In this month’s edition of Founders’ Scrum, Patti Mikula, Co-founder of Hackworks, shares her insights on the future of Hackathons, sparking innovation, and how startups can appeal to large customers.

Patti Mikula is the c0-founder and CEO at Hackworks, a Toronto-based agency fostering innovation through hackathons, bootcamps and workshops. Patti draws on 20+ years of experience in enterprise and consumer technology marketing and operations in both startps and large corporations. She provides insight on how hackathons help foster innovation and the role hackathons will play in the next 10 years.

LH: Tell us about Hackworks

PM: Hackworks is a Toronto-based agency fostering innovation through hackathons, bootcamps and workshops. In addition to hosting public hackathons we help organizations dramatically increase their pace of innovation and battle stagnation through internal hackathons and bootcamps. Our clients include large companies such as CIBC, Cisco and Capital One, governments including the Government of Canada and City of Toronto as well as not-for-profits such as Canadian Museum of History, BDAR and Evergreen Canada.

LH: What inspired you to focus solely on hackathons and innovation challenges?

PM: Hackworks evolved out of XMG Studio, a game development studio in Toronto where we were hosting internal hackathons to bolster innovation and also a series of external gaming hackathons (Great Canadian Appathon) with participants and locations across the country. The tipping point came when the Government of Canada asked us to partner with them to create the Canadian Open Data Experience, a hackathon with locations in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver as well as virtual participants across the country. Once we brought that project on board, that workload in addition to the new business opportunities it brought along with it helped us realize that we could sustain a business focused solely on hackathons and innovation programs, so we broke our team off from XMG and became Hackworks.

LH: Hackworks is truly at the heart of innovation, how do you see innovation and technology connecting at hackathons?

PM: When people think of hackathons they often think technology is a necessary component. And while our hackathons often do leverage emerging technologies (blockchain, wearables, beacons, chatbots etc.) we don’t see technology as being a necessary component. We have had incredibly successful hackathons where we actually stripped away the technology and asked participants to paper prototype solutions to problems. It allows participants to focus on the desired outcomes without being bogged down by technology constraints. We worked with TD on the ThinkDigital TechJam, a hackathon that merged technical participants with non-technical participants and it was a great success as well.

LH: Before Hackworks, you had years of experience leading marketing and PR programs for a variety of tech and consumer brands, was there anything specific about these experience that prepared you to lead the Hackworks team?

PM: One of the key learnings I have brought from my PR and marketing days is to always start with your objective. The first thing we always ask our clients is what they want to achieve with a hackathon. The answer to that question becomes a foundation for the entire project and we check our plans and decisions against that objective throughout the project.

LH: Selling a service can be difficult, how have you navigated through some of the obstacles as a service offering startup?

PM: Hackworks combines the strategic expertise of a team that has been running hackathons since 2010, has the technical framework to support physical and virtual hackathons around the world, and has the detail-oriented team to execute stellar events. We exist in a unique space at the intersection of marketing and technology. Like a marketing agency we have a focus on experiences and branding. But evolving out of a game studio ourselves, we are foundationally grounded in an agile development methodology. We understand the complexities of the technologies we work with, we understand the needs of the participants (developers and non-developers alike) and we understand the objectives of our clients.

LH: You have had some large and high-profile events, how do you appeal to the larger customers for hackathons?

PM: Each of our clients comes to us with a unique challenge. Our expertise is designing the best hackathon to meet their needs. It’s not unusual for us to get a phone call from someone saying they were told “they should do a hackathon” but they have no idea what a hackathon is, or why they should do one or not. We spend a great deal of time with our clients delving into what their challenges are and what is the best way help them address the challenges.

LH: Hackathons spark innovation, but also drive community, what tips do you have to spark a community-based hackathon?

PM: Hackathons are great community-builders. A great example is the Gift the Code hackathon we created with our client Capital One. The objective was to connect the tech community with charities that need assistance. Beyond the amazing solutions that were created over the course of a three-day hackathon, there were connections and relationships built that are ongoing. Often people want to get involved in the community around them but they don’t know how. A hackathon can help people understand the value they can bring to their community.

LH: Where do you see hackathons’ evolving over the next 10 years?

PM: While hackathons have traditionally existed in the technology space, we see the biggest growth over the next 10 years being in the use of the hackathon framework to tackle challenges outside of the tech space. Hackathons drive change and foster a culture of innovation and empower participants to build solutions and use their knowledge and creative skills for problem solving and ideating.