Why You Should Join a Hackathon

What can four people start in only 54 hours? Stories from Techstars Startup Weekend, a hackathon in the Netherlands.

Toni Witt

September 29, 2021

What was the Techstars Startup Weekend Utrecht?

On the evening of Friday the 24th, a few people pitched an idea for a startup and the other participants at the hackathon, including me, joined the idea they liked the most. In the end there were 5 teams each of 4-5 members. There was also a talk by Tey El-Rjula, who started a blockchain currency company to support the 'invisible humans,' people who lost their documents and identities, which he met living in a refugee camp in the Netherlands. He uses blockchain to open markets for everybody, including paperless refugees in camps. (He also had Bitcoin socks).

Tey El-Rjula is living proof that entrepreneurs are some of the most interesting and inspiring people on Earth.

We had the next 54 hours to build the business. On Sunday night three judges would come and decide which team built the best company. During the whole weekend a team of mentors (experienced entrepreneurs, investors, or corporate innovators) helped the teams push their ideas forward. The food was great, the fridge was full of beers, and there was even an air hockey table.

Hackathons are the best networking events because you don't just get LinkedIn's, you go through a mutual struggle and build a connection.

What was our startup?

The team I joined was building a product called Nudge, an idea from Shash Jaiswal. Imagine you have a meeting at a new café in the city and you go on your bike. You pull out your phone to check Google Maps, nearly getting hit by an oncoming biker, but you already missed a turn. Now you're late to your meeting. Our solution was to connect vibrating modules in the handlebars to Google Maps to indicate when you have to turn using haptics. A buzz on the right = go right. Buzz on the left = go left.

What was our first step of starting the business?

All teams started with the problem they were trying to solve. As a tech-oriented problem solver, my mind was spinning about the handlebars and how they would work. But my team was focusing on the problem in a process called validation.

I learned that a startup is a 50/50 split between finding a real, specific, bad problem and creating a solution, and finding the problem comes first. It was science: we had a hypothesis and tested it with research. I'm applying this validation process to The Utopian at the time of writing.

We looked at our riskiest assumptions: were people using their phone to navigate? Is it unsafe and inefficient to look at your phone while biking? We answered these by talking to people on the street, cold calling bike delivery drivers and their managers, and chatting with a police officer. And we got turned down and criticized a lot, another key part of the process. Mentors, some of whom were 'casually' CEOs and founders or 'casually' started a few companies in the past, kept popping by and giving us advice you'd probably pay a consultant 200 an hour for.

Turns out hundreds of people die each year in the Netherlands from bike accidents, a large chunk of which is due to distraction. Many people listen to directions with headphones, but this is also distraction.

We realized we could apply Nudge to various vehicles. For example, electric scooters like Lime were ideal since you have to hold them with both hands and are mostly used by people going somewhere new.

Validating the problem - is it something people actually face?

Eventually I was allowed to tinker around with our solution, the handlebar prototype. But what vibrates and is in the shape of a handlebar? Armand, one of my teammates, came up with an idea:

But we couldn't find any sex shops online (are they all concentrated in Amsterdam?), so we went to a phone repair shop to pick up spare vibration modules from old phones. With some spare Arduino parts I had lying around, I cobbled together a prototype of the Nudge device.

Prototype of the handlebar which vibrates to indicate when you should turn.

Finding a market

After finding the exact problem we were trying to solve, we refined the business model. Who were our customers? Some napkin math told us that big businesses like Thuisbezorgd or Uber Eats could save millions every year if their drivers made their delivery even twenty seconds faster. If we kept them from missing just one turn per day, we were in business.

Testing the solution

A quick experiment proved our solution to work in theory. We had Armand sitting on the back of a bike leading Vishal, another team member, to a random location with Maps and communicating only with a tap on the left or right shoulder to indicate left or right turn. They reached their destination quickly and smoothly.

3 Lessons from Startup Weekend Utrecht:

1. The best way to get ideas is to start working on one.

I read many books about starting a business. But that's like trying to taste a dish by looking at the recipe. Get your butt in the kitchen, no matter how crappy and small it might be, and get cooking.

Everybody at the event was buzzing with ideas. For example, while eating lunch one man told us about a startup he sold that was 'like tinder for art' where you could see artwork and swipe right or left. An algorithm narrowed down your preferences and recommended artwork you should buy. Others jumped in and started brainstorming.

2. Normal people start companies.

Starting a company always seemed like such a scary thing to me. something I'd do 'when I'm ready' - whenever that is. At least 30% of the event was spent drinking beers and eating chips on the rooftop of the venue, yet we still built a business by Sunday. And you don't always have to work 80+ hours a week if you want to start a small venture of your own. People there were still humans: they had lives outside of work.

Being a 19-year-old unexperienced student who just moved to the Netherlands, I thought I'd feel excluded and of little value to a startup team. But that wasn't the case - anybody interested was welcomed. Everybody has a perspective.

3. Pitching is hard. So is building a team.

After 8 hours into the event, we had pages of notes from brainstorming sessions, conversations, and business models. You experience the whole business process compressed into a single weekend.

But starting a company seems too complicated for 54 hours; how can you think of everything from legal to finances to generating leads to making a website? But in reality every business starts simple. Problem and solution. At least 95% of every company can be presented in a 3 minutes slideshow.

Because in the end, 3 minutes in front of investors is all you have.

Armand pitching Nudge, our company
Demonstrating the prototype of the haptic bicycle handlebars to the judges. No, it didn't electrocute anybody.
The photographer at the event took a picture of my camera while it was filming. Inception vibes?

And in the end our working prototype, in-depth validation process, and strong team managed to win 2nd place at the event. Shash and I might develop version 2 of the product. If we do, we already have an executive interested in conducting a small pilot with Nudge.

Many thanks to the brilliant Nudge team: Armand Sol (left), Vishal Sharma, me, Shash Jaiswal (right) - check out their LinkedIn's. Also thank you to Vivek Gupta for certain photos, Techstars, UtrechtInc, and everybody else involved for making this weekend possible!