The Hackathon Bubble


I was recently forwarded an event sponsorship for a collegiate hackathon in Europe which had a base price tag which exceeded $45,000 for what amounted to a logo placement and the honor of sending a few technical evangelists to set up a table. Lets just call this level of sponsorship ask what it is: Unrealistic and probably untenable.

Over the years, hands-on collegiate hackathon evangelism (which was once a scrappy, high-energy, efficient and affordable way to meet new developers and engage them in developer platforms) has turned into something more closely resembling open warfare of competing unicorn bubble-dollars.

As a result, we may be at the top (or even already past the top of) of a “hackathon sponsorship and developer evangelism bubble” which has been drastically inflated by these billions of excess funds which have been dumped into developer platform companies in the SF tech sector. The effects of this money has soaked through the industry on every level resulting in some very ill-defined developer marketing dollars being spent on some quite questionable things.

If you are a major company like Apple looking to hire exceptionally talented software engineers, spending $50K+ (or whatever) to sponsor a table at a collegiate hackathon to recruit engineers makes a lot of sense compared to the costs associated with hiring a single engineer in the valley…You really have to snatch that engineer away from your competition and that isn’t cheap. However, if it is your goal to drive developer engagement and platform adoption, that level of spend should look pretty dubious in value.

I remember being amazed at seeing a brand new collegiate event managing to attract more than 20 sponsors in their first attempt at finding backing. In terms a Wall Street financier might use: “The trade is crowded.” With so many platforms crowding events, it has become difficult to tell a unique story cleanly and effectively for a reasonable cost the way it used to. Judging by complaints being made by some student participants (“guys, just let us hack on projects without shoving marketing down our throats!”), the feeling may be mutual.

Over the next few years, I am expecting to see cut backs in what platform companies are able to afford (or deem reasonable) in terms of the deployment of their developer marketing dollars. Many of the techniques for turning hackathons into highly efficient marketing venues (pioneered by companies such as Twilio) were effective because they were new and affordable. It was possible to walk into a hackathon and be one of only two or three companies trying to evangelize products (and help people  learn) for under $2,500. Not so much anymore, not when everyone else in the industry has learned the same tricks and have access to piles of unicorn-cash.

Hackathons are extremely valuable as developer marketing and outreach tools, but at some point, the price really does matter. At their best, collegiate hackathons are a student-lead revolt against their institutions which allow students to learn about technology together, in a fun way. Evangelism at it’s best is an excuse to educate others about technology.  These positive aspect of collegiate hackathons will prove to be eternal, the budgets may be subject change due to market conditions though.

Disclaimer: I am fully at peace with the fact that I may be wrong on the internet.