For a startup with three team members and a shoestring budget, free or cheap labor can be pretty appealing. Cue: interns. Interns can be an abundant source of entry-level labor for young companies and, as the company grows, can prove to be great additions to the full-time team. They’re integral to the startup ecosystem, providing a source of lower-cost support and then taking that startup experience and mindset with them wherever they go, maybe even launching companies of their own later in their careers.
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, internships are short-term agreements where an employee works (sometimes without pay) in exchange for mentorship and what should be a wealth of experience. They can be facilitated through universities or as informal agreements between the intern and employer.
Thinking of creating an internship program at your company?
Internships can be a great way for companies to get a couple more hands on deck but a mismanaged intern, like any employee, can waste valuable resources that startups often can’t afford.
To avoid the most common pitfalls for companies hiring interns for the first time, remember that you and your interns are creating an agreement of mutual benefit. It’s important to ensure that you’re both using your interns’ time well and helping them get the most value out of the experience.
Hiring: Job Descriptions, Applications and Interviews
Hiring is always difficult and time-consuming. That strain is felt doubly on startups and small companies who don’t have the time to pore through stacks of resumes.
It can be easy to make hasty decisions on the justification that you’ll only have your interns for a couple of months to a year. But to make the most of your time and ensure that you’re getting the best prospects, it’s helpful to make sure your hiring process is as clear and streamlined as possible.
So, onto the first step: your job description — the first impression potential interns will have of your company.
Prospective interns are applying to internships that they expect will help them land jobs post-graduation. Unless you’re Magicleap or Uber, chances are — students who are applying for your internships don’t know who you are or what you do and working for an obscure startup that could fizzle out in two years doesn’t do much for a new grad’s resume — students are taking just as much of a risk on you as you are on them.
So, what do you do? Clearly identify the value that students are getting out of the internship opportunity. Help them understand what’s in it for them.
Focus on the unique benefits that your opportunity will provide: are you breaking into an unexplored or unique market, or are you building an experimental and exciting technology? Tell them about the excitement inherit in working with a startup and the responsibilities that they will be entrusted with. One of the greatest benefits of interning with a startup is the opportunity to play an important role within a company, where your effort will have a real effect on the big picture. The most driven students won’t apply to positions where they think they’ll be underutilized — stapling papers or sorting files.
Once you’ve trimmed down your applicants, it’s time to get interviewing. Most startups don’t have a lot of time to spend on interviewing individual candidates, especially for positions that will be filled and replaced every 3–6 months.
The easiest way to speed up the process is to create some obstacles to help dissuade lukewarm applicants. For example, a pre- or post-interview assignment that simulates a task that an intern might do on the job. The assignment should take no more than forty minutes. Even a little bit of extra work will help weed out the applicants who aren’t willing to go the extra mile.
Attitude and culture-fit often go a longer way than experience or individual skills. Include questions in your interview process to assess applicants’ fit with your company’s core values. Ask them to describe a project or task that required them to put in 100% or about a time when they were faced with difficult feedback.
These exercises are especially important when looking for things like modesty or coachability. Interns may have less experience in the workforce than most new-hires, so the ability to accept feedback and adjust is really important.
A great way to do this is to ask to see a sample of the applicant’s prior work and provide some feedback or ask them how they would improve it. Even rockstar employees who are uncoachable will eventually plateau.
Starting the Internship: Dos and Don’ts
Pay them in real cash money. Free labor sounds great, but in the end, paid internships tend to have a couple of benefits over unpaid ones.
For the intern, a paid internship feels a little more like a job. Paid interns tend to feel that their responsibilities have a little more weight — they tend to take their positions more seriously and, as an extra morale boost, they get to see their effort and work valued in actual dollars.
For you, when you’re paying an intern, you’re more likely to make sure that you’re using their time well. You’re less likely to forget about tasking and checking in with them if they’re actually on the clock.
Ensure that your interns are getting the most out of their experience. Interns are at your company to learn, sharpen and apply skills in a real workplace. For the benefit of a real company. It’s important to ensure that interns you’re taking on are truly getting the most out of their experience.
That can mean sending them to professional events and meetups that match up with their interests or could help them learn about the industry; including them in strategy meetings and encouraging them to share their ideas; and including them on larger projects to help them see and understand how their efforts fit into the big picture.
Over the course of an internship, interns should typically have at least one large, an overarching project to work on. These projects can be a great opportunity for interns to build up their resume, take ownership over something and build or work on something that tangibly benefits the company. As a bonus for you, this project can also help cover you when you can’t or don’t have time to task your interns.
Beware of over/under-tasking. Speaking of tasking, it can be easy to load unwanted tasks on interns that ultimately waste the little time they spend with the company or cannot feasibly do. For example, it’s easy to accidentally fill an intern’s day with tasks that don’t meaningfully contribute to the company’s goals. Or assigning tasking that requires an immediate and prompt response to an intern that may only work 20 hours per week.
It can also be useful to open up your intern to other parts of the company. Giving a business student access to the sales or accounting side of a company can give them valuable experience and a better idea of how different parts of a company work together. But be sure to act as a gatekeeper, if you’re going to allow others to assign your intern tasks to ensure that your intern actually has time to work on their own projects and assignments.
Measure your interns’ performance and commit to regular check-ins. Measuring performance is usually a required part of internships, especially if they’re facilitated through a university. But letting an intern know where they’re doing well or where they could improve is vital to the process. Besides improving the overall output of an intern’s efforts, it can also be good for morale for them to know that they’re making progress.
And regular check-ins can help ensure that you’re holding up your side of the bargain, as well as give you valuable feedback into your own management practices and the overall internship program.
Interns can be vital to startup growth, especially as the company grows and the core team finds that they have to give up some responsibility. Startups shouldn’t be afraid to take on a little extra help, so long as they’re ready to give back some of that value as well.