3 Things I Learned from Hackathon

I joined a hackathon recently to put my rusty design skills to the test and also gain insight/empathy of what starting up a company would be like. It’s a terribly exhausting ordeal but I got what I wished for, and actually learned a whole lot more. Here are top 3 lessons:

Lesson #1: It’s all about people

The foundation of great products and companies is not a great a idea, but a great team. A great team needs to have the following components:

  • Well-defined roles by areas of responsibilities, not tasks: To get the best out of people, it is important to give them a sense of ownership. This means dishing out jobs not by tasks but areas of responsibilities. When you dish out tasks “go and sell this”, it gives people the impression that their job is done after they have completed their tasks. But if you asked them to responsible for sales, then they are more motivated and likely to take the initiative to come up with new ideas to get more customers.
  • A clear decider: While all the members are technically founders and start-ups are generally flat organisations, there is still a need for a CEO who makes the ultimate decision. This is to make sure the strategies, decisions and behaviours are directed by a single vision. Of course, this means the CEO ideally needs to be someone who has a clear vision who could easily persuade others to buy into his idea in the first place. At the same time, s/he needs to be have ability to listen to other’s advice and weigh that objectively to his/her vision.
  • Complementary team dynamics: Ideally, the team members should be complementary to the CEO in terms of skills and personalities. If the CEO is the emotional kind, at least one member needs to be a rational thinker. If the CEO is a great, big visionary, at least one member needs to be the down-to-earth bean counter. The MBTI would be a pretty useful framework to study team dynamics.

On a side note, one of my friends who quit his cushy corporate job for a start-up once told me that politics is not just inherent in large companies. It can happen in start-ups too, depending on who is running the start-up. I finally got what he meant.

Lesson #2: It’s not about just about solving customer problems

One of the main thing hackathons teach you is to go out and validate the shit out of your idea a la Lean Canvas. I think that’s extremely important to ascertain the market demand for your idea but I also can’t help but feel that there’s something inherently wrong with using customer validation as the sole means to determine whether you build your company or not, which leads me to my final point…

Lesson #3: Solve problems you actually care about

I think this was the biggest lesson for me. I wasn’t particularly interested in any idea, and it doesn’t help that my default “self” is the cold, calculating, cynical businessman that has already decided even before the hackathon started that most of ideas that would result from it wouldn’t go anywhere.

Yes, customer validation is extremely important. There is absolutely no point solving a problem that no one has. But there is also no point solving a problem you personally don’t feel for. To tide through the hell of constant sleep, food, friend/family deprivation, you need something burning inside you to keep you going. I only suffered for 60 hours. I can’t imagine how the Valley founders manage to suffer for months and years if they did not have such a sense of purpose.

Of course, there are some people whose desire for fame, power, money, success is so strong that they can motivate them in face of such suffering. But, unfortunately, stuff doesn’t quite have the same effect on me.

With that said, this hackathon made it extremely clear what I have a burning passion for: solving the problems of the soul, the mind, and the spirit. More specifically, one’s relationship with one’s Self. Actually, deep inside I’ve always known, but I refused to admit it, since it seems so out of touch with “reality”. But this is truly my calling. The older I grow, the louder and more urgent the calling has become. As crazy as it sounds, it feels like I was born into this lifetime to fulfil this mission.

Going back to the hackathon, I think the answer is to balance between the needs of the customers and fervent passion for your product. It’s a really difficult position to be in. Because sometimes you feel so much for your product, you ignore your customers. Other times you pander too much to your customers’ and/or investors’ whims and fancy, you end up losing your vision.

In any case, thanks to the hackathon, I now know accepted where I need to go, what I need to do, how I need to get there. Depending on how my research goes, I may be years away from what I need to do. In any case, once I’m ready, I’ll be sure to repurpose the Lean Canvas to my field.

This hackathon has truly been a life-changing experience for me. Thank you, organizers.

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