Living Off Hackathons: The Possible Rise Of The Pro-Hacker

Hackathon prize money keeps rising each year as organizations learn to take advantage of their value. Runner-up cash prizes are now in the thousands, and grand-prize payouts are as high as $1 million.

There is now a compelling argument for ambitious programmers to live off hackathons: They can forget the long-term slog of building a startup and instead focus on the fun part — the first few days of innovation.

Another motive to becoming a “pro” hacker is to find the perfect idea. Rather than marrying an idea without investor backing from the start, potential startup founders can attend hackathons until they win a big investment deal — essentially removing much of the risk of a startup. For example, Brian Clarke, a young entrepreneur, claims to have won more than $150,000 in cash-equivalent prizes, which are helping “fund his startup journey.” In one case, he claims to have won $5,000 for an app that took him four hours to build.

Prize money is potentially enough to live on

The potential of generating around $100,000 per year from hackathons is becoming a possibility. Similar to being a pro gamer, it’s hard, but possible (some hackathons with large payouts are listed at the bottom of this article).

Strategically, programmers would need to go where the money is big and play the numbers. The smaller prizes could pay living expenses. The idea is to get so good at hackathons that you eventually win big, like the $90,000 or $800,000 hackathons.

Would a “pro hacker” kill hackathons?

Sometimes it makes sense for hackathons to offer big prizes to attract the best talent. There are many hackathons where the organizers are looking to crowdsource creative solutions that are low-cost to implement. For example, in cleantech, big data, fintech and medtech, the results of a hackathon can save tons of money — and sometimes lives.

Hackathons also are an effective way to advertise, and major online media tend to flock to them. The better the final products of a hackathon, the more media buzz is created. This would suggest “pro” hackers are welcome.

We could be approaching an age of pro-league hackers.

That being said, there is a growing category of hackathons where a “pro” might be unwelcome. The competitiveness causes people to stop helping others, unless they are on their team. This is against the original spirit of a hackathon. Competing against “pros” also makes it harder for the average Joe to win prizes. For this reason, there is a growing divide between hackathons that offer very basic prizes, often targeting students or hobbyists, and those that are trying to attract seasoned programmers.

Is this the beginning of “pro” hackers?

We could be approaching an age of pro-league hackers: Experts in rapid prototyping who consistently win big prizes and flaunt their winning inventions to the awe of their fans on social media.

This is, after all, how major league sports started. According to the book A Great Game, long ago, paying hockey players was seen by some as a disgusting affront. Some people thought that hockey should be played for the love of the sport, not for money. Over time, however, a market was created; different leagues were then made for pro and non-pro players.

Perhaps the same will happen with hackathons.

Which hackathons pay well?

Here are some hackathons from 2015 that involved big prizes:

Makers Against Drought Hackathon
Sponsored by Samsung, this hackathon is designed to help solve California’s water crisis.
Winner: $90,000 cash prize
Finalists: $10,000 cash prize for 10 finalists

GlobalHack IV
This hackathon was sponsored by LockerDome. GlobalHack hackathons often offer large cash prizes.
Winner: $30,000 cash prize
Finalists: $15,000, $5,000 and $5,000 for runners-up

Launch Hackathon
Last year, there were two top prizes of $800,000. This is run as part of the regular Launch startup event. Winning includes some serious business connections.

The Money20/20 Financial Tech Hackathon
This hackathon is geared toward financial, payments, banking or investment-based tech. The grand prize was $20,000 in cash, and it was given to four teams. The $5,000 prize was given to five teams. The pure odds of winning were 9 out of about 155 teams, or a 5.8 percent chance.

RootsTech Hackathon
RootsTech is about promoting the use of family history in a creative way.
1st prize: $20,000 in cash, $25,000 in-kind
2nd prize: $14,000 in cash, $15,000 in-kind
Judge’s choice: $6,000 in cash, $10,000 in-kind
People’s choice: $10,000 in cash

IBM Spark Hackathon
IBM has been sponsoring lots of hackathons to promote their BlueMix cloud platform and Spark investments.
1st prize: $15,000
2nd prize: $7,500
3rd prize: $5,000
Plus various smaller prizes.