Thoughts expressed in this post are not the opinions of Dragon Hacks, the organization of Dragon Hacks, IEEE, or Drexel University. They are the opinions and interpretations of my own.
Hello Dragon Hacks
Exactly three months ago, I joined the Dragon Hacks hackathon sponsorship team. My desire at the time to join the Dragon Hacks team was a selfish one - I wanted to get over my fear of reaching out to people. Thinking back at what my boss Michael Ngo at Beta Software Technology once said to me "Jacky - if you want to do big things, you have to have no fear. Fear nothing. Embrace the unknown, because you'll realize it's only the fear of the unknown that's scary. That's it."
Never would I think my inkling to challenge myself would effectively change me for the better and beyond.
Why Dragon Hacks
After joining the Dragon Hacks family and proving to the executive team of Gary Grossi and Savannah Lee that I was motivated by a very real desire to spread the hacker ethos of innovation, they extended me an official invitation to join their executive team.
After discussing what Dragon Hacks meant to us, we realized that Drexel has excellent engineers as part of its co-op and stellar engineering program, but we lack the culture shared by top-tier engineering schools like MIT or Stanford. Drexel engineers adopt a 9 - 5 approach to tech. Check-in, check-out, done. This isn't necessarily bad, as our 10-week brutal program is conducive of this behavior. Drexel makes excellent employees.
Joining the executive team comes with new sets of responsibilities, but all three of us knew that if we wanted to bring real change to the Drexel tech culture, there will be sacrifices.
This quote quickly became our key philosophy for Dragon Hacks 2016.
Very soon, I joined Savannah and Gary in all the meetings to chat with everyone from the head of ECE department, head of the College of Engineering, representatives from a16z, Lyft, Microsoft, IBM, and more, to get them interested in sponsoring Dragon Hacks.
With my background in design, I brought on my friend Bryan Wong, a Pratt Institute industrial designer, with the desire to entirely re-brand Dragon Hacks.
Dragon Hacks is still young, so we have flexibility to play around with its message. This year we are going to exude an aura of prestige, despite our young age, to put Dragon Hacks in the same level as other top-tier hackathons such as our neighbor PennApps, MHacks, and in particular, Hack@Brown which has the best branding of all hackathons in the United States (good job Atty and Chen).
This was no easy feat, as prestige can be cheesy if done incorrectly, and the history of other top-tier hackathons contribute to their brand. Bryan had various great ideas, from first re-branding our sponsorship document to contain elements used in hardware components, to redesigning the logo to represent a cracking dragon egg which represents birth of the new Dragon Hacks and the new hacker, to using a gold foil design in our t-shirt which has never been done in a hackathon before. I also created an official Dragon Hacks 2016 Slack which I made sure every message was replied to. All branding would permeate through to Facebook, Twitter, and our newly design website as well.
The Patented Dragon Hacks Sponsorship Method
While Bryan was busy with re-branding, Savannah, Gary, and I continued on our other responsibilities such as logistics and sponsorship.
After reaching out to more than 10 different companies to assist in sponsoring Dragon Hacks, we had no biters. We were not getting any where with finding sponsors. Something was wrong, and we weren't sure what. Turns out trying to find sponsors is a quantity over quality game.
We revised our sponsorship strategy.
The following instructions will soon become what internally was called "The Patented Dragon Hacks Sponsorship Method".
The strongest connections in your network are usually the people you have something in common with. Whether you work/worked at the same company, met someone in-person, went to the same school - having this sense of commonality is your strongest negotiation point.
In the "Patented Dragon Hacks Sponsorship Method", we began by looking at the sponsor list of the top 10 hackathons in the United States, and wrote down each company that appeared in the list.
After compiling this list of over 300+ companies (with duplicates removed), we started hot-calling, that is, we looked on LinkedIn to see which Drexel alumni has or is currently working at these companies.
Using a combination of three methods, Savannah and I would send a message to their Facebook, LinkedIn, and e-mail, asking for sponsorship assistance from their company.
Savannah, the genius she is, noticed that e-mails of people generally follow a very common pattern. My e-mail, for example, can come in the form of firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org, etc. You just need to get the right combination. I quickly found an e-mail permutator that generates up to 30+ combinations simply by knowing the person's first name, last name, and company/domain.
We struck gold. This method works. We started getting dramatically more replies and interests than prior cold-calling methods. Now we just need to actually get to work.
After sending over 700+ e-mails and private messages to over 200+ companies (this was just Savannah and I), we realized we needed more people. In a weekend session with around 15 IEEE officers, we got an even greater output. Thanks guys.
Sponsor interest kept rolling in. Savannah and I joked that we sort of became pyramid schemists, asking anyone and everyone we knew if they were interested in sponsoring us. Savannah got both her neighbors - PRA Healthsciences and AmeriGas to sponsor us. I got my former co-op Kieran Timberlake and various new friends met at past hackathons/events to sponsor us, including IBM, Soylent, and Square. Drexel University contributed a major part with three departments CoE, ECE, and Provost each contributing the Diamond tier. Safe to say, without the support of these companies (of many which I haven't mentioned), Dragon Hacks would not have been possible.
Dragon Hacks 2016 with a list of 26 companies is a 5x increase in sponsors from last year (there were 5 sponsors last year) which gave us 3x more funding. Extra effort was spent to get more companies on board as I wanted to lay the foundation this year for next year. Companies, like humans, generally are trend followers. They follow where other people go. If Microsoft, IBM, Etsy, Lyft, and more, are on board this year, it snowballs to greater brand recognition when we begin sponsorship search next year.
Now, hosting a hackathon is multi-part. Finding sponsors is one thing, we also have to consider what is best for the hackers. As Dragon Hacks is a hardware-focused hackathon, we needed hardware. Just last year, we purchased over $5000 in hardware including Raspberry Pis, Arduinos, and more. This year, we needed more. Taif, our Director of Hardware, was given $7500 to go nuts. We really care about what hackers have to build with, so Taif added Oculus Rifts, autonomous AR drones, more microcontrollers than any hackathon has ever offered, amongst other things. Our full hardware list can be found here. Combining what MLH brings, it is safe to say our hardware list is in the top 3 of the nation, if not first.
Food. What is a hackathon without good food?
We began speaking with vendors like Shake Shack, Sabrinas, Popeyes, and more, to offer us catering this year. Dragon Hacks 2015's biggest complaints were the food as it was done through Chestnut Catering, Drexel's licensed catering service. We tried our best to avoid Chestnut Catering this year by submitting our catering exemption form three months prior and providing everything from vendor invoices, last year's negative testimonials, and more, to the exemption office. Unfortunately, even two days before the hackathon, the team was unable to get exempted. We really tried, speaking all the way up to the Provost to assist us. But such is life, and we had to fall back to Chestnut Catering. While the food quality improved slightly compared to last year (mostly due to our 50-page long testimonial of how terrible the food was last year), it was still not Shake Shack quality.
Dragon Hacks 2017 will come back even stronger with all the lessons we've learned this year. We apologize.
Savannah and I joked that researching what prizes to buy, the process of buying the prizes, and receiving the prizes in the mail, provided a much stronger shot of dopamine than actually being the recipient of the prizes.
Dragon Hacks 2016 had a pretty insane prize list of over $10,000 in value (not including the sponsor prizes). We did something rarely done in hackathons, that is, let each member of the winning team choose what they want from the pool of prizes, with first place having first pick. To make it extra exciting, we limited the time each person had to choose to 20 seconds.
Waking up each morning was a treat to receive an e-mail of what came in the mail each day. One day it was the Xbox One, Apple Watch, iPad Air, iPhone 6. The next day, a batch of PS4, hoverboard, 40 inch TV, Nikon DSLR, and more. Seeing what's arrived and knowing what the hackers will have a chance at getting, made all stress worth it.
In the surface of seeming glory in organizing an event that receives widespread media attention from Tech Philly, The Triangle, ABC news, and more, what's rarely known and shown is the stress of organizing an event of such scale.
700+ e-mails were sent alone from Savannah and I during the months of November/December. During the winter break of December, we coordinated daily on the branding, logistics, catering, and more, through long distance and 12 hour time zone difference as I was in China. After I arrived in the U.S. on January 4th, Savannah and I met daily, skipping classes and meals, as we simply had one goal - make the best event possible for the best hackers in the country. There is no glory in organizing an event like this - only guts, sweat, and stress. Thanks Jeremy Cai for this quote.
With less than two weeks left to the event, it was crunch time.
What was a part-time commitment became a unpaid full-time job with unpaid overtime. 60 hour weeks contributing to organizing Dragon Hacks became standard. Friends were ignored, the gym was forgotten, school went to the last item in the list of hundreds of Dragon Hacks priorities, room 213 of the second floor of Bossone became the new home. 10 AM - 10 PM each day, rain or shine.
Wake up, motherf*****.
Bad news came in - a16z didn't want to sponsor us, our catering exemption didn't go through, we cannot offer travel reimbursement through our SAFAC account, we had to pay out of our own pockets for the chartered bus from University of Maryland, SAFAC was being SAFAC, we didn't have enough money, Monster only sent 200 cans of energy drinks, a sponsor's cheque was deposited into the Hyperloop account by accident, the stickers didn't come (sorry people we promised at PennApps), we cannot use the sixth floor space (which holds 150 people) due to safety hazards. The list was endless.
However, each set back, Savannah and I sucked it up, and went back to work to fix the issue.
Quoting Matt Damon, "at some point, everything's gonna go south on you and you're going to say, this is it. This is how I end. You can either accept that, or you can get to work. That's all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. If you solve enough problems, you get to come home."
Now, I am not so far up my a** to think that I'm Matt Damon (well, I wish..), or that I'm going to die if Dragon Hacks doesn't go well - but the lesson stands.
You either put your head down and get to work on the problem, or the show won't go on, simple as that. You complain, you lose.
We would complain, but five minutes later, we would start beginning to solve the problem. Each set back, we motivated each other. Never once did we consider giving up. The show must go on.
Last year, 500 people signed up for Dragon Hacks, and 115 people came, so it was around a ~20% turn out rate. This year, we had over 1100 people sign up, so we expected around the same, which is around 350 people will come. Our RSVP system said 570 people, but we were too stubborn to believe it.
On the day of, our check-in system crashed due to the internet not being able handle the influx of people. The check-in guys reverted to vim and e-macs to log users. Our final tally logged that 512 hackers came (on top of the 50 or so volunteers/organizers/sponsors) - a 50% turn out rate, which is insane.
The first couple hours of Dragon Hacks was, to say the least, very stressful. Maybe the 3 - 4 hours of sleep each night of that week had to do with it. We ran out of swag when the 400th person came, so over 100 people couldn't get our gold-foil t-shirts and mugs.
In particular, we couldn't feed everyone on the Saturday night dinner. We didn't have enough water and Monster. The power mysteriously went out (was it the cotton candy machine? We still don't know :P). Our expectations of around 350 people went out of the roof, and dinner time really showed that.
We acted fast - we immediately ordered an excess of 100 more meals per person moving forward (that's where having 15% backup funds come in handy). Savannah literally lent her credit card and truck out for organizers to get more water, Monster, extension cords, power strips, and more.
By around 10 PM, the number of fires to fight happened in lesser intervals.
At this point, I was finally able to take a breath to walk around and absorb the scale of this event.
This was my train of thought - "Holy s***. 500 people. Hackers from China, Vietnam, Canada, and U.S. People drove as far as 12 hours away from Kentucky and Virginia just to get here. Half a year of effort, to culminate to these 24 hours. We did this. This is insane. Wait - do we have enough food?"
Organizing a hackathon is a very stressful thing.
It means ignoring your friends for weeks straight. It means seeing the same people every day - so choose the right people. It means testing your ability to handle a hundred priorities at once, while staying calm as more problems arise. It's a full-time job with overtime and no salary (wait - is this legal?). It means supporting each other. It means building connections with people in your school and outside of it. It means hacking the system to get stuff done. It means making new friends. It's about learning from your mistakes.
Most importantly, it's actually fun as hell. A hacker coming up to you in person or in Slack or on Facebook saying they had a lot of fun or they learned a new technology is extremely rewarding. Thank you everyone that did this - it seriously means a lot to me.
I would do this again in a heartbeat. I'm batsh** crazy. But I can't, since I am graduating this year. Sorry Savannah - you're on your own next year, muahaha.
There are actually way too many people to thank for such an incredible event. I'm sorry if I miss anyone, but in no order in particular:
Savannah Lee for being the best co-director anyone can ask for, all the sponsors that helped make this happen, Emily McManus from TED, Kamelia Aryafa from Etsy, Remko de Knikker from IBM, Roderick Bates and team from Kieran Timberlake, Mike Swift and the rest of the team at MLH, Ioannis Savidis, all the hackathon organizers I asked for help like Hack@Brown, Bryan Wong, Bob Mulholland, Daniel Penge, all the Dragon Hacks volunteers/organizers, and especially the hackers that made this event incredible.
If you are slightly insane and organizing such craziness interests you - shoot me a message.
We are looking for someone extremely motivated and wants to be challenged. No skills are needed except for having an open mind and a burning desire for a job well done.