Why You Should Intern at a Startup, and 4 Pointers for Success

This post is updated and published here, as part of our new blog launch. It originally was published Nov 16, 2016, on Medium. 


College is a critical time for growth. Almost everything we do is in someway optimized for advancing our lives. In classes, we are able to expand our knowledge and become better problem solvers. Density of living allows us to build social networks and improve our communication skills. And extracurricular activities challenge our leadership abilities and teach us how to work in teams.

But, as all students know, there is much more room for growth than any campus can provide. That is why many, if not all, students look to the real world for experiences that can help them grow on both a personal and professional level.

These real world experiences, common in the form of internships, are a great way to combine every aspect of campus and apply it to the real world.

Internships are becoming more important than they ever have before. They are no longer a bonus for your application, they are an expectation.

Thus, the challenge of internships is two fold:

  • Finding the right internship
  • Getting it

I think, in general, we often do not spend enough time on the former. We optimize for the short run and apply to have the biggest brand name to slap on our resumes instead of finding an opportunity that is best for us.

This all comes back to how much you agree with my original statement:

College is a time for growth, on all levels.

I would say most people agree with that statement, yet our actions do not parallel this view. It’s weird, we all want to grow quickly, yet most of us never even look for internships that will really make them advance on all levels.

I asked myself this question when I first started college,

“What can I do to accelerate my growth?

The answer, I’ve found, is to find an internship that would best put me in a position to grow quickly, but also add a ton of value ~ all at the same time. Over the past year and a half (since I came to college), I’ve interned with 5+ companies and learned a ton. Unlike many other students who were waiting for the big names to release applications, I just started working with and helping startups.

Of the many things I’ve learned working at tech startups, here are 4 of the most important:

1. Accessibility

As a Freshman or Sophomore in college, finding an internship is generally extremely challenging. And it is not really because you are not qualified for the position. No. It is because you are young. And established corporations do not want to invest in talent that will inevitably leave them post graduation. For big companies, this makes a lot of sense because in the long run, it is all about optimizing talent and people who stay at the company. Young people are a big financial risk.

But for startups and small companies, the short term is also the long term. Most of these small teams cannot look five years ahead, let alone 30 days. What that often means is that they are always just trying to build the best team they can. And with interns, they can do just that. Even better, they are able to hire all of this untapped, fresh talent on a budget, which is incredibly advantageous for them.

When I figured that startups would be willing to hire me, as long as I could provide value, my outlook on college somewhat completely changed. I started working remotely during the school year, and during my freshman summer I moved out to San Francisco. 

Working remotely and also moving to SF completely changed my trajectory for growth, and have made for an incredible “college experience.” The best time to start learning is now. So why wait? What are you waiting for?

2. Explore A Unique Interest

From elementary through high school, we are told which classes we have to take. College is really the first chance we get for true freedom of learning. Well, not really. We still have to explore certain subjects and fulfill requirements in order to graduate.

And even graduation plans are often binding. I have found that most of the career paths laid out post graduation by big companies generally fall into a number of contained silos. Either you go and become a consultant or investment banker. Those are extremely viable and advantageous opportunities.

But, if you are a student trying to figure out what you like most, the corporate world may not be the best way to do that.

With startups, you are able to work at companies that are working directly on the problem that you are interested in. Whether that is FinTech or agriculture or apparel, you will find a startup building a solution to the problem that you want to solve.

3. Real World Experience

Interning at a startup is nothing like a summer camp. Generally speaking, there is no advanced, three week training program to prepare you for the job.

Instead, you start your work the day you get to the office. And you learn everything you can on the job.

It provides a challenge, but more importantly, an experience you will actually learn from such that you can takeaway real hard skills.

You learn so many valuable skills that you can take with you for the rest of the career.

  • Initiative: No one at a startup has time to come up ideas for what you can do that week, let alone that day. You learn, quickly, that if you want to make a tangible impact, you have to not only be an executor but also an ideas guy.
  • Teamwork: As an intern at a startup, teamwork and chemistry is everything. Unlike big companies, teams are small and tight knit. Everyone is dedicated and fighting for the same cause, otherwise no one would be there. That is a special feeling, something you only get when you know your team is there for you and wants you to win.

4. Making An Impact

When I first started interning at startups, perhaps the biggest surprise was the amount of impact I could actually have on the product of the company. I was directly contributing to the team, and always treated like a full time employee.

You will not find that experience elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest thing that startups have done for my life is that they have taken a chance on me. They invested their time and resources in my career, hoping that I would provide value back. They did not care how old I was, or if I was remote or not. All they really cared about was that I wanted to help their team win.

If you are still worried about what your resume will look like with an unknown startup on it, then here should be your reason not to:

By working at a startup, you are able to bring measurable effects of your work to your resume. Effects that most likely largely impacted the trajectory of the company you are working at.

This is a differentiator — most students, especially underclassmen college students, will not have much, if any, tangible experiences where they impacted an important mission.

By interning at a startup, you can learn a ton, have something for your resume, and far more importantly: accelerate your growth.

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