As we are preparing for our 60th hackathon, I wanted to reflect on some of the things we’ve learned and to offer some key advice to participating startups on how to get the most out of these events. Our next hackathon will be in Boston, USA and will be run in cooperation with Citizens Bank (one of the largest regional banks in the US) on July 27-29th. Registration is here.

When we started running hackathons with Open Bank Project five years ago, one of the biggest challenges for a startup like ours was getting access to banks. In those far-of times, innovation was yet not fashionable, PSD2 and similar regulations hadn’t arrived on the FinTech scene and in fact the use of the term ‘FinTech’ still lay in the future.

How quickly things change. Today, bank-led incubators are ubiquitous, and FinTech competitions and innovation programmes flourish, providing multiple avenues for banks to reach out to startups (instead of the other way around). There’s still a long way to go to, but the environment is a lot better than when we started. We’ve connected thousands of startups (over 9000 developers as of today) to banks from all over the world. Looking back at my work with Open Bank Project, this is one of the things I’m most proud of, in my work with Open Bank Project. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a cafe in Auckland, New Zealand, waiting for my next meeting with a selection of our Open Bank Project enthusiasts from down under to explore with them how we can help support their activities.

Hackathons are innovation exercises, usually timeboxed into a weekend, which bring together a bank, startups and individuals to co-create new propositions addressing key business challenges in banking.

One of our most powerful bridge-building tools is a hackathon. It introduces the bank to the art of the possible and it helps the startups to effectively demonstrate their innovation to the right people. However, for a hackathon to be worth it, participants should be clear and realistic about what they want to get out of it and how to approach achieving their aims.

Lessons Learned. Here’s what I learned about what a startup should do to make their participation a success during a hackathon:

  1. Know your why. A hackathon is not a proposal to do business, it’s a first date. Understand what it means to participate (read the Terms & Conditions – this is important). Take time to consider what you can potentially get out of the hackathon and what it takes to go on a second date. Review the challenges and judging criteria carefully – this gives you a good sense of what the bank is looking for. Do not hesitate to quiz the bank before you register, and be explicit with them about your expectations.
  2. Kill your use case. If it takes you the weekend to realise that your idea is not good enough, it’s definitely time well spent! Use the hackathon time to test some ideas you have in mind that you are maybe not sure of; use the time with the mentor to get feedback and see how they would approach the problem and pitch it internally. Prototype rapidly, test with the other participants – you’d be surprised at people’s willingness to help other teams. You may well realise that you need to pivot. This will save you a lot of time and money, and will help you re-prioritise after the hackathon.
  3. Bring your team. Hackathons are great fun. For our team, it’s a time of bonding and working together in a fast-paced environment. It’s very different from a 9-5 office setting, and we love it for that. Rather that restricting your vision to working on a business idea, think about how the hackathon can help your team build a culture of collaboration, openness and of getting things done. Bring different members of your team, not just the techies, and use this space to strengthen your team culture.
  4. Get a foot in the door. Hackathons are ideal for people who want to sell into banks. It’s an informal setting with a lots of bankers around who are willing to give advice for free. It’s the perfect environment to build relationships. Exchange cards, establish the context for a proper follow up. You are not going to get a deal signed over a weekend; however you might well get an intro to the person to bring it about.

In conclusion, to sum up what we’ve learned: consider the challenges carefully, and align your expectations; think about whether your use cases are relevant, and don’t hesitate to ask for help and feedback from fellow participants; use the hackathon as a team-building exercise; seize the opportunity to network; and remember that taking part “smartly” is as important as winning. This means not focusing solely on winning the first prize but also on building relationships and experimenting with ideas quickly. With this perspective, you will certainly reap the most benefits even if you don’t win the first prize.

If you want to join our next hackathon , applications are now open.

The event will take place between July 27-29, 2018, at the District Hall in Boston, MA. We’re building a formidable platform for individual developers and start-ups to prototype and present innovative technology ideas in commercial and consumer banking and doing that together with Citizens Bank, one of the few banks that truly gets it when it comes to Open Banking.

An Open Bank Project Sandbox with all APIs will be of course available. The best overall app gets a cash prize of $10,000 (with no strings attached), and there are a number of awards for participating teams. I’d love to have you with us in Boston. Find all the details and prizes here:

Participants are invited to register online by July 26th here.

Good luck and I hope to see you in Boston next month!