Written by Ronald Poon I 5 min read

TL;DR — Key Takeaways:

  1. Running a hackathon can help fast-track new innovations and generate high-fidelity prototypes which can be quickly brought to market.
  2. Hackathons can be used to upskill hundreds of employees in new technologies (such as generative AI) and help employees build a “Founder’s Mindset”.
  3. Hosting a hackathon, signals to both employees and external competitors that your company means business and truly values internal innovation.

A powerful tool for innovation

Corporate hackathons have emerged as a powerful tool for innovation, serving as intensive, time-bound events where cross-functional teams collaborate to solve complex challenges. If you've heard of a hackathon but are unsure about what specific value or application it would bring to your company, then this article is designed for you. We’ll delve into four compelling reasons why organizations should invest in running an internal hackathon (expanding on original insights from our ultimate hackathon playbook).

1. Fast-tracking new innovations by creating high-fidelity prototypes

In today's fiercely competitive and fast-paced business landscape, innovation is not just a buzzword — it's the lifeblood of sustainable growth and market leadership. Corporate hackathons have proven to be a catalyst in this regard, enabling organizations to create high-fidelity prototypes that can transition from concept to market-ready solutions in a matter of months. These events are particularly effective because they focus on real, validated business challenges, often identified by senior technology leaders within the company.

Take Facebook as a case study example. Many of its now-ubiquitous features, such as Facebook Chat, Safety Check, and Facebook Groups, originated from hackathons. As Mark Zuckerberg emphasizes, the goal isn't to create a polished final product overnight but to reach a shippable stage where products or features actually work.

Some of these hackathon-born innovations don't just finish at the event either; they get integrated into the company's broader product roadmap. For instance, what started as Facebook Chat evolved through iterations and user feedback into what we now know as Facebook Messenger.

The innovation cycle doesn't have to end when a hackathon is over. Follow-on programs like incubators or product accelerators can significantly amplify the impact and outcomes, providing a structured environment for further development and refinement.

Messenger is a product that came out of the 2007 Hackathon and has become an integral part of the Facebook platform

2. Upskilling hundreds of employees on new technologies

Hackathons offer a unique platform for employee upskilling, covering a range of technology inflections from Generative AI to blockchain, Web3, AR/VR, Cloud, and mobile technologies. For instance, our GenAI Hackathon serves as a case study of how focused, theme-based hackathons can accelerate learning in a specific domain or technology inflection.

What sets our approach apart is incorporating a tailored workshop series leading up to the event. Unlike traditional hackathons, we offer a one-month or multi-week learning curriculum, providing participants with the foundational knowledge they need to compete and win. These workshops can be conducted in various formats (virtual, live, or hybrid) –  each with its own set of benefits and limitations. For example, in our GenAI Hackathon hosted with Capgemini, participants were required to complete Google Cloud’s Generative AI Fundamentals Skills Boost Training as a prerequisite for participating in the hackathon.

The competitive and time-bound nature of hackathons creates an environment that is not only engaging but also highly conducive to accelerated learning. As highlighted in our previous article, Hackathons as the Best Medium to Learn about Generative AI, this setting encourages employees to translate theoretical knowledge into practical proof of concepts (POCs) with real business potential. Studies, such as those from Harvard and Training Industry, reinforce the effectiveness of practical application in learning, making hackathons an increasingly popular method for employee development and technical upskilling.

3. Building a “founder’s mindset” and long-lasting innovation culture

One of the most effective ways to build and foster a long-lasting innovation culture is through the regular hosting of hackathons. We see this done in some of the largest and most innovative companies in the world such as Google, Microsoft and Disney. The multidisciplinary team format of these events naturally encourages greater teamwork and collaboration, breaking down silos that often exist in large organizations.

But hackathons do more than just promote teamwork; they instill a "Founder's Mindset" among employees. This mindset is transformative, equipping individuals to spot opportunities where others see obstacles, adapt swiftly to changing circumstances, and focus relentlessly on execution.

In our recent interview with Bradley Hadfield, as part of our new “Building a Founder’s Mindset” video series, we discuss the critical role and importance of effectively finding ways to engage people and create meaningful connections within the company.

The long-term benefits of cultivating such a culture are substantial. A recent McKinsey study reveals that employee disengagement and attrition could cost a median-size S&P 500 company at least $1.1 billion in lost value over five years—that's $228 million annually. By engaging employees through hackathons and fostering a Founder's Mindset, you're not just boosting productivity and morale; you're also making a sound financial investment. Employees who are engaged are not just more productive, but are also more motivated to tackle and solve critical business challenges, thereby adding significant value to the organization.

Building a Founder’s Mindset together, late at night during the BMO Hackathon: Destination Digital

4. Positioning and marketing your company as a true innovation leader within the industry

Marketing serves a dual purpose: it not only shapes external perceptions but also influences internal culture. Hackathons are a potent tool in this regard, serving as a public declaration of a company's commitment to innovation and agility. Externally, hosting a hackathon positions your organization as a thought leader in the industry, attracting attention from potential partners, investors, and customers who value innovation.

Internally, hackathons send a powerful message to employees: the company values their ideas and is willing to invest time, money and resources to explore them. This fosters a sense of ownership and engagement among staff, enhancing overall job satisfaction and productivity. Moreover, hackathons offer a stage for employees to showcase their skills and talents, not just to their peers but also to senior management, thereby opening doors for career advancement.

Hackathons are far more than just innovation events; they are a multi-faceted marketing tool that can significantly elevate a company's standing within the industry. By aligning internal talent and external brand messaging around innovation, hackathons offer a holistic and versatile approach to building a competitive edge in today's modern business environment. 

Corporate hackathons are a strategic asset, not just a fun employee engagement event

They accelerate innovation, upskill your workforce in technologies like Generative AI, and foster a transformative "Founder's Mindset." Beyond internal gains, they elevate your brand as an innovation leader, helping attract and retain top-tier talent and key technology partnerships. If you're looking to fast-track innovation and build a resilient, future-ready organization, a hackathon is an investment worth making.

Interested in seeing how we can support you and your business in your innovation initiatives? Book an introductory call with Victor Li, Founder & CEO of Onova.
Share on socials