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Flex Your Intellect @NYCSW: 5 Things Agencies Can Learn From Hackathons

Posted on Saturday, 29th June, 2013

Jess Seilheimer
Last weekend I attended Startup Weekend NYC—a 2 ½ day hackathon—an open call for entrepreneurs, designers, developers, creative strategists and the biz dev obsessed.

Startup Weekend is headquartered in Seattle has been around for 4+ years and is found in over 200 cities around the world. From Mongolia to South Africa to London to Brazil, people around the world come together for weekend-long workshops to pitch ideas, form teams, and start companies (if they so choose).

Some history for you: popular startup tech companies such as Zaarly, Foodspotting and LaunchRock all emerged as a result of Startup Weekend.

All Startup Weekend events follow the same model:

  • Day 1: anyone is welcome to pitch their startup idea and receive feedback from their peers. Teams organically form around the top ideas (as determined by popular vote)
  • Day 2-3: a 48 hour frenzy of business model creation, coding, designing, and market validation
  • Day 3: The weekends culminate with presentations in front of local entrepreneurial leaders/judges with another opportunity for critical feedback

Disclaimer: I’ve decided NOT to recap the entire weekend— rather explain my POV on how the marketing & advertising industry can learn from hackathons. If you really want to read about who won and why—you can visit my friend Adam’s #NYCSW recap post here (he was one of the design mentors at the event).

Why would I attend a hackathon?

If you are in a creative field of any sort—stagnation is the wuuuuurst feeling. Seriously—it’s worse than being stressed on deadline. Sometimes you need a jolt of inspiration—sometimes you just need to challenge yourself to “get out of the office” and experience how things are done elsewhere in an active & immersive learning environment; with exposure to different people, ideas, APIs and technology that really help rewire your brain to work smarter.

Sometimes curiosity and creativity calls. Sometimes I spend my weekends shopping, BBQing, painting a wall in my apartment, writing, chillin at music festivals, cooking up an amazing summer menu of freshness, relaxing at the beach—and sometimes, well…I just need to flex my intellect a little.

Hackathon’s do that for me. I feel invigorated walking into them, and inspired walking out. A very similar feeling I had after completing my 1st triathlon—but with less muscle aches. That’s my story, anyway.

And… this isn’t my first rodeo, either.

I love business/creative ideation. However, unfortunately this weekend my own time constrains/previous commitments didn’t allow for me to participate on a team, so I opted to maximize my limited time and exposure to the best of my ability. I met other creative strategists/creative technologists, saw what they were building, learned from their approaches, listened to their final pitches and judging feedback. Their creativity was untapped. Their energy was contagious. Their approach was addictive. Instahook for me.


There are many parallels to weekend hackathons & my job at an ad agency; we are consistently asked to uncover opportunities and create insights-driven strategies and ideas to push our client’s business forward.

Traditionally, this has been an extremely tedious process that takes place over the course of weeks, sometimes months. And by the time you’ve packaged your idea with a bow—you’ve drank so much of your own cool-aid (diluted of course) and all the chefs in the kitchen have completely butchered your recipe for success. You don’t even remember where you started or what you were trying to accomplish.

What I’ve learned: this is not the fault of people—it’s the process. How we’ve accomplished things in the past are no longer applicable to today’s business environment. It’s really the time factor that sometimes leads to the demise of great strategies & ideas.

Bringing value back to the agency conference room

I enjoy the rapid-fire environment that hackathons provide. Because of the time constraints (usually 48 hours) you have to get smarter faster, validate the customer need and build something (a product, technology, service) that solves a problem for them, can scale and be monetized overtime or planned for an early exit/acquisition.

Gone are the days of massaging an idea to death before it launches. Solid product development involves building an MVP (a minimally viable product)— something that may not be perfect—BUT holds the core offering, features and functions needed for market entrance.

Subscribing to rapid ideation environments based on the Lean Startup Principles force teams to FOCUS ON THE CUSTOMER NEEED, go with their instincts, validate and just get something out there. The success of startup companies/products is largely based on an initial release of something that can grow, scale and refine over time with customer input.

5 things agencies can learn from hackathons:

  1. Work in small teams of core disciplines
  2. Start with solving 1 customer problem/need
  3. Follow the lean startup approach to ideating
  4. Validate through customer research (that does not mean months of traditional qualitative research)
  5. Build. Test. Launch. Measure. Refine. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

I bring these business validation and ideation strategies into my agency everyday—I believe it allows us to focus on the customer, makes us better marketers and allows us to do things for people vs. just saying things to them. It’s definitely a shift in how we’ve done business in the past—but proven to help us be smarter… faster—a mandated approach for those of us who live on the corner of chaos, at the intersection of marketing & technology.

Now I’m off to visit my family…and I’m bringing my Flex Your Intellect playlist with me….for balance, of course. ♫

Special shoutout to Reza at (who was one of the sponsors of the event) for the free tix to the hackathon!


AlleyWatch is one of my favorite digital destinations with informative and diverse content focusing on startup news, opinions/reviews, investments, company/product information, and events experienced, seen, heard and overheard here in New York (say that 5x fast!!). Their team of writers, entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, lawyers, marketers– people who work in the industry– really offer a unique point of view of the startup culture and industry that I am so passionate about.

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