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How to hire and work with interns - For startups

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

So you have a startup and you are wondering how do I ensure great interns that are passionate to work in a startup environment work with you? Most of the scenario's in this post are based on European startup environment experience, but are also applicable in a generic sense to other ecosystems around the world with a few minor adjustments.

Read on ...

But first wait a bit ... Interns are not cheap labor and should not be treated like one. This post is to create awareness for those startups which believe in providing a great learning experience to help interns become better professionals, than look at them as a source of cheap labor. It is your responsibility to ensure your startup provides a great working environment where learning is maximized so that the young students without much experience can enter the industry with the correct principles including ethics, morals, professionalism, and the acquired knowledge and the skills to do well, and as a founder it is your responsibility to ensure it happens by having an open, flexible, and friendly workplace. These are small ways you make a positive change in the world to make it better. With that disclaimer, lets continue.

Your startup could be in different stages as follows

1. Super early stage - Product development has just started, initial founding team is being established

2. Early stage - You have already made a good progress in product development and have at least some people working with you on temporary, contract, intern, full time basis.

3. Mature early stage - Product has started attaining maturity, you have handled decent number of people as employees, you have paying clients.

4. Growth stage startup - Your product is selling like hot cake, you are in need of scale to keep up with the pace of the rapid progress.

Most startups in their early stages (1, 2, 3) are critically low on budgets as they are not funded. and most often they are being bootstrapped. Interns and startups hence can act as a good match because interns can help you get some work done, and you can help them get the required learning experience to enter the industry and offer the mentor ship. These are also the stages where your startup looks like a small lab (in academic setting), where people work in super close environments and is yet to take the commercial shape it is going to take in the stage 4.

These stages of startups reflect the level of personal time you can spend with the people you work with in terms of mentoring and guidance because interns are there to learn and get a practical experience.

Now I am going to define different types of interns based on various factors.

1. Technical interns - Programming, IT, 3D modeling and animation, game development, etc.

2. Design interns - . Industrial product design, UI / UX, web design, graphics branding, etc.

3. Soft skill interns - Sales, marketing, HR, event, operations, etc.

4. No prior office desk job experience

5. Prior office desk job experience

6. Male / Female interns

7. Paid / unpaid interns

8. Bachelors / Masters interns

9. European interns / non European interns

Different interns come to do internship with different motivations.Some of the motivations are as follows.

  1. Already understand / know what is a startup and are super excited to have the chance of exposure to different areas and take responsibility.

  2. Do not know what is a startup, but are willing to learn and do hard work

  3. Did not get an internship in a big company, so want to try startup as an easy option

  4. Have worked in a big company so want to try a startup experience

  5. Super excited about your specific product and know about your startup through some one's recommendation who has already worked with you

  6. Your startup is listed on a university portal through some alumni, so they want to work

  7. Just need an internship some where to fill in the academic requirement

  8. Want to work in a big company later and want to show a startup as an option to impress on the resume (because startups are cool?)

  9. Have a boyfriend / girlfriend / partner in the same city and want to spend time with him / her and also do an internship.

  10. Want to get an exposure to your network so that once this internship finishes related jobs can be found to make a full time job search easier.

  11. Like the city your company is based in, and want to spend their summer / winter there.

  12. Were referred to by a recruiting company who gets commission from these interns to find internships for them. (yes, that is a big business, especially for International internships)

So now its up-to you to decide yourself what kind of startup intern aspirants you want to take because you know what kind of requirements you have depending on the stage of your startup. Please keep in mind most of these interns will not tell you the real reason, why they want to join your startup, but will just give some prepared answer that sounds nice and diplomatic. So its also up-to you to ask the correct interview questions so that you can actually understand the real intentions behind their internship. This can get tricky, but think about how you can do that, because that is incredibly critical to understand their real motivations.

What is a good duration for the internship? Typically 2 months minimum to around 5 months maximum is a good period. If it goes below that the interns do not learn anything in a good way, you waste your time, but they do get some name on their resume to show a new experience, and many interns might want to try that. More than 5 months and it becomes cheap exploited labor than a full time job, because most of the learning can be achieved in around 5 months time while giving you return on your investment in terms of training and other energy you spent on them by planning the internship in step by step manner. 2 months internships are usually good only for focused technical jobs where the intern already knows a lot of technology and just comes onboard to try it in a different setup on specific problems, which is achievable. They are not good for sales / marketing types if you are going to take efforts to train these interns on related skills due to lack of any experience.

Many corporate companies have a trend of offering long internships of up-to 1 year which I find complete exploitation of labor where they hire batches of interns in a go (say 20 interns), do not give them work that can not be say learned in less duration, and are usually a path to offer full time employments for such interns by getting them trained on in-house technologies so that they can be absorbed in relevant teams. I find the quality of such interns very questionable due to simply their motivation aspect of such internships. I do not appreciate such tactics and neither support the schools which allow such long internships in the first place. Companies if they want to do it in the correct sense should hire them as full time employees by giving them appropriate salaries and have them as trainees than interns once they have graduated from the schools. This is also prone to lots of abuse by smart interns who want to migrate in a new country etc. and who just want to enter a job market and be there in a safe way.

Now assume you managed to get them onboard after getting a detailed contract signed etc where you specify all clauses in detail (I mention in brief the important clauses of contract towards the end). Depending on the stage of your company your relation with each intern can be drastically different depending on their individual personality. If you are super early stage (stage 1) chances are you are the only founder, and this other intern especially if he / she is a technical intern (most likely) will be almost like your co-founder and a core team part, so you will have a relation that is more close and some times results into great personal relations. But be aware, the intern is still quite young and will not understand the responsibilities so you need to be patient.

Young students especially in their early 20's can find such situations quite challenging, as they will start showing insecurities due to their lack of experience, in such close working environment in smaller teams for such long hours, because they have not done that before. They can bring personal relationship issues etc. and can have frequent change of behavior depending on their personal relations (for e.g. with their boyfriends / girlfriends etc. if any, or family issues etc. if any). They can appear super friendly some times, but completely reserved at other times, and this can change based on their areas of interest and can also be manipulative with their charms. Do ensure you have a thorough interview where you understand the mental strongness of the student to handle such close working environment. Understand clearly how serious and studious he/she is with respect to his/her ambitions and career in a demanding working environment, as it will get clear with the correct questions and with some experience in handling interns.

Handing young students with no prior experience can be very tricky as some of them are over-smart and will appear super friendly etc. and can change their colors completely blaming it on you if you also become friendly with them to not spoil the mood, saying you asked personal questions which were completely fine in the mood of the conversation. Make the scenario completely clear to them to set the expectations correctly. No matter what the situation is DO NOT GET EMOTIONAL and maintain the correct friendly behavior while keeping a professional relation. Handling young students can be challenging because they can get influenced by lots of other factors (such as their parents, girlfriends / boyfriends, friends, others) and might not trust you due to their personal insecurities many times. Be cautious. However, never get fooled by all the sweet charms because it could be mostly only up-to this assignment they are working on and they might be pretending all of it until the internship is over and can completely change their personality once they get their internship report signed. A lot of the young students can have lot of entitlement attitude on top of it, so you need to ensure you are making it clear that you do not tolerate nonsense and expect strict discipline, if that means talking with the school, be it that. Show them you mean business and they will fall in line. Basically do not get fooled by their charms because this could be completely temporary to get what they want from you and they can show a different behavior later once the internship finishes.

If you are dealing with interns who are more into soft skills like sales, marketing, events etc. you need to spend a lot of time to train them because they have no experience and can't work at all until you give them guidelines unlike say technical interns who can work independently on the technical tasks given to them. For e.g. you need to train them to write sales mails, correct drafts, handles CRM systems, email marketing systems, understand customer interactions, listen to calls, make some calls, make data entry, etc. All of this requires super efforts to train them, and lots of personal time, hence for any internship position that is related to such soft skill based position, you need to have an intern at least for 4 to 5 months so that you can initially train them for one to two months and slowly they pick it up and be productive and return you the investment you did on them. Keeping motivational levels high for such interns is also an important task as they can get bored working on similar tasks that can also get repetitive after a while. Think creatively how to keep them motivated.

Watch your interns for their body language. Remember what answers they provided in their interviews and when real life situations arrive how they behave. Give them feedback where necessary. See if they work on it and improve. Be strict when its needed and be friendly when it is needed. Some interns might start showing a change of behavior as they got the learning they wanted to get and start getting bored. If you start observing this change talk with them to help them understand that you are noticing the change to bring them back from their comfort zone, to make them productive and focused. Some interns can start showing disillusionment when it comes to the sales and related processes as they realize they do not like the job after spending some time on it or they do not like the constant rejection that comes with such high stress jobs. Be open with them to discuss the issues and help them understand the solutions for their problems. Give them an understanding of the process and the importance of patience and not to take such rejections personally.

Some interns can be super charming. Be cautious about them because they might be sweet talkers who say one thing and do another thing. Keep an eye for their true intentions. Create situations to test their real motives and to learn more about them. If you start observing a repeated behavior be very alarmed because they can change their behavior completely some time once they get what they want from you. They will typically give one excuse after another, show lack of discipline, but yet will keep talking sweet.

A lot of behavior is also influenced by the culture. So ensure you are aware of your interns cultural traits, such as Northern European, Southern European, Asian, African, Latin American etc. You can roughly cluster them on the similarity of the cultures. You will find most of the Northern European interns well disciplined in terms of punctuality etc. where as you can find Asian, Latin American interns relaxed many times, etc. due to their cultural traits. Their personal interactions with you also depend on their individual cultures and how open they are in their personal space to discuss related matters because in small working environments personal / professional lines can get blurred during discussions etc. That is where a detailed contract where you describe various working environment aspects clearly becomes super critical as you have set the expectations clearly irrespective of the culture in a formal way to follow. This includes things like working times, lunch times, number of holidays if any, social media access rules (this is critical given addiction of some of them to Facebook / Snap-chat / Instagram etc.)

Ensure you have clauses related to confidentiality, no compete clauses in regards to working with collaborators, partners, clients and related aspects mentioned in a clear manner, else, some of them will / can do things like submit your confidential source code, sales data, product designs, to their school in their reports, or publish some where else like on their personal website accessible to general public, or start working with your partners / collaborators / clients (some times without telling you explicitly in an opportunistic way). Mention in a clear way the fines and legal penalties, an inappropriate behavior will attract to keep it straight. Make sure they show you all the reports they are going to submit to their school and have your signature on all of it as a proof. This is a critical part to ensure they are not accidentally / purposefully exploiting you after the internship is over.

Because if they do, the chances of their universities taking any responsibilities and taking any action on them are minimal as most of these schools might not want to take the associated headache and want to keep themselves away from such things. Many of the academic advisers will be unaware of the legalities and other aspects and will take their hands off the matter beyond a point and they will not even care. Many of the professors might be completely unaware of the practicalities and real life scenarios such as in startups since they are stuck in an academic setting where they just teach, and feel unaccountable to the extent don't care at all. And this could be true for many schools unless may be some exceptional ones where you do find a supervisor who really cares. Be aware the same schools / professors will woo you to take their students as interns but beyond a point will not care once they are there and you become responsible for their behavior in your company. So if anything goes wrong, you will be banging your head on a wall and any kind of legal action will burn a hole in your pocket as lawyers are super expensive and your startup will burn money on legal hassles. So keep it very safe, formal, and make sure you are mentioning all of it in a formal contract. The contracts need not be written by lawyers, but you can see examples of good contracts and draft your own as long as it is detailed enough in good English.

The purpose of internship is to learn and get professional skills. But some interns will be too manipulative and will show a bad behavior that will become clear with their actions in a repeated manner, where you will realize you can not trust them even after trying to improve their ways of working by a lot of feedback. One important rule here is the moment you start noticing any kind of indiscipline, talk with the academic supervisor to give him / her an idea and let the student knows about it. Make it clear to the supervisor that the intern will get fired if he / she does not show improvement. This should work in most of the cases. Some interns however, can be too difficult to handle and can be behaving really nicely earlier, but once their learning is fulfilled they can have a complete change of attitude, start showing entitlement and as if they are doing a favor on you because you are a small company etc. You will have no option but to FIRE any such intern because they can do more harm in the remaining time to the rest of the team if any, can drain your energy with their attitude and make you feel down. Report it to their school, make sure they are not going to damage any thing further in terms of using your network on your back by going to work with your collaborators / partners / clients etc ( as mentioned in the contract), and do not break confidentiality clause signed on the Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) etc.

If you want to understand how bad an intern experience can get at its worst see this post about one of our early stage interns (first intern) where we did lots of mistakes that cost us badly in terms of emotions, time, energy, legal, etc. however, also taught lot of invaluable learning how to to ensure these things do not happen again. Do not make such mistakes, and learn from other's mistake to ensure such things do not happen to you because this can be draining and can distract your focus completely.

And there will be some interns who are real gems, who are super passionate, super enthusiastic in a genuine way, are super hard working, and are very good at heart. There will be always a few of them. Once you are confirmed they are what they are, cherish them, because these are the ones with whom you will have a great relation even after the internship finishes as they are there to learn truly what it means to run a startup and enjoy the learning experience because they really care for it from the deepest of their hearts. You will most likely form beautiful relations with them.

The above assumptions are true for the stage 1 and 2 of your startup. In the stage 3 and 4 you will have a bigger team and there will be more people around you and you will not have so much time to interact with every one, so your mentoring of each intern will be drastically different. But by the time you reach this stage you will be already matured in dealing with a range of different types of interns and then you can take your best decisions.

Hope that this acts as a good learning point for you to ensure you have a correct environment for your interns and can attract good talent to build a great company.

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