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Historically, Startup Weekends have been casually referred to as, or quickly lumped in with, ‘hackathon’-style events.

While hackathons are extremely valuable and operate as a great addition to the startup ecosystem, it is important to recognize a few key differences between hackathons and Startup Weekend events so that everyone can better understand both the goals, benefits, structure, and sought after outcomes of participating in each type of event.

A hackathon (‘hack’+marathon), according to Wikipedia in this case, is defined as;

An event in which computer programmers and others in the field of software development, like graphic designers, interface designers and project managers collaborate intensively on software-related project. […] Hackathons typically last between a day and a week in length.  Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, although in many cases the goal is to create usable software, or to improve existing software.  Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the programming language used, the operating system, an application, an API, the subject matter, and the demographic group of the programmers.  In other cases, there is no restriction on the type of software being created.

Regardless of which definition is cited, hackathons are always characteristically focused on developers and technology.

The idea of making something work in a short amount of time certainly parallels the Startup Weekend tone of “No Talk, All Action” – but Startup Weekend utilizes this mantra as a means to achieving a hands-on educational experience as the ultimate goal – in contrast to the hackathon approach of creating a finished, functioning product above all else.

Startup Weekend events focus on educating entrepreneurs by providing a platform for them as they go through the experience of creating a company.

Crucial focuses are team formation and experiential education. Trial by fire, fail fast, minimum viable product, customer validation, and lean methodology are all ideas and terms that one develops a thorough understanding of during the weekend.  Simply put, Startup Weekend events are about building and empowering entrepreneurs rather than emphasizing the creation of code, apps, or other deliverables.  Certainly, teams are strongly encouraged to end the weekend with as much completed as possible, but the true success of a Startup Weekend event relies on the value and depth of the learning experience for each participant.  Even teams who are unable to come away with a prototype by the end of the weekend tend to leave with a network of entrepreneurs and mentors as well as an invaluable experience that simply cannot be duplicated in a classroom.  Through each event, Startup Weekend aims to positively impact and build the entrepreneurial community with the notion that individuals and teams are the most valuable assets to startup ecosystems, not the technology or code that is a result of the weekend.

Startup Weekend and hackathons generally differ in regards to the following pillars:

Ideas:  Generally, a hackathon is focused on a particular element or technology.  Participants will set out to solve a problem, build on a certain platform, or make existing tools more efficient with better code.  When Startup Weekend participants pitch an idea to the entire group at an event, one can expect to hear an extremely wide variety of potential projects introduced. Individuals from a number of different backgrounds are highly encouraged to introduce their idea, even if it is unprecedented in the ‘tech’ startup world.  Startup Weekend aims to encompass all types of skills and prove that entrepreneurship is a viable option for anyone; therefore, participants from non-tech backgrounds are highly encouraged to share their unique perspectives and talents with the community.  In this sense, Startup Weekend events operate with the benefit of a more open and fluctuating pool of skills – and as more people from differing backgrounds come together at Startup Weekend events, the entrepreneurial revolution continues to expand in terms of its reach and impact.

Competition: It is a common misconception that the ‘competition’ aspect of Startup Weekends are central to the organization and goals of the event altogether. Incorporating a competitive aspect to the event helps to motivate participants and creates a high-energy atmosphere that tends to propel the rapid flow of ideas and expedite organic team-building.  Ultimately, educating entrepreneurs always takes precedence over the concept of a ‘winning’ idea or team.  Notably, many hackathon teams cease work on a project once the competition is over, suggesting that the time frame of the event is intended to produce a finished product and conclude creation and development upon the completion of the competition itself.  Hackathons are primarily efficiency-based; as mentioned previously, they are ‘the’ event for individuals hoping to create a finished product in a set amount of time above all else.  Startup Weekends aim to make educational aspects and a chance to take something past the weekend the first priority.

*A note on prizes: Prizes at Startup Weekend are intended to prolong one’s entrepreneurial journey with introductions to mentors and/or venture capitalists who can provide valuable insight into maintaining and improving one’s business or product, or even rare opportunities to virally market one’s startup.  At hackathons, money often becomes a key motivator for continuing work.  Often, money can offer immediate gratification but fails to ensure long-term sustainability.

Education: Startup Weekend events have built-in educational elements that include pre-event bootcamps, world-class mentors, advisors, judge feedback, facilitator input, sponsor access and resources, Organizer support, themed toolkits and downloads, and post-weekend advocacy from the entire Startup Weekend community. By offering these resources to the Startup Weekend community, entrepreneurs are also encouraged to continue their learning experience beyond the weekend itself.

Community & Culture: At Startup Weekend, community diversity and varying skill sets are celebrated.  The importance of all skills is emphasized at events with the understanding that dynamic groups with a number of backgrounds tend to produce the most cohesive, creative teams.  Each attendee, regardless of their type of contribution (developing, designing, business and marketing), is recognized as a highly valuable asset to the community, and it is crucial that not one area is valued above another.  In addition, Startup Weekend makes the continuation of the community as a whole a top priority. Once one attends an event, one is automatically a part of the Startup Weekend family – one of the most rapidly-growing, supportive global communities.

Events: Contrary to popular belief, Startup Weekend’s mission is not focused primarily on events. Weekend events prove to be the most effective way of instigating a fast-paced, low-pressure educational environment for participants.  Events are our central vehicle for education, but the Startup Weekend impact exceeds its reach far beyond the course of one weekend. Whether it is through network and community, resources and programs, or simply the inspiration and empowerment that is a common byproduct of events, Startup Weekend differentiates itself from hackathon events through its continued presence in the lives of entrepreneurs worldwide – leaving lasting impressions and providing educational tools that benefit everyone.

Goals: What these differences point to above all are distinctions in mission and goals.  As discussed previously, hackathons serve a different purpose and are stylized according to that purpose.  Due to their discrepancies in vision and structure, hackathons and Startup Weekend events result in unique experiences for attendees; each offering a valuable, but different, result.

Claire Topalian Claire Topalian
(@clairetopalian) Blog, Professional Writing, Communications and PR Specialist. I craft compelling, mission-driven content for companies and individuals that amplifies brand awareness, fosters community, and drives engagement. My experience includes work with tech startups, major corporations, and international non-profits. @clairetopalian