April 22, 2013

Labstock: The Labs Hackathon

Alyce Currier

Marketing

Wistia Labs launched on March 27, but behind the scenes, we’ve technically been working towards it since around last Christmas, when we began building the Twitter Follow Lab that launched in February.

When we built the Twitter Follow Lab, we realized that for something that was fairly easy to do, people responded to it really positively. The rationale behind Labs is pretty straightforward: we try to keep our product simple, and therefore, when we add something to the product itself, we want it to be relevant to everyone using it. When functionality is only useful to a more niche audience, or when it’s not possible to guarantee support across all browsers or platforms, that’s when it becomes a Lab.

To make building future Labs even easier, we built a framework, and once that was completed, we’d done a good portion of the really hard technical work behind adding more Labs (we’ll be writing a post about the framework soon!). If planned appropriately, we realized could move really quickly with building more Labs if everyone invested energy into the project at once.

We picked two days in March and that’s how "Labstock" was born. During the two days of Labstock, everyone at Wistia would focus on working on Labs and related projects (like the videos and marketing content for the launch).

For us, Labstock turned out to be a great way to quickly make huge leaps on the Wistia Labs project. Here’s what we learned about organizing something that would probably be most easily described as a "hackathon."

Pick the right project

A format like Labstock definitely wouldn’t have worked for a lot of other projects or features, nor could something like this happen very frequently, since it was a major disruption to business-as-usual.

Labstock was best suited for a project that everyone was excited about, something we’d been building momentum for, because it meant people had to take a break from whatever else they were working on at the time in order to dedicate a couple days to this. We made sure to get buy-in from everybody ahead of time.

On a technical level, Wistia Labs was perfect for a hackathon because everyone could work in parallel off the same framework and help each other when we encountered roadblocks. Because most people at Wistia are learning to code at some level, the people building Labs ranged from seasoned developers to others who’d never built anything like this before, and that was fine!

Make it special

With Labstock, we wanted to make people feel a little out of their comfort zone while at the same time feeling an increased sense of community, all working towards a clear goal. We talked about working from a different space for Labstock by renting a conference room, but eventually decided it would work way better to do it in our office. We shifted all of the desks to the same area of Wistia HQ so we were all working in the same area and wouldn’t feel like this was a typical workday.

“The two days of Labstock were about having fun, working hard, and getting sh*t done without distractions.”

In addition, we ordered food for everyone throughout all of Labstock, with the goal that people wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of things outside the projects they were working on. The two days of Labstock were about having fun, working hard, and getting sh*t done without distractions. We ordered special t-shirts, too. You know, so people wouldn’t even have to worry about clothing themselves. (Nah, we just like having excuses to make a fun t-shirt).

At the end of Labstock, everyone did demos of their projects over drinks, and Chris also showed everyone the videos he shot and edited over the course of the event. Of course, this may have lead to an impromptu party and a lot of karaoke...

Get people ready

The work that happened before Labstock started was super important to its success. We started with a brainstorming session, where everyone contributed ideas for possible Labs, from the crazy and strange to the completely serious.

Then, we narrowed down the list of ideas based on what would be both useful for our community and feasible to build. Finally, a couple days before Labstock started, we held Labs University, where Max educated everyone who’d be building a plug-in on the Labs framework. From there, everyone went into Labstock knowing exactly what they were working toward and how they could achieve it.

Set reasonable expectations

A small but essential note about Labs is that it would have been really, really high stress if everyone had felt like their plug-in had to be ready to launch immediately after the hackathon ended.

We made sure to set reasonable expectations, being clear and upfront that the goal of Labs wasn’t to launch the next day, but instead to use Labstock as a springboard to do awesome stuff that would have taken a huge amount of time otherwise. After Labstock, Max perfected the plug-ins and made sure they were consistent before the official launch.

Have somebody in charge

During Labstock, Ben and Laura were pretty much working full time on making sure that things were running smoothly. Ben checked in on the technical side, while Laura coordinated the seating changes, food, and making sure everyone had access to anything they needed (for example, she went and got the props for the launch videos after they were scripted).

Have an end point

For a certain amount of time, it was fun to feel like we were working together against the clock, but it was definitely necessary to know there was an end point. One day wouldn’t have been enough to accomplish our goals, but after three days, we probably would have all been at each other’s throats. Two days ended up being a good balance.

Conclusion

Labstock was an experimental way to get some things done with more focus that might normally be possible. It turned out to be a success, but only because we picked an appropriate project to attack this way and made sure to coordinate a lot of details beforehand. We’d be curious to hear about how others have arranged similar events and how they turned out!

Mailing list sign-up form

Sign up to get Wistia’s best
and freshest content.

More of a social being? We’re also on Instagram and Twitter.