October 13, 2022
On launching hackathon.camp
Founder of tooltipr
Creating a side project is always difficult. hackathon.camp is the 4th project that got to a state where I could show it to other people. And by now it is the best idea I had executed. But we are struggling. Let us look a bit back.
I organized two internal hackathons at my previous company—Klarna. It was always a big struggle. I needed to fight for the budget, figure out the theme of the hackathon, scheduling, communications—everything. And the biggest problem of it all: Collecting ideas from participants and assigning people to specific teams. Like what happens if a participant decides to not show up, because of reason XYZ.
It was time-consuming and it sucked. I disliked the part about reassigning the team and ensuring everything was working. In bigger corporations, lots of processes are involved that just block you from executing the hackathon. People could not even create their repositories sometimes, so you would need to step in and create them for them. Lots of manual work.
By creating this project, I scratched my itch. And considering how many companies are organizing hackathons internally, I was sure I could get some traction.
This time I did not want to start something alone again. So I asked some friends first to join. We have started building and we got another friend in the boat. We are 3 now, but our work styles and ethics are slightly different. Difficult to manage, especially when there is a startup without much vision. Just a project to get something done, in front of customers and without much supervision. It is a difficult environment and people cope differently with it. Sometimes it is important to just do things, even if the things are boring to work on. Just do it.
Building a startup requires a lot of hard work. And there are so many other competitors out there. It is a competitive environment. And to be ahead of the competitors you have to be quick. With my experience from past side projects, I caught left rich lots of components of the past. For example, user interface components, common backend packages and utilities, landing pages, forms, and much more. All of these parts sped up the process of generating hackathon.camp a lot. But what even helped more was the fact that we use technologies that we were knowledgeable about: Chakra UI, React, and Next.js.
Another tool I can just praise not enough is render.com. I can recommend this platform to deploy your application. It is simple to use, mostly automated, and just works. It is a better Heroku. And I recommend skipping AWS because this technology is just too overblown to create a simple startup. Of course, if you know AWS well, it might be the better choice for you. But if you are just a basic developer then we recommend using render.
A user call and marketing
One interesting thing I wanted to learn during the project was to use a cause and do sales and marketing. My initial strategy was to find leads on LinkedIn and it was relatively easy. The strategy will be covered in another blog article. Getting out there as a developer was quite weird but as soon as you get responses to your messages it feels amazing. And the feeling is getting even better once you receive an invite for a call or you are inviting someone to be on a call to show your product to them.
The first user call was with the CTO of a startup from Switzerland. I, as a small founder, was nervous but I tried to ask as many questions as possible because that is what I have read on other resources on the Internet. You are supposed to let the other person talk and lead the conversation by asking many more questions and listening to the users and what is their problems and what they struggled with. This is a common technique taught in the book "How to win friends and influence people" by Dale Carnegie. The interview was mainly regarding the Hackathon they have organized. We received many great insights that shape our product today and we have built one relationship with a customer which can become important in the future. I know I can recommend getting out of the shell as a developer and organizing user calls. It is a nice experience and it will teach you a lot.
Developing is a technique of just writing something on your computer and seeing the results immediately. It will give you rewards instantly. User calls are a bit different. You will not receive immediate gratification directly after the call but you have to build the relationship further to close the sale. An interesting topic to learn but also really difficult to master.
On top of that, I also forced myself to do a bit of marketing. Because of the status of our sales on LinkedIn, we have built a LinkedIn page with lots of content. Marketing has the same problem as sales, you do a lot of work but you do not see an immediate effect. We are trying to push this a bit more shortly and try to get better at marketing and sales. After all, we want to make the project successful.
Getting the project live was the highest priority. Considering what is MVP-worthy is a really difficult question, especially if you are working with other people. But what works most of the time is to just release the product and see how it performs.
Launching a project also feels weird. We were planning to go big on launches, but planning them is a big job. If you consider posting to Product Hunt, Indie Hackers, or Hacker News you will always have to adjust your messaging and the style of the message based on the audience you are writing to. Launches take a bit of time so we have decided to not launch yet, even though we want to change that. We think the ideal pace is to launch every time and post consistently on different platforms. So we definitely should have improved the situation around that and launched more often. A mistake on our side. We hope to launch our product soon though and share the process of launching our tool.
Working next to full-time jobs
This whole side project was created next to our full-time job. It is difficult especially if you have other responsibilities. It is taking a lot of time and you can get yourself burnt out quickly. So let us look at some of the issues.
Time management is probably the biggest problem of them all. After all, you work at least 8 hours per day during a full-time job, and managing a side project is difficult. Other people within the projects are waiting for reviews or decisions to be made. It is difficult to work in async and get things shipped. Often, you need to rely on yourself and just ship it by yourself, overgoing your colleagues. This might feel wrong but a startup or side project is a fast-moving construct that needs to be optimized for speed.
Regarding time management there is also one tip that always worked for me: Try to find some time every day. Even if it is only 10 or 30 minutes. It will help to build your muscle to build the project and efforts will stack up over time. It will also help you with context switching because of the limited time you will try to get stuff done.
Another problem with working so much is the motivation, especially when you work in a group and team members work different hours and different amounts of time. It can get discouraging to motivate your co-founders at all times and also find their motivation. Some days you just feel like not working, but will have to push through. It is difficult and you should find joy through other activities as well. The side project should not be the main part of your identity. Enjoy life outside as well.
Trying to get traction
And the most difficult part for engineers, getting traction. Of course, there is always the possibility of going viral but with B2B products the probability of this happening is quite low. So what did we try to get some traction?
One technique we have used is to outreach to people on LinkedIn. You do not need the sales navigator or something similar. Just use the LinkedIn search for a term that is related to your project. In our case, that was an “internal hackathon”. Companies like to post about their internal events to promote good company culture. A good company culture relates to having happy employees and makes the company attractive to potential candidates. After all most companies want to grow and showcase how great they are to work for.
With our lead magnet, we normally try to reach out to people and ask them about their experience with hackathons. What are their pain points and what do they wish would exist for helping them to organize the next hackathon? This is just the first touch to potential customers. If the talk about hackathons is going great, we are focusing on getting potential users on user calls. We had a handful of those user calls already. They are probably the best use of a founder's time. You can learn a lot about how other companies are working and actually what problems they have. Do not try to sell your solution immediately to them. But try to make a natural conversation around your product as well.
We have also launched some campaigns on polywork which was super successful so far. It got us in touch with some really interesting personalities that can help to accelerate the growth of hackathon.camp even more.
Nevertheless, we will have to branch out our opportunities a lot more. We are not seeing the traction we want to see yet, and still do not have a paying customer. But we will get there! I am sure!
Soon, we are focusing a lot on traction. Reducing friction and working on marketing. With those focus points, we estimate that we will hit a paying customer soon. Our pricing is not too big of an ask we feel and our platform is ready.
One thing we will focus on soon is launches on other platforms like Hacker News, and Indie Hackers. It will enable us to get some more backlinks and showcase the platform to a wider audience. We will also focus on content marketing via blogging which showed great success so far, even with a single blog article that we have published so far.
Overall, we hope to get the platform somewhere. We think it will save hackathon organizers and employees countless hours that they can spend on other things. To be more productive.