How to build a community at 33,000 feet in 80 hours

A few weeks ago, I got on a A380 from Hong Kong to London with 31 other people: developers, designers, and other entrepreneurs.

We did a hackathon on a plane, at 30,000 feet.

We got picked out of 700 applications for this 80-hour hackathon. I feel grateful I was part of it. I met incredible people.

In 80 hours, we generated tones of ideas, shared visions, learned from each others, got inspired, and built prototypes.

And we built a new community.

How did we build a community?

The age of networking

Before we jump to today’s networking dynamics, let’s rewind.

Back in the days, most people did not need to actively and continuously build their personal network. Communities were small enough people knew everyone they needed to know in their own circle, and their social status did not change over time.

Some networks have existed for centuries. There’s the notion of Guanxi in China. Some time later, the old boy network arose in the UK, and blat in Russia during Soviet times.

These networks are ruled by codes and customs, and to be honest I am not part of even smaller networks, so I have to hack my way to build my network.

The question is:

How do you build your own network?

People hustle and bustle to build and expand their personal network by dragging themselves to various after-work networking events. They even sit in MBA classes for two years for the sake of building a network.

Yes. Two years. That’s 17,532 hours of your life.

We did it in 80 hours.

I don’t want to sit for 24 months on a MBA programme to build a network, and I don’t particularly enjoy going to after-work networking event for the sake of it.

So, how do you build a network without going to a prestigious school and by skipping all tedious networking chores?

The beauty of shared activities and passions

In the Harvard Business Review article, How to Build your Network”, Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap outline the correlation of networking and career success and quote that the Microsoft-IBM DOS deal might have never happen if Bill Gates’s mother had not leveraged on her network.

She, at the time, talked to John Akers, with whom she sat on the board of United Way, a not-for-profit, about the new breed of small companies in the computer industry.

The rest is history.

The authors outline their trust and relationship was built over a meaningful shared activity and passion.

Trust and relationship are built over a meaningful shared activity and passion.

These are the keys words:

  • Shared activity
  • Shared passion

Bill Gate’s mother and John Akers did not sit around sipping beers while Bill was coding.

(Disclaimer: I have spend a lot of time drinking coffee and chatting with people, mistakenly thinking that I was building my network).

Potent networks are not forged through casual interactions but through relatively high-stakes activities that connect you with diverse others.” — Brian Uzzi & Shannon Dunlap

That’s what Hack Horizon was about: bringing passionate people together to hustle and rethink air travel experiences.

How did that happen at 30,000 ft?

32 of the best entrepreneurs, engineers and designers will take to the skies on a mission to redefine TravelTech, in a unique hackathon on a plane from Hong Kong to London.” —the Hack Horizon team

From the beginning, there was a sense of exclusivity. A fear of missing out. This is why I signed up for their mailing list.

Then momentum started to build up — around monthly events, and via the mailing list.

Outcome: 700 applications from 52 countries.

Then it was: put these 32 passionate people on a plane and ask them to fix a problem.

That was it.

We shared our passion over meaningful activities during 80 hours, day and night, on the ground and in the air.

80 hours. Then what’s next?

How can Hack Horizon succeeded as a community

Uzzi and Dunlap show how networks deliver three unique advantages:

  • Private information
  • Access to diverse skill sets
  • Power

Private information

Networks and relationships strive based on the flow of private information exchange between parties.

That’s how trust is built. And trust allows private information to be shared.

That is a virtuous circle.

I’d also keep Simon Sinek’s quote in mind while we talk about building trust and helping:

Hack Horizon network will grow and flourish if private information continues to flow. If people continue to ask for help.

Leveraging the relationships and trust that we built during these 80 hours is key.

People must keep asking for help to continue building trust.

Access to diverse skill sets

All the ideas pitched on the opening night materialized into functional prototypes because we shared those ideas and leveraged on each others’ skills.

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” — Linus Pauling, Nobel Laureate

That’s how eight teams were able to release prototypes in 80 hours. It was not the brainpower of one person, but the diversity of teams’ skills set and input.

Here is why:

While expertise has become more specialized during the past 15 years, organizational, product, and marketing issues have become more interdisciplinary, which means that individual success is tied to the ability to transcend natural skill limitations through others. Highly diverse network ties, therefore, can help you develop more complete, creative, and unbiased views of issues. And when you trade information or skills with people whose experiences differ from your own, you provide one another with unique, exceptionally valuable resources.” — Brian Uzzi & Shannon Dunlap


According to Uzzi and Dunlap:

Power exudes from the first two: exchange of private information and a network of diverse skill sets.”

During Hack Horizon, we had access to private information (i.e. specific problems, APIs, etc.) from corporate partners. We leveraged each other’s skills as well.

That was the power that got us through those 80 hours.

That’s how we built those prototypes.

From now on, the power of Hack Horizon will depend on how much private information is shared among ourselves.

Don’t forget — this ultimately depends upon how much help we ask of one another.

One last thought

Community VS network? I’ve used both terms interchangeably.

So what’s Hack Horizon? Are we building content and value as a whole or are we leveraging on each others to build our own? Are we a community or a network?

This blog post was edited by FreeCodecamp.

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