5 Tips To Win At World’s Biggest Hackathons

A true story highlighting how to bring home the 1st prize of major hackathon challenges.

Lemon King
9 min readNov 22, 2022

The clock is ticking… Ten minutes until the deadline of a huge 48-hour hackathon and our final submission video is having trouble rendering. Our team, sleep-deprived after the weekend’s endless discussions and designs, might not be able to submit anything at all. All we can do is wait and pray that our overworked computers come through before it’s too late.

Backtrack a year. It was late 2021 and I worked as a mentor for participants in Junction, one of the biggest hackathon’s in Europe. A hackathon is an event where people collaborate in rapid engineering to develop prototypes, designs and ideas to solve participating companies’ challenges. The time limit at Junction is 48 hours and many teams work through it without any sleep.

I was profoundly drawn in by the atmosphere of the venue and the variety of interesting challenges presented by a legion of companies. My brain was itching to participate in ideating and implementing all kinds of solutions, but I wasn’t a contestant, nor did I have a team. I vowed next year things would be different.

Fast forward to September 2022. The registration opened for Junction 2022 boasting some 1,300 open slots for tech and business savvy professionals and students alike. There was a track for Web3 challenges, something I’m extremely passionate about, so I wasted no time applying. Next up would be building an unstoppable dream team for the 48-hour sprint.

1. Building a Dream Team

The perfect team for a hackathon is not a group of five highly skilled hackers. No, for a hackathon, diversity is king. The team should be multi-disciplinary, consisting of talents covering subject matter, business, design, media and often yes, programming.

I knew I, The Lemon King, could cover the corners of Web3 subject matter knowledge and programming, but needed help with the rest to be able to deliver something amazing.

The first one to join the team, Panda 🐼 was one of the best future-minded people I know, topped up with unparalleled soft skills. She would make sure whatever we end up delivering speaks for itself and sells.

Then we got Chameleon 🦎 A product and experience design wizard with a deep knowledge in everything related to user stories, visuals and audio. With him on board, it was a given our final submission video would be top notch.

The fourth member, Tiger 🐯 brought in a vast understanding of Web3 technologies, such as decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), Smart Contracts and the Metaverse. She would be indispensable in aligning the team’s ideas with what is theoretically possible with Web3.

Finally, we were joined by Dolphin 🐬 A true sorceress in the realm of design and animation, enabling us with powerful infographics, logos and icons throughout the presentation.

Between the five of us, it didn’t even matter what the challenge would be. We knew we would be contending for the top prizes in any category. But from the get go, the main goal of the hackathon was to have fun.

2. Having a Game Plan

Before the hackathon starts, it’s important to make sure all team members know exactly what is going to happen and how they can contribute. We had a one-hour meeting with the gang, aligning on the Web3 challenge we would choose to participate in, and going through some practicalities.

Web3 is a relatively new idea, thus being somewhat unknown to many. I knew in the end we would most likely be building something DAO (read more) related, so we started the meeting by having a crash course on Web3 and DAOs. It is very important that everyone in the team understands at least the concept of what you are building.

We then made sure everyone knew the rules of the event, when and where to meet and how their strengths could be used to deliver the project. It was also highlighted that taking breaks and going home to sleep during the event was not just accepted, but recommended. Health and having fun should be the first priority.

As for scheduling, we agreed that we would spend the first day discussing with the sponsors of the challenge, honing our project idea to reflect their desires as accurately as possible before implementing a single thing. And that’s a segue to our next tip.

3. Divide and Conquer

Some challenges are clear-cut, and some, not so much. The more ambiguity a challenge has, the more time you should spend discussing with the sponsors to make sure you are delivering something they actually want to see. And our challenge was definitely not lacking in ambiguity:

Imagine a multi-planetary human species in the year 2222.
Governance doesn’t work and federations keep fighting. Money gets printed like paper. How to ensure liberty without tyranny?
Envision the tools of tomorrow so we can start building them today.

The challenge was on the Web3 track and DAOs are a popular Web3 model to decentralize organizational power. We started by spending a couple of hours drafting DAO systems for digital decentralized voting. Nothing new or innovative, just a generic idea we could probe the sponsors with.

We reserved a meeting with the sponsors and they asked us to narrow down our focus and to provide an innovative solution for a single part of the generic idea. Within the next few hours we had squeezed our idea to either “verifying DAO voters are real existing people” or “predicting and preventing malicious DAO activity based on blockchain history”. We named the project DAO Guard and headed home to sleep for a few hours.

Next day we spent six more hours and a dozen A4s filled with futuristic drawings to arrive to a conclusion: we would create a tool that verifies DAO voters are real people. Our proposal was to mint a unique key for every newborn baby, and then use it to cryptographically sign life events on a blockchain as they happen. By voting age, the blockchain would be filled with events that would be hard to fake. We called it Proof of Life.

After one more feedback session with the sponsors we learned their favorite life events to track and came up with a couple of our own. The design was ready but we had only 14 hours left to create a functional Web3 prototype and a 2-minute submission video. Everyone being completely exhausted did not help, but the plan was clear, so we pushed on.

4. Utilize Storytelling

Human beings have been using stories to convey information since the cognitive revolution some 70,000 years ago. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the best way to get your point across effectively is to wrap it into a story. And that is exactly what we did.

We wrote a script for our submission video that included many of the main elements of good storytelling: Initial setting, a conflict, a solution and an ending with a happy resolution. The story incorporated many of the ideas we had come up with together during the feedback sessions with the sponsor.

When evaluating teams’ submissions, even great technological feats may be overlooked if they are not explained in an easy to understand — and remember — way. Putting effort on the submission story can definitely be the key to bringing home a prize, but an appropriate delivery can bring the whole win. Therefore, you have to…

5. Stand out from the crowd

We are all slaves to our senses. When submitting a project in a hackathon challenge, the main inputs we can give our evaluators are auditory and visual.

To stand out from other participants, putting effort in the submission video is probably the main place to do so. For Junction, 48 hours of work is culminated in a 2-minute video. And we had all the skills in the team to really excel at this.

Chameleon 🦎 had brought his professional grade audio recording equipment, Panda 🐼 had a DSLR camera and everyone’s computers were loaded with audio and video editing software.

We spent over 10 hours script-crafting, filming, recording audio, animating and video editing to arrive to our final product, which was nothing short of amazing. In our video, we receive the challenge from the future, identify a problem that needs to be solved and suggest a solution in the form of our DAO Guard project:

DAO Guard Project

We utilized every second of the two minutes time limit and kept honing the video until we only had 10 minutes left for the deadline. Our Adobe tools were crashing and for a minute it looked like we were running out of time. We would still have to upload the thing to YouTube! Our crashed machines suddenly came through with a message: “Video exported successfully”. A quick upload to YouTube and the submission was done!

The Aftermath

After 48 hours with practically no sleep, hitting that submission button was like detonating a bomb. All team members were exhausted and now we would have to wait a few hours for the sponsors to review every team’s submissions.

We had a strong feeling we would be in Top 3 for the challenge, meaning we would be receiving a prize. Therefore we stayed at the venue until the closing ceremony. Some of us were resting in massage chairs, and some sleeping against a table in a corner. The ceremony started a few hours later.

The announcers were going through challenges one by one, until finally arriving to our challenge, Year 2222. They first announced the 3rd place project… Not ours. So we must have been #2 or #1, right?!

Then came #2. Still not us. My heart started racing as there was a high probability we had won the whole challenge. I took out my phone with my shaky hands and started to record a video.

Before revealing the winner, the announcers read a message from the sponsoring company:

This team’s presentation’s quality, communications, and their way of taking feedback made them the winning team.

By now, I’m sure the whole team knew we had won. The message was an embodiment of our behaviour at the hackathon. And as no surprise, a moment later we were crowned as the winner!

It bears noting that the aforementioned message was mostly praising our presentation and interaction. Their importance shall not be overlooked in a hackathon!


So, as a quick recap, here are the five tips we utilized to succeed:

  1. Building a Dream Team ✅
  2. Having a Game Plan 📝
  3. Divide and Conquer 🔍
  4. Utilize Storytelling 💬
  5. Stand Out From The Crowd 👑

Our team had near-zero experience of hackathons, nor did we know each other before the event started. Therefore I believe these five tips will carry any hackathon-participating teams to the top ranks, regardless of what the actual challenges are.

Thanks for reading and Happy hacking!

Remember to follow me on Medium to receive automatic notifications of my future posts. 🍋👑