Hackathon: Great Things Come From the Freedom to Fail

Each year at Blurb, we set aside one week where we don’t chart a production course for each day—normally they are pretty exact. We don’t scope how much development work will be required to complete tasks generated by our product team; we don’t hold daily stand-up meetings; product doesn’t determine our priorities. For one week, we step away from the normal ceremonies of planning, and we “hack.” We take risks.

Before I started working at Blurb, I had never heard of a “hackathon.” To me, it sounded like one of those fundraising running events in grammar school where you have to convince your aunts and uncles to give you a dollar for every lap you complete. I couldn’t see the point.

So when I learned that we were taking a week off from the normal roadmap priorities to give our developers the freedom to work on what they wanted to, I wasn’t entirely convinced it was worth-while. How could this possibly help our company or our customers to stop building? To veer off our product roadmap?

So many ways. When we step back and take a breath, we make room for wins, big and tiny.


When product and engineering partner together, they create Big Wins. New print products, new book creation tools, new distribution options. It’s like they make a cake, and then the design and UX teams layer the icing for a beautiful treat. These are what I look at as “Big Wins”. These are the things that our marketing team loves to talk about—and rightfully so!

But as wonderful as the Big Wins are, I love the “Tiny Wins” too. Tiny Wins won’t see an email campaign or a PR release. But with or without a spotlight, Tiny Wins always improve the customer experience.

Sometimes they’re improvements to existing framework behind the scenes. Other times Tiny Wins are customer facing—these are like sprinkles added to the frosted cake. And really, who doesn’t like sprinkles?

But why do hackathons work? Why is it that, for a short period of time, this lack of structure is beneficial?

Sure, you get the obvious benefits of allowing our developers to build team comradery—as well as the clear benefits of allowing the team to flex their creative muscles. But I think an important ingredient to the success of a hackathon—to the success of any work—is the freedom to fail.

When given the opportunity and freedom to fail, great things can happen. Our home, the Silicon Valley, is a daily reminder of that.

My Favorite Tiny Wins

• The ability to use a Gift card + an in-market promotion: You will laugh and say things like, “couldn’t you already do this?” Unfortunately, we could not. But now the past is the past, and we can! So, bring us your gift cards and your promos and we’ll fix you right up!
• Admin tool updates: I rely heavily on internal tools, or admin tools. So, when I see small improvements to these I get excited for two reasons: a) I’ll be able to do my job better and more efficiently, thus giving customers a better experience; and b) it shows how much the engineers I work with regularly understand my needs as an internal customer.
• A Better PDF Uploader: over the course of multiple hackathons, the framework for a better PDF Uploader was constructed, then completed, and polished in the normal course of business. This is a great example of how both cross-functional creativity and the flexibility to step away from a project for a period of time really benefited the final outcome.

There have been a lot of Tiny Wins over the past years, and in the future, I hope to share stories of many more that continue to elevate the customer experience with Blurb.

The thing about a hackathon is that sometimes what we’re trying works, sometimes it doesn’t. But for us to take leaps and leverage our creativity, we have to give ourselves permission to fail for a little while. Our Big and Tiny Wins depend on this freedom. The Hackathon lets us balance our need for risk and our need for consistent success.

In your own process or creative work, have you given yourself a little bandwidth to take risks? Go for it. You can always go back to the way things were next week. The important thing is that you made time to experiment and try new things.

Now I’m off to go find a piece of cake!


This post doesn't have any comment. Be the first one!

hide comments

This is a unique website which will require a more modern browser to work!

Please upgrade today!