Hackfit San Francisco

Yup, I’m pretty exhausted now because this weekend I attended Hackfit San Francisco. What is it? Well – it’s a hackathon that focuses on fitness and health tech, but ALSO promises group exercise, reasonable bedtimes, and healthy meals.

I’d never been to a proper hackathon before, mostly because in my early career as a developer there were too many late night cramming sessions, and admittedly a few all-nighters. I’ve gotten my fill of that. I value my sleep and completely believe the notion that productivity drops like a rock when you’re marathoning through a project from 10am to 4am the next morning.

That’s one of the reasons hackathons never appealed to me enough to convince me to go. There’s also the fact that I love to hack, but the stuff I like to hack is HARD. More than can be done in a measly 48 hours hard, really. So the prospect of sitting for days on end with a stack of Mountain Dew + Pizza, freaking out about a deadline is just not appealing.

Hackfit is not any of this. Late nights are frowned on. If anyone worked past 11pm, nobody admitted it. Exercise breaks happened often and actually factored into overall score for the weekend (THE reason we didn’t place higher). Catering for lunch and dinner was done by Rebecca Jean Catering. I eat enough guilty pleasure food that I really don’t go for “health” food so much. Thankfully it was really good. If the health aspect wasn’t played up by Rebecca during her 15 minute presentation, I would have been none the wiser and just thought I was eating tasty, tasty food.

So all in all, this event sounded like a good first hackathon for me. I’ve also been playing with all sorts of gadgets and movement related experiments in my spare time, so Hackfit seemed perfect. How did it actually go down?

Well, my first mistake was to ignore the Hackfit email. Hackfit sends you an email a week or so before the event introducing you to a “buddy”. My wife would call it my “east coast demeanor”…but I would just say I just listened to my parents and don’t talk to strangers. STRANGER DANGER! Am I right?  Nevertheless, I never emailed my buddy and my buddy never emailed me. I would have resorted to full on wallflower mode if I was there on the opening night alone, but thankfully I was there with a co-worker. Even so, we were both on the fence for actually making it past the first night.

Honestly, it just seemed easier not to commit to a project, avoid the failures, exercise, early mornings, etc. But guess what? We kept meeting people.


Friday Evening

Right off the bat, outside the event we met an awesome guy who flew in from North Carolina to come pitch his passion project – a group fitness app that brings people outside. Not only go outside, but give the fitness instructor a line to the class with a direct audio link. Awesome idea and I wanted him to be successful, especially because he flew across the country on a day’s notice to attend. To be honest, though, I planned to stay far away from this idea. The heart of the app didn’t seem do-able in a weekend. As a developer who’s dealt with streaming media for 4 years, I knew I couldn’t help because I knew how complicated these things can be.

That, later, turned out to be team member #1.

Right before the pitches, another gal introduced herself to us. She was there alone – and obviously has a friendlier public demeanor than I, and isn’t afraid to just walk up and introduce herself.

And there was team member #2 (as we’d find out later)

At around 7pm or so, the pitches were made. Those who had an idea to pitch did so. Everyone did a fabulous job, but I was really only drawn to a couple of pitches. I was caught between not thinking the simpler ideas were fun/challenging enough to work on, but the complex ideas were TOO complex to do in the short amount of time.

Wolfpack pitcher #1 with pitcher #2 six people behind


I was ready to cheer on the North Carolina guy we met as he was waiting in line to pitch, but another person pitched the SAME exact idea just moments before. He took it remarkably well, but I felt like I was watching America’s Funniest Home Videos when the star of the video gets a football in the groin. I made the same contorted face and felt the pain. They both turned it into a win when they decided to team up. He and his girlfriend became team members #3 and #4.

The pitches were drawn up on poster paper and displayed on the wall.  Teams were forced to sell their ideas on an individual basis. They needed to gather signatures by people to form the groups. If teams didn’t have a certain number of signatures in 10 minutes, the idea was scrapped.

By this point – you know which team I was on. It was a hard decision though. I ultimately landed on peer pressure and just joined up with my co-worker and those who I already met. I’m also realizing that Hackfit did well. From meeting friendly people, to forced hugs during the intro speech, to sending the buddy email, to having teams pitch you one on one – Hackfit had masterfully done it. They orchestrated some pretty decent social connections to engage those that were on the fence like I was.

I should back up to before the pitches, though. I should highlight the point at which I realized that I overlooked something major. See, I’m sorta between fitness regimens right now. Which is to say – I’ve been lazy for several months. Despite me not being prepared in the slightest, FitMob was there to lead the first workout. After the workout, even relatively fit people were saying it was brutal. Me, I did most of it….not well…but I did it. I’ve worked with a personal trainer before, so I knew the points at which I needed to slow down and stop. I think Fitmob realized it too, because they are the sort of instructors that get up in your face to motivate you. I was probably white as a sheet by the middle and they let me take it easy.

FitMob led workout session

We left on Friday night throwing out a few ideas, but adjourned not knowing what would come the next day.


Saturday Morning

At least half the team arrived later (around 9 to 9:30) on Saturday morning. Between not being a morning person and having to take a fairly long BART ride out from the East Bay, I was one of them. I missed breakfast and the early morning workout session, but dove right into the work. As I was the only developer on the team, I felt some pressure to get something cool done. That’s why I jumped right into what I thought would be a valuable tech demo for the Sunday pitch. I started right in as we were all throwing out ideas. Eventually in an hour or so, I felt comfortable enough with my trajectory that I filled in the rest of the team what I was plugging away on.

If I did it again, I probably would have gotten more involved with initial planning. In hindsight, I may have railroaded the team into what I was doing. But it actually worked out really well. While I worked on the tech demo – the rest of the team worked out the business side of things. My co-worker was very involved in these convos, but broke off and started designing pure awesomeness in a short time.

half of our team hard at work

As tech demos and designs and plans started shaping up, we all put our pencils down to head out to StudioMix for another workout session. I decided to bike the two miles from our workspace at Tagged. When I got outside, I realized that

  • I didn’t know where I was going
  • My team had already left because I said I would bike
  • My phone was completely dead
  • I’m entirely horrible with directions
  • I’m fairly new to San Francisco

Luckily Hackfit organizer Justin Mendelson (and another gal that I didn’t catch her name) were leaving also on their bikes. I followed them, but being the out of shape bastard I was, had to take some San Francisco hills that just eventually killed me. Justin was kind enough to walk with me for short spurts…..I still felt a little bad though, especially because the hills didn’t look THAT terrible.

As Saturday wound down – we had fantastic progress going. I had most of the tech demo done with a few tweaks to be done the following day. I pulled heavily from some of my past experiments that I had posted on Github. I made sure to check with the organizers ahead of time to make sure this was cool. One of the rules was that hackfitters should not use pre-existing projects. I found out that a big problem with these kinds of hackathons was that people will jump from event to event pitching the same ideas and just trying to win and get investors. That’s why Hackfit imposes the rule of making sure we actually create something from scratch during the weekend.

Every so often, I glanced over at my co-worker Fernando’s screen. Suddenly a logo. Suddenly screen mockups. Suddenly an interactive high resolution prototype. And it was all looking REALLY good. WTF. It’s amazing what happens when you step away from the office and the established corporate brand and see what people you know can do.

While Fernando and I were plugging away, our other team member Allison, who just happens to be a product strategist at Frog Design was working with the ideas folks on business strategy and presentation. As I was a little disengaged from the group, I didn’t exactly know what was shaping up – if they were actually doing good things or what. I just trusted them to do their thing and what happens, happens.


Sunday Morning

Yet again, a modest 9:30 roll-in for most everyone. Again, most of us (if not all) skipped the 7:00 am Yoga session that turned out to be some sort of intense boot camp thing by surprise. Allison brilliantly brought her French Press to make coffee. Apparently in Hackfit-land we don’t drink coffee. What’s wrong with that zero calorie goodness? I can’t fathom. Hackfit DID realize their terrible crime, and brought boxed coffee this last day.

I tweaked my demo a little most of the morning. I can’t recall if Fernando did much this day, because I really don’t know that he needed to do anything. We were both pretty low key and just helped the others with the pitch/presentation.

It was time to present to everyone around 1pm. We decided to downplay the tech demo side and just really give me 20-30 seconds out of the 4 minutes. I suggested this because everyone had done such a fantastic job with the business plan, product, design, and application flow I felt that this should really be the focus. At the beginning on Saturday morning, I thought that if we did our 3 efforts separately (presentation, design, and tech) we could have 2 of them fail and still be mildly successful. Nope….all 3 were a slam dunk.

My wife showed up right before our presentation to help out. We set her, Fernando, and Aaron loose to run around outside while we gave our presentation. Each of them were equipped with a smartphone loaded with our Phonegap/AngularJS app. The app tracked geolocation and sent it up to a Node.js backend. The backend would register each user and send the group’s data back down to individual devices and the Macbook we were using to drive the tech demo. With this, we had simulated a “mission control” like display for an instructor to keep tabs on the group and display our markers using the Google Maps API. We didn’t have a direct audio link, but we did have the next best thing with being able to track the crowd.

The presentation went swimmingly, and the tech demo started a bit rocky but eventually our runners started showing up on screen around our area in San Francisco. When it started working, we got some great applause.

me giving the technical pitch and flailing my arms wildly

We had high marks all around and made third place…a bronze medal for my first hackathon. I also dig the fact that we had the highest technical score out of anybody and slightly below the highest “wow factor”. We lost in the “wow factor” category to a pair of gals that wowed me as well. I talked to them afterward. With no previous hardware experience, they made an Arduino controlled light up armband which reads your heartrate and calculated if your BPM was in the correct zone for working out. Amazing.

Anyway, that’s the story of my team, the Wolfpack: an app that brings instructor led group fitness outside.

I really must thank the organizers of Hackfit for an exhausting, but fun weekend.

bronze medalists (my wife included cause she was an awesome runner during the demo)

4 thoughts on “Hackfit San Francisco”

  1. WOW Factor Blog Post right here! Watch out!

    Ben, incredible write up! You didn’t miss a thing and I just sent this to my Team Habit hackmates so they could relive the HackFit glory.

    It really was a refreshing take on hack-a-thon’s and am so glad to have been a part of their first SF event. I’m also glad you and I got to speak after the presentations, I read this whole post with a bit more context which was awesome!

    Hope to see you at the next HackFit and will be following your blog, love your writing!

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