Our first big hack event was a total success. Here’s how (and why) we did it.

How the Singly App Challenge came about

Six weeks ago, on an unusually balmy Friday afternoon in San Francisco, our team was retrospecting on productivity over some cold beers. We didn’t have a productivity problem, we just wanted to move faster.

“The most productive times at Singly,” Simon, our co-founder, recalled, “were times when we had a forcing function.” We just need a hard deadline, he said.

We decided to go open kimono and show the world our API. Surely we’d bust ass if everyone was going to see what we’ve been building.

That afternoon we created the Singly App Challenge. We all knew that if this was worth doing, then it was worth going all in.

We had a month to make it happen. A month to push our product out, ruthlessly find and fix bugs and bring an enthusiastic crowd together to compete.

This wasn’t going to be a hackathon, we decided. It was going to be a race to build and launch a startup in 48 hours. It was going to be like a Startup Weekend, but without the handbooks and venue guides and planning time and volunteers. It was going to be difficult to pull off.

How we made it happen

The next week, after the hangover of making this bold decision wore off, the impact of our new forcing function was clear. We showed up early, stayed late and ordered so many burritos that we’re convinced El Metate’s share price has surpassed Facebook’s.

The first thing we did is lay out goals and metrics. We wanted 100 participants, 20 apps, comprehensive feedback from attendees and multimedia content for posterity.

From an engineering perspective, we had to have a fully functioning and scalable API. That meant internal hack days, luring our friends in with free food to poke holes in the API and hiring a contract web security team.

We locked in an all-star panel of judges, including Om Malik. We found beautiful venues, thanks to True Ventures and 780 Cafe. We brought our developer docs up to speed. We bought a dozen r/c helicopters to give away. We booked a videographer. We got catering and bought kegs. We hired an army of TaskRabbits. We designed fancier swag. Then, we just needed to get 100 smart, ambitious developers and designers to show up.

Our team is hacker-heavy, and hackers understand GitHub. So we use GitHub for far more than engineering (coming soon: a blog post about how to use GitHub for hiring flow). Needless to say, the Singly App Challenge was a milestone in our marketing repo, and each of the aforementioned details was an issue within that milestone.

As with any free event, we were expecting a large attrition rate – so we were shooting for ~250 signups (we reached 100 only a week before the event). Here are a few ways we got that number up to 250 in the final hours:

    • Featured a guest blog post that made the front page of Hacker News
    • Partnered with Geekli.st and Path.to – who both contacted their wide networks
    • Tweeted (like crazy)
    • Had internal hack days, where we all took the day to build apps on Singly (one app called vacat.io, built by Beau, went a bit viral)
    • Hosted a “Friends of Singly” hack night, where we gave a sneak preview of our API
    • We each emailed three people we know and personally invited them, along with their friends, to the event

What we learned

We learned how much beer is too much. Four kegs, we learned, is too much beer.

We spent the weekend gathering feedback from every attendee, and have just now finished distilling it. We learned what people would like to see from Singly. That said, we also learned that people think Singly is pretty powerful already.

We learned countless details that will go into the planning of our next event. We learned how to get scrappy in reaching out to the community and getting people excited about an App Challenge. We learned that people really dig r/c helicopters.

We learned the power of a forcing function – because we moved pretty damn quickly in the weeks leading up to this event.

Most importantly, we learned this: If you put 100 focused, driven minds in a room for 48 hours, they will impress the hell out of you. We were truly in awe at the quality of work and the range of products that people built. From philanthropic efforts to funny viral apps to fully laid out business models, we were inspired by every team that participated.

Thanks to everyone who came out for the Singly App Challenge – we couldn’t have done this without you. We’ll see you all again soon! (Maybe at our monthly happy hour?)

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