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Hack This: How Edmunds.com's Hackathons Are Inspiring Outside Innovation

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo

 

How do you bring an outside perspective and a startup's nimble perspective to your products, if you're a big, established company? Are developers willing to invest their time and energy in building solutions around your products, company, or organization? One local company--Edmunds.com (www.edmunds.com)--has been very active looking to tap into the innovative spirit in the community through its own hackathons -- days-long, endurance events where teams come together to quickly built and prototype software around a central theme. The company recently ran a hackathon at the company's Santa Monica offices, bringing in outside teams to build and create new, innovative products built on to of its software interfaces--something a lot of companies have been thinking about. We caught up with Avi Steinlauf, the CEO of Edmunds.com, to learn how hackathons have worked for Edmunds.com, and to provide some insight to others on the whole idea.

Tell me a little bit about your hackathons, what they are all about?

Avi Steinlauf: We have been using hackathons internally for a number of years, as a way to both motivate employees and come up with an innovative way to solve problems internally for the business. About two years ago, we saw that they were being pretty successful for us here as a company, why don't we consider opening that up to the public, and pose a problem near and dear to us, which is how to improve the automotive shopping process. We hopes that we could see some folks come in from outside, employ what we had, and see what would come out of it.

Last year, we had our first hackathon, Hackamotive, since we are in the automotive category. Just this year, we put on our second Hackamotive--our second annual event for 2014--around making car shopping easier. It was a great event, and candidly, it exceeded our expectations. We had twelve teams from outside of the company, all of them pre-vetted, where we already knew who they were and that they had some legit ideas. They had to apply to become part of the process, but then, they came into the building, rolled up their sleeves, and got involved during a three day period to develop their idea. We ended up, over the course of those three days, bringing in actual shoppers and consumers, and had a trade show, allowing those twelve teams to exhibit what they'd built and get feedback from actual consumers. I think the consumers found that interesting, and the teams found that fascinating. It was a chance to bounce their ideas off real, live people currently in the car shopping process. It was a hard job choosing those three winners, but our judges were able to do that, and awarded them prizes. It was a great event.

What was in it for developers to get involved, and why did they want to build products built on your interfaces?

Avi Steinlauf: The folks who get involved range from two people in their garage, to people working at dealerships, or folks who just have ideas and started to develop something. One of the things that was interesting, is we have an API that we make available to the public, which allows them to use all of our information, free of charge. One of the things we found, is there are a number of teams using that data, which we provide through the API, as part of their tool development. They already had some type of affiliation with us, and understanding gathering all this kind of data from scratch is difficult and cumbersome, have been happy to utilize our API as part of their own product development. Those are the folks who have gotten inspiration from what we've done, and would love to be in our environment with our open office.

What were you hoping to get out of the hackathon?

Avi Steinlauf: Our intention, going into this, was to contribute to the overall improvement of the process in the industry. The point was not to come out of this with any specific thing. Having said that, we were very impressed with a number of the teams that presented, in terms of their projects, and their ideas, and we're actually pursuing conversations with a bunch of them to find opportunities to work together to develop those projects. That was the unintended, good outcome from it, but it was not necessarily a part of the core mission in doing this. We didn't really know what we'd see, we just knew it was a good way to continue to be involved in the conversation, to get involved with the community, and get the community involved with us in making car shopping easier.

What have you learned most from the hackathon effort?

Avi Steinlauf: I think it's a reflection of who we are, and it's pretty authentic to us. We're committed to continuing to do these, and you'll likely see more of these. We may even take part of this to Detroit, which is a very different marketplace than here in Southern California. We do a lot of work with manufacturers and dealers, and it will be interesting to see what a hackathon will look like in the Midwest or on the East Coast. You'll also continue to see events in Southern California. It's a way for us to be able to facilitate the conversation, to be involved in what's going on, to help give back, and because it's a reflection of who we are, it's true to us.

I'm sure lots of other companies are interested in perhaps running their own hackathons. What advice would you give them?

Avi Steinlauf: What I'd saw, is if it's authentic to who those companies are, then absolutely, they should run one. We do see some other companies getting into this in other industries, and we say more power to them. It isn't a cure all that someone should just do for the sake of it. They'll have a very hard time pulling it off. For us, because we have been doing these internally, and know how to do it, and our people enjoy being involved, we really get a kick out of the process. We've tapped into that, and it continues to be successful for us in an authentic sort of way.

Thanks!


 

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