Internships at start-ups offer unique advantages over their corporate counterparts. Interns often have more responsibility, are exposed to a wider range of business functions, and many receive more one-on-one mentoring than often takes place at large corporations.
Perhaps most important, many start-up interns work directly with, and learn from, company founders and executives. Start-up internships present unique challenges as well.
Like… working directly with, and learning from, company founders and executives.
Intimidated? Not you!
You chose to intern at a start-up because of your adventurous, entrepreneurial spirit, right? Executives are just people, like everyone else, right?
In some ways you are correct. Start-up executives are just people. More than that, they’re people who want to see interns succeed. In fact, they need their interns to succeed – and to contribute to the company’s success – no room for dead weight in a start-up. In other ways, however, you’ll need to adapt – fast – to thrive (or sometimes even to survive) as a start-up intern.
Here are some simple suggestions on interning effectively with start-up executives:
Remember, “E.A.B.” (Executives Are Busy)
The average startup executive (caffeineus stressedoutus) is a harried creature typically under pressure that would crack a diamond. While facing cut-throat competition and working hard to keep the company afloat, they juggle many responsibilities – funding, technology, sales, customer service, PR… the list goes on.
Your communication with executives should keep this environment in mind. Save elaborate set-ups with funnel introductions for term papers. While professors love that stuff, start-up executives need quick delivery of important points. Concisely provide the pertinent information, and you’re done. (But have supporting data at hand if asked for more detail).
Represent Yourself Professionally – Always
Even when executives wear shorts to the office, buy drinks at company celebrations, or work the BBQ at lunch… they’re still executives. Fit in, of course, but don’t get too casual. Your mentors are not your buddies – at least not yet.
In the start-up environment, you are being evaluated all the time, in every situation. Start-ups can’t afford hiring mistakes. They must move fast, so they often hire exceptional interns directly to permanent positions. Every move you make should represent you as a capable, dedicated professional – and a potential team member.
Create Your Own Feedback Loop
In school, you receive feedback and evaluation through tests and grades. It’s great because your progress is calculated for you; results are provided on a regular basis. Start-up executives, however, are often too busy to review your projects every day, or even every week. You’ll need to ramp up quickly, and work independently. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t expect feedback on your work. Rather, it means you may have to help create the opportunity to receive input from your start-up mentor.
Suggest a schedule of feedback meetings; perhaps half-hour bi-weekly discussions to chart your progress and review your assignments. Before each meeting, email an agenda to your mentor with the main discussion points. Bring your view of progress made on your assignments, and be prepared to discuss any roadblocks or issues encountered. If you’ve completed your assignments, ask for new ones – and have suggestions ready.
There may be times when your assignments are done, or stalled. As an intern you can’t always just make up your own – and are left with free time. This is the perfect time to log into your Facebook account and check status updates, or discuss your latest exploits with friends on Twitter, right? Wrong!!
As an intern, you have two main responsibilities:
- Learn as much as you can from your assignments (and by watching what it takes to run a company)
- Working with the team to the best of your ability
When you have free time, be productive. Perhaps outline a new project or value-add; learn something new from a co-worker; research and evaluate your industry and your company’s competition. Unless social media is central to your internship – save it for your off time!
Interning directly with start-up executives presents a fantastic opportunity for your early career. Far more than the “go-fer” duties of your corporate intern counterparts, you’re learning directly from dynamic entrepreneurs in a fast-paced environment. No doubt, the challenges you face will be daunting – and you too may feel like you’ve joined the “caffeineus stressedoutus” tribe.
But the rewards and the education are that much greater, too. That’s why you chose to intern… at a start-up!