Participant Resources

From idea to prototype: How winners navigate the hackathon process

Learn from seasoned hackathon champions’ strategies for idea generation, prototyping, and delivering under pressure.

Hackathons are exhilarating events that challenge developers to transform their ideas into functional prototypes within a limited timeframe. Between planning, building, and pitching, it’s a lot to get done in a short amount of time! But don’t worry, you’re not in it alone.

While the time pressure can be intimidating at first glance, we asked previous hackathon winners to share their insights and strategies—providing you with a valuable roadmap to help navigate the hackathon process from idea to prototype.

Read on for top tips from previous hackathon winners.

Set clear goals and expectations

Before diving into the hackathon frenzy, Nathan, a 22-time hackathon winner, emphasizes the importance of starting with a clear plan. 

"Write down your goals and expectations. Allocate how much time you'd like to dedicate to different aspects of the event—be it developing the project, networking, attending workshops, or simply enjoying the fun activities,” said Nathan. 

This initial planning phase ensures that you and your team are aligned and focused on the desired outcomes.

Adopt the prototype mindset 

Ansh, a second-year computer science major at Georgia Tech and avid student hackathon participant, reminds us to "treat the product you're making as a prototype." Rather than attempting to create a fully-fledged, feature-rich application in a short time frame, concentrate on developing a few key features that demonstrate the viability of your idea. "This means having 2-3 must-have features that are necessary to demonstrate that this is a viable idea," he advises.

Connect and collaborate with your peers in the Devpost community.
Join our Discord server

Embrace new technologies

While learning new technologies during a hackathon can seem overwhelming, Ansh encourages participants to embrace the challenge: 

"Even if a technology seems far-fetched to learn in the given time, give it a shot! If nothing else, you'll learn a new skill, and you can explain that the associated feature you have in mind is something to be implemented in the future,” said Ansh.

This openness to exploration can help you learn new skills and inspire unique project features.

Prepare and prioritize 

Victor, a biomedical engineer, and level 18 hackathon winner on Devpost, emphasizes the importance of preparation and prioritization: "Create small boilerplates of the basic functions of the technology to be used, no matter what the project is. With this, you can start coding without setup issues." 

He also advises focusing on feasible projects within the hackathon timeframe: "Focus on projects that are feasible within the timeframe of the hackathon. Achieving world peace or eradicating world hunger in a mere 3-day hackathon is unrealistic."

Take a customer-centric approach and emphasize teamwork 

Betsy, an undefeated hackathon participant, and her team prioritize a customer-centric approach and effective teamwork: 

"We try to always start with a clear objective, leveraging customer insights to ensure the project addresses real needs and has potential market viability,” said Betsy. 

She also emphasizes the value of collaboration and delegation based on team members' strengths: "Within the team, we all work well together, so it's easy for us to understand who will do what best, and we can get way more done when we split up the work based on our strengths."

Push through the last-minute crunch

While time management is essential, Betsy acknowledges the inevitability of last-minute crunches. "I would love to say I've mastered time management, but in all reality, we always think we aren't going to finish, and there's always a last-day frenzy of activity," she said. This candid admission serves as a reminder to embrace the adrenaline-fueled final push and trust in your ability to deliver under pressure, after all the time pressure is one of the reasons hackathons result in such innovative outcomes.

However, consider submitting your project early if you'd rather not race the clock at the final hour! Check out these valuable insights on the benefits of early submissions.

Join a winning community

By following the advice of these seasoned hackathon winners, you can navigate the hackathon process with greater clarity, focus, and strategic execution. Leverage the incredible community you gain by being a part of Devpost, collaborating with others, finding team members, and discussing other project strategies in our Discord server!