In the past 3 years I’ve taken part in 11 hackathons. Of these, I’ve won 4 and have reached the finals in 2. Here are a few things that I’ve observed that I feel should increase your chances of winning a hackathon:
Cool tech does not always equate to a cool product: Regardless of how awesome your tech is, if you don’t have a great product you’re probably not going to win. Use the clever algorithm you came up with or the sweet new tech stack you’ve invented in a product or application that other people can use and love. For example:
DO this: We solved the P v.s. NP problem and used that to create an application that determines which of your friends you are most likely to start a company with by finding a solution to the graph coloring problem.
That was a pretty bad example, but hopefully I was able to get my point across.
Respect the demo: The demo is the most important part of a hackathon. This is where you convince the judges, in 2 or 3 minutes, that you spent the last 18 to 24 hours creating a product that is the best thing since sliced bread. Make sure you practice what you’re going to be showing the judges! Having a well thought out demo is key to winning a hackathon. Focus on the main features of your product, why it is awesome and why people would want to use it. Since time is limited try to show the most important and/or impressive features of your application.
Did I mention you should PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE your demo?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Most hackathons have employees (of the company organizing the hackathon) being present during the event as mentors for the competing teams. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help. These employees are an excellent source of knowledge and you should always reach out to them anytime you’re stuck on a nasty bug, can’t figure out how to use a new technology or library etc. Since hackathons give you limited time to work on your product it makes sense to get rid of roadblocks quickly. Of course, make sure you spend some time trying to solve your problem on your own first before turning to the mentors for help.
Try to make your product look pretty: Having a product that is polished and looks good is key to winning a hackathon in my opinion. Make sure you allocate some time to work on the UI and UX of your product. If your team lacks someone with design skills, or you’re simply running short on time, use something like Twitter Bootstrap or jQuery UI to add polish to your application.
Again, these are just my personal observations and opinions. Adhering to them in no way guarantees you a win.