How to Win a Colosseum Hackathon

How to Win a Colosseum Hackathon

A guide to successfully navigating crypto’s most competitive hackathon.

Historically, hackathons have provided builders the environment to experiment with new technologies, collaborate with peers, and complete bounties offered by sponsors. Hackathons usually take place over 24-72 hours in offline locations like high school gyms, university computer labs, or conference centers.

Even though these events serve an important role in modern engineering culture and involve consuming copious amounts of Red Bull, they do not consistently result in dedicated teams building viable or long-lasting products.

This is why Solana Foundation, and now Colosseum, hackathons are not structured like traditional hackathons. While Solana and crypto broadly need to grow the total number of ecosystem developers, we believe it is much more important to specifically grow the number of full-time founders shipping products. As more startups launch, competition drives better product experiences for end users and increases the likelihood of breakout successes bringing the world onchain.

Aligning with that mission, Colosseum has evolved hackathons across several dimensions (while still preserving principles of experimentation and innovation):

  • Location: Colosseum hackathons will always be online, rather than IRL. We provide a level playing field for builders globally to compete and show their potential to build impactful crypto startups.
  • Length: Colosseum hackathons are 5 weeks long to give teams enough time to complete a full engineering sprint in order to reach Solana devnet. Also, while projects are judged just on the work completed during the hackathon, participants can start building 2 months prior to the start date.
  • Bounties: Builders should bring their own creative product ideas that they envision working on for the next decade. So, we removed specific bounties and tech requirements (other than integrating with Solana in some capacity).
  • Judging: Given our goal of increasing ecosystem startups, prizes will be awarded to teams who intend to build full-time and develop products with potentially viable business models (although, there will always be an award for the best public good).

Given those differences, we wrote this guide to provide all builders advice on how to successfully compete for hackathon prizes and ultimately become eligible to join Colosseum’s accelerator. The guide includes recommendations regarding:

  • Team Composition
  • Product Ideation
  • Prioritization & Execution
  • Product Presentation

While we can’t guarantee that your project will be selected as a winner in our upcoming competition, following this guide will set you and your team up for success.

Hackathon Builder Demographics 

Before diving in, it is important to note that this guide applies to all types of builders who join Solana hackathons, which we categorized into 3 levels:

  • Learners: New crypto developers who participate in our hackathons to learn and experiment with blockchain technology.
  • Contributors: Developers who do not intend to become startup founders, but build useful tools to add to their resumes, and aim to get recruited by current ecosystem companies.
  • Founders: Ambitious builders and founding teams who use our hackathon as an engineering and business sprint to launch their new crypto startups.

The structure, messaging, and purpose of Solana’s hackathons have evolved to specifically attract new Founders who have the talent to build the next era of category-defining crypto products and infrastructure. This is why Colosseum primarily focuses on supporting Founders through our accelerator program, where they get access to our mentor network, pre-seed funding, private platform features, and more.

However, both Learners and Contributors are highly encouraged to participate. Colosseum’s online platform and hackathon provide a great starting point for these builders as well. Over the past 3 years of Solana hackathons, we have observed that Learners often become Contributors and Contributors often become Founders. There are also grants available to bolster open-source projects, even if the creators have no intention to commit to a startup full-time.

Team Composition

Hackathons are known for being developer-only events. Colosseum hackathons are different. Many previous winning products were built by teams who had both technical and non-technical cofounders. In addition to developers, Colosseum is a community for entrepreneurs with experience in Marketing, Finance, Operations, Design, Product Management, and many other roles. However, non-technical entrepreneurs should team up with a technical lead to compete in our hackathons, as they are equally engineering competitions as they are business competitions.

If you’re a solo dev or founder, we highly encourage joining forces with at least 1 other cofounder. Building a new crypto startup will be an emotional rollercoaster. A compatible cofounder can provide support during the most difficult moments, as well as grounding during the most euphoric moments. Also, our hackathons are competitive, with the average winning team size now above 3. All projects need to divide up work to increase output during the hackathon for a shot at winning a prize.

If you’re looking for teammates, the first place to explore is your existing network, as there could be a good cofounder match amongst your friends and colleagues. The second place to check is Colosseum’s Cofounder Directory, where you can connect with other builders before the next hackathon. Building a hackathon project with a potential cofounder is a great way to test the working relationship before committing long-term.

Product Ideation

Many blog posts explain how to find startup ideas (and despite what you may have been told, nobody knows which startup ideas will succeed or not). We won’t rehash all of those approaches in this guide, but we do highlight 5 pieces of advice:

  1. Build products that enable new markets that couldn’t exist without crypto or improve existing markets by bringing them onchain. Crypto at its core unlocks new markets fueled by digitally-native assets. This was originally exemplified by Bitcoin, which unlocked a new market for a non-sovereign store of value. Crypto can also be leveraged to improve existing markets by removing middlemen and coordinating resources more efficiently. Hivemapper, for instance, is improving the market to purchase and supply up-to-date mapping data by incentivizing regular people to map their localities through its network.
  2. Build products that solve problems that affect you personally. Think about products you wished you had in your life, even if they may seem very niche to your interests. Some products that on the surface only serve a niche community can capture a global market if that community is growing rapidly. A good example is Tensor. The founders of Tensor built a pro trading platform for NFTs because it solved pain points they personally had with the existing NFT marketplaces designed for retail. The community of prosumer NFT traders and collectors was small initially but was growing quickly and accounted for the majority of trading volume, enabling Tensor to grow in lockstep to capture market share.
  3. Build products in markets where you have prior experience. To deeply understand the market opportunity of a product idea, builders should have domain expertise in that general vertical. A common piece of advice on reaching product-market fit is that teams need to start with strong founder-market fit.
  4. Don’t be afraid to build products that have been attempted before. Timing and execution matter a lot in startups. There have been many startups with good ideas, but were just too early or were not effective at building the particular product. If you have the passion, expertise, and deep understanding of how others failed, you may have a unique insight and ability that leads to success.
  5. Build wildly ambitious products. If you decide to embark on a new startup journey, make sure to choose a product vision that will lead to a long-term adventure. The hackathon is just the start of your journey and only so much can be accomplished within the 5 week hackathon. That is intentional and leads to the following section on how to prioritize your sprint and execute initially on your product vision.

Colosseum’s platform features an active product forum where builders can explore potential product ideas or pressure test their own with the community before the hackathon commences.

Prioritization & Execution

Once you have a team and a product idea, it’s time to start planning your hackathon sprint. If you have a sufficiently ambitious vision for your product, you obviously won’t have enough time during the hackathon to build out all of the features. Therefore, you need to prioritize. But how? Simply put, prioritize the features that allow you to create an amazing working demo on devnet. Prioritize the features that you believe will give users an “aha” moment where they understand why your product fulfills their needs and how they will use it on a frequent basis.

Colosseum hackathons are 5 weeks long, so we recommend spending at least 4 of the weeks on the engineering sprint to ensure you achieve a working demo, as well as iterating on your product based on initial user feedback. The final week should be spent on testing the demo to ensure functionality and creating the submission presentation pitch (more on the presentation below).

Finally, we strongly recommend that hackathon participants build in the open from the start. After registering for the hackathon, create a project Twitter X account and begin sharing your product vision with the crypto community. The reason is twofold. First, it forces you to start marketing your product, and second (even more importantly) it enables you to find beta testers who will provide feedback during the engineering sprint. Initial users can significantly alter the direction of a project, so incorporating feedback early on in the hackathon is valuable.

Product Presentation

The final presentation is critical since there are hundreds of product submissions in Solana’s online hackathons. Builders can find all the information required during the product submission process within the FAQs, but the product presentation slide deck and video are the most important component in rising above the crowd.

In the final week of the hackathon, the focus should center on the presentation video (we recommend using Loom over a slide deck). Effective pitches always include:

  • Team background
  • Product description
  • Why you started building the product
  • The potential market opportunity unlocked by your product
  • How you will get initial product usage (or if applicable, the traction and user feedback already received)
  • How the product works (your demo)

Judges have to review hundreds of project submissions, so presentations are required to be under 3 minutes. As you practice your presentation recording, be concise when telling your product story, walking through your demo, and explaining why it is destined to become the next breakout crypto product.

Final Words

Given that Solana’s online hackathons are historically the largest in the world, they are extremely competitive and judging is a difficult task. There are usually 40 individual prizes per hackathon and every submission in the top 100 is typically exceptional in their own way. So for those who don’t make the cut for prizes or our accelerator initially, we encourage you to keep building. Developers often enter multiple hackathons before being selected as a winner, as it can take time to explore the idea maze and iterate to find the right product with the right teammates.

For founders who end up winning and being accepted into the accelerator program, congratulations on a monumental achievement. Know that our founder community will welcome you and that you can rely on Colosseum throughout your startup journey.

We hope this guide is helpful to all builders who participate in future Colosseum hackathons, and godspeed to all crypto builders working to grow the crypto economy.

Thanks to Mert Mumtaz, Richard Wu, and Ian Krotinsky for their feedback on this blog post.

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