Should I Offer a Prize at My Hackathon?

Consider: what do you want the prize to do for the event, and for the attendees, and for your cause?
Your humble author usually steers clear of cash and large prizes because of the people it brings around, and how they influence the crowd. Do you want to prioritize large attendance / an opportunity for undergrads to be exposed to this topic? Or do you want to prioritize sharing stories and collaborating on potential solutions with no strings attached? Any of these priorities (or others) are totally fine, but decide what you’re going for, and pick how to handle prizes based on that.

Building Capacity

At things like StartUp Weekend, prizes help teams move their project forward – time with a lawyer, some startup cash, access to expensive dev tools, etc. At GWOB events, we usually give prizes which are coding books, comics, and hardware kits; all to get people thinking in new spaces. Another set of prizes might be qualifying to work towards a bounty of DELIVERING a working prototype (or some other milestone) by X months after the hackathon. Or just use prize money towards that, and use the hackathon as a time to onboard people to the ideas. (I think I would even wait to tell people about the bounty until the hackathon itself).

Attracting Attendees

Prizes sure can be great for attracting attendees. For people with many options in front of them for how to spend their time, prizes can incentivize attendance. This can also mean attendees might view the prize as compensation for their time – a strange mental space to be in, especially if not a winner. Prizes can also incentivize people to focus and to push themselves out of friendly (or unfriendly) competitiveness.

Other Considerations

Smallish prizes as indications of appreciation are awesome. Definitely need to be able to be divvied up across a team (no ONE LAPTOP PRIZE – how can 4 people deal with that?). Too big/prestigious, and people don’t collaborate or share what they’re up to (being protective of people “stealing” their good ideas).

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