Two Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member companies explore the benefits, best practices and outcomes of leveraging unique workathon-type events to improve team skills and morale to better serve clients.
In 1949, the telethon―a fundraising marathon conducted by phone―was born when Milton Berle hosted the world's first such event to benefit cancer research, raising US$1.1 million.
The concept took root and morphed into walkathons, skipathons, swimathons, eatathons, knitathons, viewathons and beerathons, to name just a few. If you can do it, you can -thon it.
The Harvard Business Review notes that groups who go through the right kind of stressful situation form bonds, leading to organizational loyalty. While a beerathon may not benefit your team, intense work projects with tight deadlines just might.
Savvy entrepreneurs have figured out that workathons―deployed sparingly―offer a unique opportunity for employees to learn and bond together, providing multiple advantages. Sound crazy? Maybe a little. Here's how two unique companies are leveraging this out-of-the-box concept with notable results.
"We hold a two-day Hackathon twice per year to keep our skills sharp. Team members use the opportunity to learn new technologies, coding languages or even more about another team member's expertise," explained Mollie Alred, operations manager for Praxent, a custom software development company headed by Tim Hamilton, an EO member in Austin. "We suspend client work for two days―it's time devoted exclusively to employee enrichment."
"We hold an annual 24-hour Createathon blitz where we work on non-profit projects for an entire day and night, then deliver final projects to clients the next morning," explained Jack Martin, an EO member in Western New York and president of J. Fitzgerald Group, an advertising and marketing agency. "The event originated with Riggs Advertising in S.C.; we joined their network 10 years ago and are now one of dozens of participants nationwide."
We asked Mollie and Jack about the benefits these unique work experiences convey to their employees and companies. Here's what they had to say:
1. Build camaraderie
Jack: For building camaraderie, nothing beats leaning on team members to meet seemingly impossible deadlines. The teamwork that comes from every aspect of Createathon―meetings with clients, brainstorming, evaluating each other's work, giving group presentations for the projects they've completed overnight―is absolutely unreal.
Mollie: It's a break from our regular workdays. Hackathon fosters teamwork and collaboration, giving employees who rarely work together an opportunity to tackle something jointly. It allows people to leave their comfort zone and develop new skills while encouraging cross-team pollination.
2. Benefit clients
Jack: Createathon helps keep our creative team fresh and engaged. I think some of the best work we produce all year comes out in those 24 hours. This year we had six non-profit clients and produced 32 projects for them. We also got great vendor support as far as donated printing, media placement, billboards, bus boards, and radio air time. It's just one day but we use it to make an impact.
Mollie: Skills learned or honed in Hackathons positively affect future client work. It's a time to experiment with new tools and processes so that when we need to apply them to client work, we've already been through a "rough draft."
3. Inspire leadership
Mollie: Hackathon inspires leadership among employees because anyone can pitch an idea and lead a project. Often, team members who don't regularly lead initiatives or projects take the opportunity to lead during Hackathon. The management team doesn't select projects or direct teams. It's an employee-planned professional development opportunity.
4. Incorporate fun
Jack: We are extremely well-fed all day and night. We break for dinner and have our kids, spouses or partners visit and then we have ice cream before diving back in to work. Our ice cream truck guy even donates to one of the charities we work on! We also drink a lot of caffeinated beverages. You can imagine that by 2 or 3 a.m. we get a bit goofy. The music is blasting, people are dancing and odd jokes happen. It's high-energy.
5. Hone current skills, surface new ones
Mollie: Being in tech means we have to keep our skills sharp and continuously update them. Technology moves fast! Past Hackathons have surfaced skill sets and talents that we didn't realize team members had. It's rewarding to put our skills toward something lighthearted or out-of-the-box without rules or the pressure of budgets, deadlines or the client relationship. We learn a lot by working without these pressures.
6. Push limits
Jack: Here's how Createathon works: everyone shows up at 8 a.m., they work all day and night, and then client presentations start at 8 a.m. the next morning. We finish around 10 a.m., and then close for the day. It's funny―when I mention the event, people react like it's the worst idea ever, but after 10 years I know that it's the most worthwhile and enriching thing you can do. It's a case of people going through something very difficult together and coming out on the other side much better for the experience.
7. Provide instant gratification
Mollie: It's exciting to see results quickly, within 36 hours. That's a change of pace from building complex software platforms, which can take months from start to finish―it's unconventional and fun to try to accomplish something in just two days.
Jack: No one sleeps during the blitz, but instead of watching the clock waiting for it to be over, we watch the clock in fear of time ticking away. The other cool thing is that once an employee has completed a Createathon, they can meet any deadline for the rest of the year because no matter how intense it is, it never compares to this.
8. Acknowledge accomplishment
Mollie: We close the Hackathon by setting aside two hours to present our work. There's no grade, scoring system or evaluation. The goal is to celebrate the learning process. If you can explain what you learned during the process, you've met the goal―even if your project flopped.
Jack: One of our newer employees said that during the client presentation when a woman almost leapt out of her chair and was brought to tears by the projects they created, he completely forgot he had stayed up all night. He also said it was the most worthwhile experience he'd ever had at work. That's exactly the reaction I hope people have―and they generally do.
9. Reap results
Jack: We do work for clients all the time but we get paid for it, so it's all very transactional. And while I'm proud of the great work we do year-round, I don't think there's any experience like this where people actually cry when you present your ideas. That's better than any payment.
Mollie: We find that we continuously reap the benefits of past Hackathons. For example, we made up a problem in our last Hackathon about how people who do their own car maintenance and repairs attain knowledge and find parts. We conducted user research and experience mapping to explore those processes. Coincidentally, we recently signed a client in the auto-parts industry and our team has been amazed at how the Hackathon has helped them in thinking strategically about our client's problem!
10. Build excitement
Mollie: Our next Hackathon is scheduled for October, and I'm already hearing, "That's a great Hackathon idea!" around the office. We find satisfaction out of working hard and creating together. It's intriguing to apply our skills to real-world situations that we might not get the opportunity to solve through client work.
Jack: As you can tell, I'm extremely passionate about this event; I refer to Createathon as my Christmas Day―I can never sleep the night before, and then I'm on such a high from it afterward that it takes a few days to come down from it. It's the best 24 hours of the year!