We talked to Patti Mikula, co-founder and CEO at Hackworks on how they imagine, organize and execute great hackathons that drive innovation and entrepreneurship and here is what she said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Patti Mikula: We are incredibly lucky to be doing well during this pandemic. We have the option to work and participate in school from home, we have the technology infrastructure to do so easily, and we are healthy.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Hackworks.
Patti Mikula: Hackworks evolved out of XMG Studio, a mobile game studio where I was the VP of marketing and operations. We started running hackathons in 2011 to identify top talent in college and university across the country. Our success led to us running similar programs for the Canadian government to promote the use of Open Data. When more and more companies started reaching out to us to help them run their hackathons, we decided to carve my team out into its own company, and Hackworks was born. We have been helping companies, including Google, Capital One, Cisco, Oxford, and TD Bank design and execute innovation programs since 2015.
How does Hackworks innovate?
Patti Mikula: We are a small company, so internal innovation is organic and distributed. Our mandate is to help our clients drive innovation in their companies, in their industries and their teams. Whether that is building cultures of innovation, teaching innovation principals to their workforces or executing programs to surface innovative IP, we are constantly exploring, prototyping and executing new ways to achieve these objectives for our clients. Being a consultancy, it isn’t always desired or practical to try out new, untested programs or modules in a client engagement, so we run a series of programs under our own banner, without client involvement, where we can try out new methodologies, technologies, and approaches. This allows us to be innovative while always delivering the best experiences for our clients.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Patti Mikula: Prior to the emergence of the global pandemic, the majority of our programs were conducted fully or partially in person. Beginning in early March, we worked to convert all of the programs on our roadmap to virtual or remote programs. The biggest challenging in executing a virtual innovation program is participant engagement. Over the past ten months, we have spent a great deal of time refining the experience for participants in our programs.
In the first few months after the emergence of the pandemic, we saw a significant dampening in new business discussions. The uncertainty led to many companies hitting pause on their innovation program planning. In August, we began to see an increasing number of companies reaching out again, but those 6 months between March and August were stressful. Fall is always a very busy time for us. We refer to it as “hackathon season”, and despite all of the uncertainty and challenges imposed by the pandemic, this fall was busy once again, and that was reassuring.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Patti Mikula: In May, we decided to guide our plans and actions based on the assumption that we wouldn’t see a return to “normal” until at least mid-2021 (and potentially never). We are based in Canada and were incredibly lucky to have programs available to us to provide financial support during this time. We looked into every opportunity to give us the financial runway to ride out the pandemic and emerge stronger than ever. Between March and August, we focused on prototyping and testing new programs and technologies, and refining our virtual delivery programs. At the same time, we recognized the extreme personal stress that all of our team members were under. So we were patient with ourselves and countered uncertainty with flexibility. If I had to underscore one lesson from this time, it’s that if the company takes care of its people, the people will take care of the company.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Patti Mikula: I think my biggest challenge when dealing with stressful and anxious situations is my natural tendency to try to resolve things on my own. I am inclined to try to “protect” others which put all of the stress and anxiety on my shoulders. I have found that when I involve others (where reasonable and appropriate) in solving problems, it derives better solutions and less stress all around. As the saying goes, many hands make light work.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Patti Mikula: We run up against a variety of competitors in different ways. When it comes to innovation program consulting, we have run up against the big guys, the management consultants with deep pockets. Our small size (and equally small overhead) is actually an advantage here as we can execute programs at a fraction of the cost of the big consultancies.
When it comes to our platform, there are a few competitors (Agorize, DevPost), but they generally don’t provide the consulting services that we do, which is a huge differentiator for us.
There are also smaller consultants (AngelHack and BeMyApp), and we sometimes find ourselves in competition with them, but our depth and breadth of expertise, our focus on customized program delivery, the strength of our integrated platform and the lower cost structure of being a small, agile company based in Canada allows us to be incredibly competitive.
Your final thoughts?
Patti Mikula: Remote workers, decentralized organizations and newly adopted technologies will all change the way companies innovate. Many companies have advanced leaps and bounds during the pandemic out of necessity. But without the “innovate or die” mentality forced by external forces, will companies be able to maintain their momentum? Will they fall back on their old risk-averse habits? We’re excited to continue evolving our programs to meet our clients’ needs and help them build and nurture resilient, innovative workforces and emerge from 2021 as leaders in their industries.
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