them really are possible.
"Some people go in, build some fun little hack, and just let it go," said Scherman. "But others that come out of it have a business model, and something real comes out of it."