June 19, 2014

When Was Your Last Food Business Hackathon?

business ideasIn a few minutes I’ll be turning off my phone and shutting down email for the next 12 hours.  Doesn’t sound like a good business move, does it?  Actually, I’m hoping that by doing that it’s going to make my business even stronger.

A few weeks ago some friends and I were talking about innovation in companies and, as we all live in Seattle which is a bit of a tech hub, we naturally talked about some of the differences we see between companies like Microsoft and smaller start-ups.  One of the things that we admire about the little guys is their openness to new ideas and creative thinking and we ultimately ended up talking about the culture of hackathons which tends to be pretty pervasive in tech startups.

A hackathon, if you’re not familiar, is a day where the company sets aside all normal work and invites its employees to work on anything that they might be interested in.  The best hackathons are those in which anyone from any department can work on any idea – so you, for example, have someone from human resources working with a developer to build out code that the HR rep thinks would be a great addition to the company’s site.

The goal with a hackathon day is not to end up with a finished project by 5pm, but to allow all employees in the company – who all touch different parts of the company – to work together on ideas they have that may end up making the company better.  Typically at the end of the day the projects are presented to the entire company (usually with some beer or other spirits in the midst) and the best ideas may actually end up becoming real projects and make their way into the software, website, app, technology platform, etc.   In fact, Twitter actually came out of one of these hackathon days when the founding company, Odeo, was struggling to find a way to stay relevant and practical in the marketplace.

So why should you, a food business entrepreneur with limited staff, care about hackathons?  I think there’s a way to take this concept and apply it to what we’re all working on.  Because we spend so much of our time in the trenches of our business, we don’t often take the time we’d like to devote to some bigger ideas we may have.  This may be creative new flavors you’ve been wanting to work on, new products entirely that are different than your core offerings, or, yes, even technical issues you or your customers have been experiencing and you want to be able to work on resolving those problems.

Whether or not you have staff, it’s worthwhile to schedule a day where you can devote yourself – 100% – to those issues and creative ideas that you’ve been wanting to focus on but simply haven’t had time.

Have you done a hackathon (or something similar) in your business before?  How did it turn out?  Alternatively, I’d love to know if you schedule one and, if so, how it goes.

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4 comments on “When Was Your Last Food Business Hackathon?

  • Brady on said:

    Let your team loose on a kitchen and see what comes up. Sounds like a great idea, though it might be nice to have access to an actual test kitchen so everyone can try test versions of whatever ideas come out of it. Maybe not even your own kitchen, but a place where they can have ideas for products outside of your current product line.

    • Jennifer on said:

      Yes, a test kitchen would be brilliant. But for ‘hackathons’ I’d encourage business owners to think beyond just new product development. Perhaps there’s an area of your administrative tasks that’s been driving you crazy so use the ‘hackathon’ day to figure out an alternative. Anything that can make your company more efficient or profitable should be considered! 🙂

  • Emily on said:

    It’s like the first day back from a vacation, except there’s no pressure to get caught up. It’s fresh eyes and mind. Ours is a tiny business, and we “hackathon” by taking one core aspect of our business and analyzing how a successful food- or non-food business deals with that one thing: customer service, hiring, supply chain, etc. Sometimes it happens as the result of experience in nonwork time. I recently bought something online (not for work) and was horrified at the lack of information on the website which led to confusion and disappointment in the fulfillment of the order. It made me really look at our website and see holes and messy parts that need improvement. Just because I know what I’m saying, doesn’t mean my readers do. 🙂 Thank you for the reminder to “hack.”

    • Jennifer on said:

      I love this idea of looking outside your business to see what, in your day-to-day life, might be driving your crazy and then apply that same concept back to your business. Thank you for that great reminder to not be myopically focused on just your business!