The following guest post is by Gauri Sharma, a Kellogg MBA who has spent the last five years contributing to the success of hi-tech B2B startups in Chicago.
With the end of the second quarter fast approaching, you may already find yourself re-evaluating your goals and priorities for 2014. If you find yourself de-prioritizing some wish list projects due to lack of time or resources, don’t give up on them just yet. The assistance and attention of an intern could give new life to projects that have stayed on the wish list too long, while helping you maintain momentum and focus on other pressing priorities.
Many executive teams of startups often overlook the vast pool of talent waiting to be tapped into at their local universities, but personally, I have had success and have gained much needed bandwidth as a result of having top-notch interns join the team.
Setting up an internship program
If you have the financial resources to pay your interns, you may find that you have access to a bigger pool of applicants. But do not let a lack of financial padding deter you from searching for and hiring an intern. Once you have a potential intern identified, work with them (and their school) to develop a program that allows them to earn school credit in exchange for their dedicated work. This system has worked tremendously well for me and my budget in the past when I’ve brought on interns. At a minimum, make sure the intern’s university approves the plan for the internship. The benefit of an internship for credit is twofold: this provides a good framework and structure for the intern’s time with you—keeping both you and the intern focused, and this ensures that you comply with the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines when it comes to unpaid internships. These guidelines are important, and I encourage you to review them carefully before moving forward with an unpaid internship.
Next, I recommend developing a clearly outlined program for your company, one that you can continue on an ongoing basis. Ask yourself these questions as you begin to outline a program:
- Before you seek an intern, consider how you intend for them to help. Will they be working on a dedicated project? Are you bringing them on to support a specific team? Or are you just looking for a generalist to help with ad hoc support? The answers to these questions will help you determine which skills and qualities to look for in your intern. It will also force you to be more deliberate about the scope of the internship, rather than treating it as an afterthought.
- Besides using the personal network of your team, you can find talent by tapping into social media to announce an opening and working directly with your local universities. You should announce the opportunity via university career centers, but you can also seek out specific professors who could help you identify students interested in gaining practical experience in a particular field.
Positioning the intern for success:
Once you’ve found an intern, you may think the hard work is over, but that’s actually when the real work begins. The emphasis and effort you place on the internship enhances the experience for the intern and helps avoid any internal confusion regarding the intern’s duties.
Here are some tips to help you shape a mutually beneficial internship program (many are based on things I wish were different during my own internships):
- Explore the intern’s interests to discover a mutually beneficial way of matching your business needs with their interests. If they are unsure of where they want to end up in their career, try to provide an opportunity to explore multiple avenues. Doing so ensures that the intern is motivated and feels like they have been a partner in the design of their time with you.
- Partner them up with someone else in your company. Ensure that they have a go-to person for support and questions. Even if you have the best intentions of devoting a lot of time to their development, you are likely going to be too busy or strapped for time, which ultimately affects their experience as well.
- Encourage them to explore the business, even if they don’t express interest in other areas initially. They may end up loving the sales process, but wouldn’t know without the first-hand experience. The best way to do this is to have them shadow a team member outside their current area of focus. If their bandwidth allows for it, have them do a mini assignment with each rotation. It’s a good way to help them better understand the business impact of their efforts.
- Invite them to meetings and brainstorms to give them exposure to many areas of the business. Ask for their opinions, as they also may lend a new perspective on your business.
- Give them research oriented projects. College students tend to be great candidates for research-oriented projects and have access to a wide variety of reputable databases through the university. You may need to provide them more structure than you would an experienced hire in the beginning and may need to check in with them more often, but you will likely be pleased with the results.
- Be open to hiring a freshman or sophomore as it opens up the possibility of keeping them as an intern for more than one semester or summer. You can watch them grow as your company grows. It is especially fulfilling to see them apply different areas of their coursework to your company. You may even find that they would be great hire for your company once they graduate.
- Provide regular feedback on their progress. For many of them, it could be their first time in a professional settings and their inexperience may come through in certain situations. This feedback is especially important for their professional development.
- Ask how you can improve the experience for them. Ensure that you check in with them to see how things are progressing and if there are any additional areas they want to explore. Sometimes it is okay for you to veer away from the pre-determined structure of the internship if a change of course is mutually beneficial.
Don’t forget that as your company grows, there will be the need to hire additional talent. Depending on when your intern graduates, you may want to consider hiring them, and the internship allows you to determine if there is a mutual fit before bringing the candidate onboard.