Interns are not for use. When interests are aligned and with a fair compensation, a team of ambitious interns can have a tangible impact on your startup. Interns, on the other hand, can benefit greatly from a hands-on experience at a startup. Surprisingly, many (based on experience) startups overlook the potential outcome that the right startup-intern fit can have on their foundation and growth. Well planned and implemented internship programs are a win-win. Every startup should have one but not every intern is fit in a startup.
First, what roles can interns play in a startup?
The only rule to go by is that interns are not meant to complement skills. In other words, never should you hire an intern to take over a job you or the rest of the team can’t do. Interns are meant to enhance a certain area by increasing efficiency and productivity. Good interns seek startups that contribute to their knowledge and improve their skills not take advantage of what they already know.
In marketing, I see a need for interns in content, social media, email and SEO. With good leadership in place, interns’ work can make a major difference in these areas.
In design, though interns may not have the power to influence layout, color scheme, user experience and the interface, they can contribute to every role by including them in customer development (user research, interviews and surveys), brainstorming, wireframing and assisting lead designers in execution then testing.
In programming, first and most importantly in this area, interns should never be lead developers. Some non-technical founders may resort to finding interns to fill the technical gap. This will most likely harm than help the startup. First, technical interns seek leadership, mentoring and real-life coding environments. Second, interns are interns because they lack experience. Throwing the core product development responsibility at them can leave you with weak product foundation and nontransferable codebase. You’ll more likely have to start from scratch. Intern programmers can carry out the debugging and troubleshooting, offer functional specifications, maintenance, writing code following senior’s specifications and methods.
In a startup, good business development interns are data driven and sales oriented. Responsibilities include researching the competition and the customer, support leaders in defining acquisition strategies and in their implementation, preparing pitch decks, contacting potential partners and influencers, quality control, and other business related tasks. In sum, business development interns would come later in the venture. This is because it is founders’ first and most important responsibility to hypothesize and validate the need for the solution through customer interaction. This task should not be assigned to an intern or employee.
Like business development, accounting and finance interns can be valuable at a later stage in the company. Budgeting, forecasting, bookkeeping, finding cost reduction opportunities, maintaining deal terms and employees’ option pool are responsibilities finance and accounting interns can be trained to do.
Here are some other important tips to keep in mind.
The first challenge faced by many entrepreneurs after defining the roles and responsibilities of needed interns is finding them. Because, sometimes, 90% of the applicants will not fit your requirements, you need a large pool of applicants. As an unknown startup, selling your vision is key but not enough. Use every possible online and traditional channels to reach the best. That is, universities, career fairs, social media, job posting sites, and referrals. This, in fat, can be one of the responsibilities of business development interns once found or human resources interns if needed.
You’d be surprised that hiring interns takes as much time and effort as it does to hire full/part -time employees. It is the case because unqualified (background and culture) interns can create a burden. Instead of helping, they cause delays, distractions and, sometimes, internal conflict. Filtering is thus of utmost important. Startups with a proven concept, those that generate revenue and have a clear path to growth can afford to filter applicants through a series of interviews and assignments. Younger startups with 3-5 applicants in the pipeline have a limited option and risk losing everyone with long recruiting steps. In this case, I substitute a few recruiting rounds with a longer in house evaluation period.
Training is key. Training, in early stage startups with 2-3 members, is about allowing the intern to spend quality time with the team as a whole and each member individually with a focus on his/her area of expertise. In addition to all the support tasks you have planned for him/her, I suggest assigning interns a relatively big project they can handle from beginning to end. This will be one of the best tests for evaluating intern’s qualifications to becoming part of the startup possibly full-time in the future.
What to look for in an intern?
Culture fit is your number one recruiting criterion. It is the glue that holds the team together. What I also look for in interns is the future. Would they be interested in continuing with the startup? As a founder, you will be spending quality time training and answering questions, you’d prefer if the improved version of the intern advances within the team. Furthermore, I select interns with a minimum set of skills. The last thing you want to do is spending long hours teaching them their main responsibilities from scratch. Finally, look for passion, energy, ambition and integrity. Yes, this can seem very hard to find especially at an early stage startup. It took me over two years and several thousands of dollars to find this person. It was worth the wait.
What’s a fair compensation?
There is no right answer to this question because it all depends on interns’ goals and, obviously, your available resources. Listening is therefore key. A passionate and inexperienced entrepreneur once told me, I want to have a hands-on experience in a startup because one day I want to start mine. For this person, the pay wasn’t a big motivator, for others, it is. It is thus important to have a base compensation plan that is open for discussion. Talents would rarely consider joining an early stage startup just for the experience. These talents have a shot at, perhaps, a growing or funded startup. Your base compensation will depend on the market. I start by looking at existing opportunities around my area if the opportunity is in house or online if the opportunity is remote, then tailor my plan accordingly. At the end of the day, interests must be aligned for great results to happen.
Some other legalities to keep in mind.
For-profit businesses employing interns without pay must adhere to the 6 following rules, according to the Fair Standards Labor Act:
- Responsibilities of the intern must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
- The internship must be beneficial to the intern.
- The intern does not replace regular employees.
- The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship period; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages.
Interns can play a major role in your startup. From writing quality content to delivering clean and responsive code, an internship program can become your biggest hiring channel.
Good interns fit within the culture. They are energetic, passionate and hungry for success. You can find them at universities, meetups, career fairs and online. I found that volunteering to mentor and help students through presentations and organized events a great way to spread the word about internship opportunities.
Best internship programs align interests between founders and interns by listening to interns’ needs and their short and long term objectives.
How else can interns be valuable to startups and vice versa?