How to Run a Successful Small Business Hackathon

Claromentis co-founder Michael Christian shares his insights in a guest blog.

What is a business hackathon?

Like with many technology buzzwords, you may have heard the term “hackathon”, but not really understood what it meant. To complicate matters even further, a hackathon is sometimes called a “hack day” or an “innovation day”. No matter what you call it, a business hackathon is where an organisation gives their staff (typically the software development team) the freedom to work on whatever they want during a set period of time. Popularised by tech companies such as Google, Netflix, and Facebook, an internal hackathon gives team members a break from their day-to-day tasks and allows them to create something new, innovative, and ground-breaking.

Are hackathons worth the money?

You may think that hackathons require loads of investment, and are therefore out of scope for small to medium sized companies (SMEs). Indeed, there aren’t many case studies available that promote the success of hackathons in SMEs. Until now. We believe that, with the right approach, hackathons are completely attainable for small organisations, and in fact, a necessity to the survival of a company.

We share how we did it at Claromentis.

How we run hackathons at Claromentis

Every year at Claromentis, we run what we call “Innovation Week”. Not content with a 24 hour hackathon, we give staff (not just technical) an entire week to choose projects to work on that will contribute to Claromentis products or processes, and reflects their passion for learning. They are free to team-up with any number of people, from any department, and one person can work on more than one project.

When is the best time to run business hackathons?

At Claromentis, we choose to run hackathons during early summer. We choose this time of year for a few reasons. Firstly, it coincides with the first few months of our yearly strategy, so it’s a good time to push through some new ideas. An early-summer hackathon also means we have the weather to enjoy the outdoors, extending the possibility of running it in a location outside the confines of the office space. It is also just before the main summer break of July-August, during which most people go away on vacation.

How often should you run hackathons?

We run it once every year simply because it is an event that everyone looks forward to. After Innovation Week, we make sure that the projects built during this time are finished and properly integrated within our product or system, and not just something that is left half done.

Where’s the best location for a business hackathon?

There is no restriction in terms of where you host your hackathon. It can happen in the office, local café, outdoors, at home – wherever you think will generate the most innovative results.

This year, for example, we hosted our own business hackathon in Barcelona. We rented a villa for the week, and everyone worked remotely from either the beach, the balcony, or the sun-bed; wherever had Wi-Fi! As usual, we used our own intranet software to communicate and collaborate with each other, and it kept all hackathon team members connected, whether they were in Barcelona or back at home in our Brighton office.

How do you run an effective hackathon?

Step 1: Pitch an idea

Any member of staff can pitch an idea by answering the following questions:

  • What will you call your project?
  • Why have you chosen this idea?
  • Which problem are you trying to solve?
  • What is the purpose and benefits?
  • How many days will it take to complete?
  • Who is your ideal team and subject matter experts?

The pitch process should start around 2-4 weeks before the hackathon, allowing team members to have enough time to share their project and assemble the team.

Stage 2: The hackathon

During the hackathon, any members who are participating need to communicate clearly that they are working on their own innovative project, so that they are not given their usual daily tasks.

Of course, a level of practicality needs to be applied at this stage. Although it’s important to secure as much time as possible for the hackathon, sometimes important tasks will arise. Urgent client issues will still take priority, but the more hackathons you run, the more accurately you can predict these things.

Working remotely from Barcelona

Daily agile standup by the pool!

Stage 3: “Show & Tell”

After the hackathon, allowing teams to show off their hard work to the rest of the business is key. A week after our own Innovation Week, we organised a company-wide show & tell. Everyone was invited to attend, and each hackathon team gave a 15 minute presentation to promote their project.

At the end of our show & tell, everyone cast their vote and scored each project for the following categories:

  • Most innovative
  • Most “ready for deployment”
  • Most impact on the business
  • Most liked

Stage 4: Award winners

Ensure to reward team members for their hard work during a hackathon. At Claromentis, we announced our Innovation Week award winners with a simple prize-giving during our monthly company standup.

What we learnt from running a successful business hackathon

We learnt three key things from our Innovation Week:

  • Changing the working environment is great for breaking the daily routine, sparking innovative ideas and new ways of thinking. Sometimes the best ideas are just about how to solve a problem differently.
  • Everyone has a different personality and preference when it comes to their ideal working spaces.
  • Some people can be more productive at work when surrounded by other people in a communal space while others prefer to be with themselves in a quiet place.

We want to hear from you

Have you run similar events within your organisation? What are things that you have learnt that work for you? Please do share your stories in the comments below – we would love to hear your feedback!


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