Hackathon domination: Proven tactics for Winning

During my years as a student, I have participated in a variety of case and pitch competitions. Some of them were focused on the development of a prototype, while others were more focused on developing a strategy. However, in each case, there is a certain way of doing these competitions that will help you succeed and maybe win. This advice and framework allowed me to win two major competitions. One of the competitions was the BCG Strategy Cup in Belgium and the other was a hackathon organised by Platinion.

Overall, there are four steps that I usually follow in a case competition, problem definition, brainstorm, execution and pitch preparation. These steps are not necessarily followed in a linear fashion. After the brainstorm you, for instance, need to perform some more problem definition or worst-case pivot during the competition. Before getting into the framework, first some general points of advice.

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Some general advice

The framework is one thing, but there are some things that just aren’t covered by it. The first one is perhaps a bit cheesy, but nonetheless true. Participation is more important than winning, you should enjoy the experience of the competition and learn skills. Sometimes you tend to forget this when focusing on winning, but in my experience fun is part of the reason why certain teams win and others don’t. The jury likes enthusiastic groups more than cold-blooded machines. Moreover, taking breaks outside or in the breakroom will help with your productivity!

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As a second point, try to stand out as much as possible. Give your product or team a cool name, use a catchphrase and have a logo. All of these contribute to how memorable you are and the mark you’ll make on the people assessing your performance. In most cases, there can only be one winner and standing out can be the deciding factor.

A final point before giving the framework is focus. You will only have a limited time to create and formulate your idea, so it is essential to focus on what is important. What is important is of course dependent on the rules of the specific competition, but as a general rule results are more important than the process. A good example can be found in app development. Here front-end is usually more important than back-end. The jury will not see your beautifully written API that you spend 10 hours on, but they will see the front-end with barely any functionality.

The problem

In order for us to get more concrete into the framework and how you can win hackathons and case competitions, let us get started by introducing the problem. It depends on the type of competition and who is organising it. In general, you will see two extremes and anything in between, general cases and specific cases. An example of a general case might be something such as AI or sustainability, while a specific case is: create X solution for Y company with Z problem. General cases allow for more creativity and qualitative solutions and specific cases are more quantitative. This does not imply that you should not be creative in specific cases, on the contrary! The jury is not looking for the obvious answer. Sure, off-shoring might solve their labour case or a marketing campaign might help with sales, but maybe something entirely new and innovative might solve the problem!

In this article, we’ll think about ideas for solving the following problem statement: Obesity affects people worldwide, can your team introduce a technological solution to help this problem?

Problem definition

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In the problem definition phase, it’s all about the problem. Don’t try to focus on how to solve it, but rather think in terms of bottlenecks and if I had this problem how would this bother me? This will give you a broad idea of what the scope is, what the main drivers are and what you should focus on. Later in the process, this problem definition will prove to be essential and might help you with presenting your case to the jury. Some of the questions that you need to answer in this phase are:

  • What are we going to solve?

  • How many people does this affect and in what way? Who are we helping?

  • What are the main causes of the problem and what are the main symptoms?

  • Are there any current solutions already in use and in what way are they insufficient?

To answer these questions Google and more recently ChatGPT are your friend.

In the example case, the problem is obesity, but this is a bit general. First of all, what is it? Well, according to Mayo clinic: Obesity is a complex disease involving an excessive amount of body fat. Obesity isn’t just a cosmetic concern. It’s a medical problem that increases the risk of other diseases and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers. Looking a bit further, obesity and overweight affect 3 out of 4 adults in the US and 1 out of 5 children struggle with obesity. It’s a complex problem, but online the main factors seem to be eating patterns and a lack of physical activity. Finally, there are already a number of solutions available in terms of meal plans and exercise plans. A good idea at this point might be to choose one specific problem to solve, rather than the complex and broad one of obesity. Based on the evidence, I have decided that solving the obesity of children is a good idea.


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Once you have all the data, it is time to get creative and brainstorm solutions. The goal of this phase is to come up with as many ideas as possible and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. In a team, this is a great way to get everyone involved and create a shared understanding of the problem. Generally, people are much better in this phase than in the problem definition, but the first phase will make sure that you don’t solve things that are not really a problem or that someone else has already been solved. In finding solutions, I generally use the three famous criteria- viability, feasibility and desirability.

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The first one, viability, is a question that a lot of teams have problems answering, i.e. how to monetise your solution. You should have a concrete idea of who your clients will be and how you will make a profit. Think of the jury as investors (in some cases they are) and whether they would like a product for which “we will eventually find a way to make money”

The feasibility is usually less of an issue, given that you can quickly judge how possible this is. The issue here can be if you need to make a prototype in a short period of time that some teams tend to forget that being feasible in 24 months does not equal 24 hours. Building an API according to best practices is hard and deploying it to a cloud service is even harder. The same goes for building an ML model from scratch. The scope of your solution should be determined by the amount of time that you have.

Finally, there is the desirability, or how likely are people to use your solution over others. If you have properly defined the problem, this should be considerably easier to determine. The balance between desirability and viability is often difficult, a product might be desirable for free, but once you start asking for money people won’t be interested.

Once you have a couple of ideas find the one idea that scores the highest on all aspects and proceed to the execution phase.

To solve childhood obesity a number of solutions come to mind:

1. Since most children attend school, one way would be to help school cafeterias make healthier meal plans. Our clients would then be schools, instead of children. This solution might require some research into the way meal plans are currently constructed and what a healthy meal plan would be. It does seem like something that could be built in a reasonable period of time. However, we need to think about how to market this, because schools may have a tight budget and are not inclined to buy our product if it’s too expensive.

2. Perhaps making a video game where children need to walk, similar to Pokémon Go, could let them do more physical activity in a fun way. Additionally, children could earn points for eating healthily. This seems like a viable idea and could certainly be monetised through advertisements or a price for the game. One caveat could be that I might not have the skills to build this game.

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3. You can also look into ways of creating awareness for this problem. This could be by giving parents alternatives to unhealthy, but popular products. This could be done through an app or website. Again, you should ask the question of whether people would want this and how to make money. This seems like the weakest idea of the three, but maybe someone else in the team can build further on it. In brainstorming, there is no such thing as a bad idea, rather there are incomplete ideas.

The three solutions all seem promising, but there is only time for one. If there is no clear winner, have a vote with your team members or ask an outside source, such as one of the organizers for their opinion. In this blog, since I’m not really familiar with game development, I would like to proceed with the first solution.


The execution phase is crucial in bringing your idea to life and making it a reality. In this phase, you need to focus on developing the details of your solution and creating a prototype if required. The first step is to ensure that you have a clear storyline and that the basics are met. This includes having answers to the three critical criteria, viability, feasibility, and desirability.

For a strategy competition, think about facts and figures to validate your solution. Furthermore, think about how you would plan to implement it, how long would it take to go to market and how much money would it cost. Make sure that you have a clear storyline and that the basics are met. You don’t need every tiny detail worked out, it’s much more important to have an answer to the three critical criteria, viability, feasibility and desirability.

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If you need to deliver a prototype, the situation is a bit different. Two important things here are, to pick your tech stack in advance and re-use where possible. When building a prototype, it will most likely be either an app or a website. Try to decide in advance which framework you prefer as a team. In the timeframe of a hackathon, you don’t have time to watch 4 hours of someone on YouTube explaining how you build a website using X framework. Even when this might be the better solution in the long run, you are looking for quick value to show the jury what the idea is.

For our obesity example, the meal planning software will be executed. The main problem should now be addressed, why should schools pay for this software? You can think of a number of solutions, government funding and also making cheap and healthy meal plans, reducing food waste so they order less food etc. In terms of implementation, a website seems preferable to an app, but further research is needed on this front. Once you have everything in order, you can start preparing for your pitch. It’s important to remember that even though the execution phase is time-consuming, it’s a critical step in turning your idea into a successful solution


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In the pitch, all things come together. Before giving advice on how to pitch, you should consider who you are presenting to as well as how much time do I have. This should allow you to decide how much detail you put into certain aspects. Once you know all this, you can get started with your pitch. The structure I use here is, surprisingly the same as during the process, you start by introducing the problem. Then you tell the jury your solution, while they are still paying attention. You give them a few reasons why this is going to solve the problem you just introduced and why they should be interested in it from a business point of view. Finally, you give them some details on the implementation. If you have a prototype, this would be the time to start the demo. Finally, end the presentation with the key points of your solution. This structure works because the jury will be hearing a lot of pitches during the day and their attention is the highest at the beginning and the end. Make sure to emphasize the key differentiators of your solution and what sets it apart from other solutions in the market. This will help the jury understand why your solution is the best solution to the problem that you’re addressing.

To demonstrate this, let me pitch the meal plan solution: 1 in 5 children in the US struggle with obesity. This horrible disease is associated with a number of dangerous conditions, such as cancer and cardiovascular problems. We want to tackle this problem by introducing Meal Ally, your ally in fighting childhood obesity.

Meal Ally aims to help schools construct cheap and healthy meal plans. In addition to being cheaper, Meal Ally would help battle the ever-growing problem of food waste.

By combining feedback from the children, seasonal trends and nutritional data, the school can make informed decisions on future meal plans. Currently, we have built a web application, where school administrators can input the necessary data and then our advanced planning software calculates the optimal meal plan.

We believe that Meal Ally will help schools across the world in their fight against childhood obesity.

Usually, there will be time for questions by the jury. Try to answer them as concisely as possible and make sure that every team member has a chance to speak.


I hope that my advice has been helpful in better understanding how to tackle case competitions and hackathons. These skills are not only useful in competitions but can also be used in a working environment or when creating a startup! The best way to practice this skill and possibly win some prizes is to go and compete in such a competition. Academics for Technology organises its yearly hackathon Holy Hack, where you can do just that with the assistance of talented coaches and maximum fun!

Disclaimer: the views posted on this website are my own and are not representative of BCG or any other entity.