Mobelux co-founder and president Jeff Rock writes the fifth in a series about Mobelux's 10-Year entrepreneurial journey, the team founded an event in 2012 that brought the local design and development community together. Here's how it happened.
2012 was a banner year for Mobelux. Along with building first-class apps and web services for new clients, we built a few more of our own. Marco Arment (former CTO of Tumblr / developer of podcasting app Overcast) reached out to gauge our interest in porting Instapaper to Android, and we accepted the challenge. We launched Zen (a sleep-sounds app for iPhone) hand-in-hand with iHome. And we continued developing Carousel for Mac, of course.
As much fun as we were having with the work, we were starting to ask ourselves what our place was in in the local tech community. The majority of our work came from NYC and Silicon Valley. We were struggling with where we fit into our hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
To remedy that, the idea of an official Mobelux hackathon began culminating in early 2012. I'd attended a few hackathons in the past and had varying opinions about them. Some felt too restricted by technology or theme. Some, too loose. Most, too exclusive. I spoke to friends and teammates about the possibility of a Mobelux-designed hackathon. We got pretty excited about it and decided to put together a concept.
Our hackathon concept was a little bit different. There would be no cash prize, and it wouldn't restrict it to development. We wanted to encourage product thinking. That way it would be inclusive to designers and product strategists as well. Above all, we wanted to get interesting people together to create interesting things. So that's what we did.
RVA Hackathon launched on April 20th, 2012. A wide swath of space in the Corrugated Box Building (where we rented office space) had opened up when a tenant vacated, so we had a great (free!) spot to hold it. We decided on a 24-hour format that ran from Friday evening through Saturday night and culminated in a presentation party. We partnered with sponsors Github, Mozilla, and Troutman Sanders to cover all costs. That allowed us to provide meals, coffee, furniture rental, and laser-engraved goodies. It was a break-even proposition, but it allowed anyone who wanted a ticket to have one, and that was fine with us.
150 attendees showed up to that first event, and once it got going it never slowed down. We brought in pizza for dinner Friday evening which fueled attendees into the night. Most teams went home after midnight but a few devoted teams worked in shifts to get ahead. Saturday was a blur of activity. We had Lamplighter Coffee on-site providing pour-overs and a taco truck in the lot for lunch. As teams neared the end we noticed that some hadn't gotten as far as they wanted to, and were considering giving it up. Since this was about community, we convinced them to present what they did get done, whether it was functional or not.
At 7 PM we called for the all-stop. Exhausted (but excited) we all headed across town to The Camel where we presented the work and had a few drinks. We saw everything from functional iPhone games to social networking concepts. Some work was unfinished and much was unpolished, but it didn't matter. Everyone had earned the right to present. At the end, a team that finished early presented me with a hand-made trophy for serving as (hesitant) MC. (Funny story: we still have it and hand it out to the Mobelux employee of the month, though very few have any idea where it came from!
We learned a ton from that first RVA Hackathon.
First, an overnight hackathon is too much. I'm not sure if it was because of Richmond’s size, our reach, or the nature of the event, but it over complicated things. That type of event resonates with younger students, but for many of us with responsibilities beyond school it was difficult to manage.
Second, Richmond is full of talent. As we met with attendees and watched ideas form into products, we knew we were on to something. And that we found the right place to make it happen. One of those attendees from that first event, Rob Green, ended up applying for a design position a few weeks after the event. Today, he's Brand Director here at Mobelux, over six years later. Some of the teams went on to found companies, such as Tenant Turner, and Painless 1099, which have gone on to participate in national accelerator programs (Y Combinator and Techstars, respectively).
Lastly, inclusiveness matters. Because of the relaxed rules, we had a more diverse set of ideas than seen in traditional hackathons. Bucking industry averages, a quarter of attendees were women, and the most interesting work was produced by teams that they participated in.
So, Why Did It End?
Organizing a large event is hard. After four consecutive events (which we'll talk about in future articles), we needed a break. It was difficult to find venues, and it was taking focus away from our work. Our priority at Mobelux has always been product quality and customer service. Time spent organizing hackathons can detract from that, especially with a small team.
Now that we have a permanent home and people to help coordinate, we're discussing bringing it back. At its heart, it was about inclusivity and creativity. With those guiding principles in place, we're talking about where to take it next. While I'm not sure what format RVA Hackathon will take on here in our new space, I'm sure it'll be fun to find out.
Jeff Rock is the co-founder and president of Mobelux.