How to mentor teams at a hackathon

Garage48 has organised over 80 hackathons during the past 7 years all over the Baltics and Eastern Europe. We’ve also been to Nairobi, Johannesburg, Oman and other weird and weirder places to boost people with an entrepreneurial mindset. Elevate is the sister company of Garage48 making internal hackathons happen for corporates.

A huge part of the success of a hackathon depends of the mentors who we always handpick depending on the topic of the hackathon and the skills needed.

The main roles of a mentor:

  1. To help to brainstorm ideas on the challenge and the solution
  2. To give advice on the topic that mentor is qualified or skilled at
  3. To keep an eye on the time, the schedule is usually quite intense
  4. To help divide roles inside the team
  5. If they get stuck, help to get them moving again
  6. To help to pick out a person who is going to do the pitch

I’ve been on both sides of the table. As a mentor at different hackathons and other business development workshops and as a mentee when working on my own startup ideas. Over the years I’ve seen some good, bad and worse mentoring. Which is why it’s good to review some of the do’s and don’ts (mostly from a business mentor’s perspective).

1. Make sure you know where the teams need to get

Is the goal of the hackathon a clickable prototype? A low-level prototype with only wireframes? What business-critical questions they need to have answered? How do they need to present their ideas at the end of the hackathon? With or without slides? Make sure you know where to focus. And focus is often something the teams need the most.

2. Do some pre-work

If you somewhat know the topics the teams will be working on and if you’re not an expert on that specific field (for example, you’re a design mentor at a health tech event but work in another industry), take 30 minutes prior to the event to do some research on what companies and startups are doing on the same field. I’ve seen a lot of teams to get stuck in their heads and a mentor getting them unstuck after giving some examples how other companies are handling similar issues. Yes, you could argue that the teams should be doing that job themselves, but they simply don’t, sometimes they just don’t know what and where to look for. That’s when mentor’s comments come in handy.

3. Show up and stay there

Often mentors are available for the teams only for a limited amount of time. Even worse, they help at their own schedule and not according to the event or team’s schedule. If you have promised to be there, be present as much as you can so that the teams can ask you questions if needed. If you cannot be there the whole time, tell the teams how they can reach you.

4. You may not be needed

Be around, visible and approachable, but don’t disturb the teams by being with them too much. They’re getting a lot of different advice from different mentors anyway so they need time to digest, make decisions on their own and just work. Tell them when you will be stopping by to see how they’re doing and if they say they don’t need help, leave them be.

5. It’s ok not to have answers, but ask the right questions

Even when you’re really skilled at what you do and a really good mentor, you only have a certain framework how you see the world. But your most important skill when mentoring is asking smart questions. Avoid giving very strict answers at all times, help them to come up with answers on their own.

Examples of good questions:

Who is your future customer and what’s the problem you are trying to solve?

Could there be any other segments you could target that you don’t see at the moment?

How could you test your assumptions during a very short period of time (say, 48 hours)? What could you push out there right now?

Why is your solution different from what’s out there?

How big of an impact does your solution have? Money? Social impact? Something else?

How close are you going to the market?


6. Don’t push on your own ideas

One of the most crucial aspects mentors sometimes don’t get is that the hackathon is not about them and getting their ideas come to life, it’s about helping the team through the maze. It takes the ability and willingness to put your ego in the background and think what’s best for the team, how they can learn the most.

For example, I’m a business mentor and the teams often ask me “what kind of revenue model should we use”. I give them a couple of hints but usually direct them to a resource where they can find revenue model examples and pick their own favorite. That’s the only way they can make a conscious decision and not just rely on what the mentor has been saying. Different mentors give them different advice anyway.

7. Don’t make the teams change direction halfway

If they’re halfway through and you think they should change a critical part of their idea or prototype, hold yourself back and don’t do it, they won’t have time. Instead, help them to make the most of what they have been working on so far.

8. Help them to make their own decisions

Often teams expect mentors to give them ready-made answers because “you’re the expert, tell us what to do”. It’s good to tell your rules for mentoring the very first time you meet the team. Specifically tell them to be critical of mentor’s advice and to make their own decisions about their team, their product, and their business. We all know that the best way to learn is to experience firsthand what implications different decisions have. Don’t rob them of that opportunity.

9. Don’t be the discourager, be the empowerer

Encourage the teams, acknowledge their passion, don’t kill their ideas, however, crazy they may sound. When they’re low on energy or otherwise stuck, try to get their spirits back up. Celebrate successes, big and small, with them.

Liis Narusk is the co-founder and CEO of Elevate by Garage48. Elevate is helping corporates to experiment with new business ideas and build prototypes through ideation workshops, hackathons, and design sprints.

Garage48 e-justice hackathon. Photo by JP Hion.

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