When a startup manages interns effectively, the experience is valuable for both sides. Startups gain team members with a valuable youth perspective, often savvy in the latest tech & media. I’ve spent the past couple summers interning and moonlighting for startups. (Previously, I was an intern at Daily.co, a YC startup building new 1-click video calling.)
I’ve really enjoyed being involved in key projects that have produced tremendous results from executing growth and strategy. For a lot of students considering internships, the most popular and competitive internships come from companies that offer experiences that go beyond the workplace. Lofty wages, full service meals, and swag packs are just the start of the benefits that many programs offer.
For a startup, it seems challenging, if not impossible, to compete with unicorn companies with an active internship program, complete with million-dollar budgets and dedicated staff. But what I found in my own experience is that the key to creating an incredible experience for your interns is not always about how much you spend, but rather the experience you provide. And that can be done independent of cost. There are many things you can do, affordably, to create a great experience.
A lot of that responsibility comes down to how you choose to manage your interns. This is often a point of differentiation, as most employees and managers have different management styles. With interns, in particular, sometimes you have to go above and beyond in establishing good lines of communication to create an incredible experience.
Know that with your interns, the little things you do are often very much responsible for the impact and long term success of your internship program. As someone who has interned at numerous companies, I’ve learned a thing or two about how the best intern managers operate.
During the first week of an internship, it’s important for both sides (employer + intern) to set actionable goals. There are lots of different methods and strategies for doing this, but perhaps the most widely used philosophy is with something called an OKR, a way to analyze “objectives and key results.” The OKR system was first used by companies like Intel and Google to not only make the most out of every employee, but also to ensure that the individuals in the company were all working towards a common mission.
The system works just as it sounds, objectives are goals (where you want to go) and key results are the metrics you are analyzing for (indications of how you will get there).
The reason this system works well, especially for interns, is that by the end of the summer, an intern can easily look back on what she or he did or did not accomplish. It’s also helpful for you (the manager) in that you can see how well you managed your intern, and see which areas worked and did not work.
It’s important to give interns something that they can walk away with and proudly say that they accomplished.
A big mistake that many internship programs make is that they set the bar too low for employees. I cannot tell you how many of my friends who have worked at great companies said that they were never challenged in the workplace, and often did not have that much work to do.
When this happens, all stakeholders are worse off. The intern gets no “real experience” and feels pretty worthless, and the company extracts no value from this prime talent.
This generally happens for one of two reasons, either: the company does not actually need an intern and overestimated the amount of work they had open OR the company is unprepared to have and manage interns.
If neither of these apply, then perhaps the only thing that could happen so that your intern feels bored is that you underestimated the level to which the intern could contribute. The same can happen on the other end of the spectrum, where your intern feels lost and helpless because the material is too challenging. But I think you’d be surprised, more often than not you can give an intern a very difficult task and, given some sort of support and resources, they will make it happen.
Start your intern off with a fairly open ended question, and keep having them go deeper. For example, have the intern do a deck about a pain point, opportunity, and effect, and see how well he or she can address the problem. Some interns will only scratch the surface. This is a good way to get them going deeper.Identify with the intern bottlenecks or particular challenges, so together you can think through the process, without assuming a problem is too difficult
One of the major themes of having a successful internship program is improvement. Both the intern and the company should be improving relative to their respective tasks.
Perhaps the best way to ensure growth is to set purposeful meetings to relay points of feedback.
During these one-on-one sessions, both sides should be transparent and constructive. These are also a great time to review OKRs. A mistake that many managers make is that they neglect to use this as an opportunity to learn how to become a better leaders.
Use these sessions to ask:
“Do you feel like you have all the resources you need?” “Is there anything you wanted out of this internship that you are not currently getting?” “Is the material interesting or challenging to you?”
In a healthy relationship between manager and intern, you’ll be able to have constant flow of information such that no party does not know how the other feels about how things are going. That way, when a problem does inevitably come up, neither side feels too uncomfortable to bring it up.
For your interns, it is a good idea to hold 1on1 meetings fairly frequently (like once a week) to make sure that all communication is clear and transparent between the two of you.Sometimes 1on1s can be awkward if you are not too familiar with them, read Sarah Cooper’s Tips on How to Look Smart in Meetings and you’ll be just fine!
Believe it or not, interns are people too. And, generally speaking, people enjoy having fun. Experiencing fun together is a great way to bring people together and improve the way they work together. Team chemistry is one of the most important factors to reaching success.
Many startup internship programs leave out this priority because it’s often too expensive to facilitate, especially when you don’t even have HR on staff.
This where creativity comes in. Rather than take all the interns out to a costly sporting event or concert like so many big companies do, bring them on a hike that they’ve never before seen. You can also plan events with interns from other startups. This is a great way to not only plan an event on a budget such that you can pool together all of your resources, but also a way to help your interns meet new people.
The key here is to do something different; interns are only with you for the summer, so it is crucial that you provide an experience that is memorable.
For example, internapalooza is a free event in SF with thousands of interns who come together to have fun, make connections, and get free things.When I was an intern, we’d often go to lunch or out on a hike. These are two really simple things that are great way to make an impression.