Hackathons are a terrible way to get new users. Why we’re doing them anyway.

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When we started planning hackathons I thought “Wow! There are going to be 100 developers there!! We are going to get so many new customers this weekend!!”

We got 1 new customer that weekend. Turns out, getting developers to use your product is hard, even when you bribe them with really cool hackathon prizes. I have to remind myself that not everyone thinks our API is TOTALLY AMAZING like I think it is. More importantly, they don’t always have time to try our product the minute I tell them about it. Despite the lack of immediate user conversions, there are some good reasons to sponsor hackathons. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Hackathons are a terrible way to gain users.

2. Face-to-face feedback is super valuable.

3. Hackathons are a great place to form relationships & partnerships.

4. Any pitch practice is good practice.

5. Getting feedback from other people is personally rewarding.

6. Seeing people use our product is awesome.

Hackathons are a terrible way to gain users
If I measure the success of our hackathon participation by the number developers who created accounts and used Keen IO, hackathons have been a total failure. In each of the hackathons we’ve sponsored, only a handful of developers tried to use our APIs in a meaningful way. When you consider the number of manhours (weekend hours!) we devoted to supporting these events, our customer acquisition cost is horrendous. And these aren’t even paying customers!

Some services like Parse are a great match for hackathons because they help developers very quickly build mobile apps. Keen IO is at a disadvantage in this arena because there aren’t a lot of obvious incentives to use analytics APIs in an app you cobbled together in 5 hours.

This got us thinking hard about how to make our product more immediately and obviously useful. We think visualization via API is a step in that direction, and we’re working on building out that functionality right now. This will allow people to quickly and easily build graphs of their data into their apps (imagine a fitness app that has a tab showing a graph of your progress). If hacakthoners find our tools more immediately useful, so will our customers. Can’t wait to see how this goes over at AngelHack in a couple of weeks.

Face-to-face feedback
From our first hackathon, I learned that sitting at a sponsor booth isn’t a good use of a weekend. When we sponsored the next hackathon, I made it a point to work directly with a couple of the teams.

Years of consulting experience trained me to give up being shy. I introduced myself to a couple of the friendly teams and offered to help them build Keen IO into their apps. I created cool dashboards with their usage metrics. I invited myself to a seat at their table and tried my best not to seem creepy.

I loved having this opportunity to watch other people interact with our UI and our API. One developer told us the links to our SDKs were buried in our docs and hard to find, so we fixed that on the spot. We found another pain point right away when one of the teams needed to repeatedly check the format of the data they were sending from Tiggzi. As a result of that observation, we added a new feature so you can very easily view your most recent ten events. Live feedback is tremendously helpful.

Hackathons are a great place to form relationships
Relationships and partnerships are the reason we will continue to do hackathons. We already wrote about the value of serendipity. But hackathons are like a double serving because you get to spend multiple days in a row with people. In two hackathons, we’ve made friends with workspace/incubators like The Hattery, education groups like General Assembly (we’ll be teaching an analytics class through them soon), and other service providers like Parse and Tout with whom we’re coordinating technical integrations or events. We got to know some of the folks from Latino Startups Alliance — they even wrote up a story in Women 2.0 about the event! We also met a couple of talented folks that could potentially be great hires for us someday.

Good pitch practice
Although we can’t convince all the developers at a hackathon to use our product this weekend, we at least get five minutes to tell them about it. Pitching Keen IO at the start of a hackathon is pretty easy way to introduce developers to our offering, plus it has been a great opportunity for me to work on my public speaking skills. With any luck, these developers will think of Keen IO the next time they wonder how they’re going to track or measure X, Y, or Z.

Great personal validation
There have been all sorts of little, personally rewarding things that came about just by spending a weekend with other developers and startup folks. Things like:

– a developer recognizing me from the blog and personally thanking me for my post on startup compensation
– having the team telling me “good job” after I pitched Keen IO to a crowd for the first time
– a developer who told me “you guys have a great marketing team; everyone knows about Keen IO!” I loved telling him we didn’t have a marketing team, just some engineers who also write blog posts 🙂
– spotting someone wearing a Keen IO shirt in public for the first time (it was someone I gave a shirt to at a hackathon!)

Seeing people use your product is awesome!
At the conclusion of the AT&T Hack for Social Good, we awarded our first place drone prizes to two high school brothers who used Keen IO in an app for reporting suspicious behavior. They started and finished the app in just a few hours before the hackathon ended, and they used Keen IO in ways no one has before, mashing up the google charts API to make a map of crime hot-spots. These guys weren’t just tech whizzes, they were extremely good at sucking up. They put the Keen IO logo all over their demo told the crowd about how they weren’t just using Keen IO for analytics, they were using it for Data Science! We ate it up. At the end of the event, their dad took a picture of all of us together with the drones :).

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