23 Jul 2015

Six top tips for using interns in your startup

By Glen

“Let’s get an intern!” is something you hear a lot in startups – or other small organisations. Interns can be a great resource and significantly add value to the team, or they can be a massive drain on your budget and time. Don’t jump in and get an intern without thinking through the plan. Here’s what I’ve learned the hard way – both as an intern and as someone getting interns in. I’ve made all the mistakes – don’t make more.

(1) Why an intern?

An intern is not a swiss army knife – it’s either someone who wants experience in a new field or else someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience. Have you got work they can do? Do you need to hire a different type of person – an assistant or a developer for example? Interns need to be managed – and it’s really difficult to get an intern to do something you don’t know how to do yourself. This is a problem for a lot of small organisations who might think “I’ll get an intern to do the _________ (fill in here: website, social media, marketing plan, etc)”. An intern isn’t going to help with that – in fact, they’ll probably do a worse job without supervision and experience.

(2) The offer

Some people approach hiring interns as a way of getting cheap (or free – more on that later) labour. You’ll get a lot more out of an intern if you can articulate clearly what they can expect to get out of it – Internships can be:

  • Network building
  • CV building
  • An extended job interview
  • Part of a structured programme that you run, with various outputs.

Use your brainpower and the lessons you’ve learned from reading Getting to Yes to explain what you want out of the internship, what they can expect to get out of it, and what your expected timeframe is. Be reasonable about this – remember, for many this a way to get a job, so don’t get cross if they leave partway through.

(3) Paid vs. unpaid internships

You can probably get away with not paying them, but you really should. First of all, it’s part of the national minimum wage legistlation and there’s guidance right here on how it works. The big exception is if they’re doing the internship as a required part of their course. There are a few others at the link above, so if those apply to you, you might consider otherwise – but when you consider the time and effort that you’re going to expend finding and managing the person, the minimum wage isn’t that much (and the actual living wage isn’t much more). You can’t expect valuable work if you don’t value it.

Pay people who do productive work for you, unless they’re volunteers or getting credit for a course.

(4) Getting started

Make time to talk to interns about their goals and their progress in the first week they’re there, halfway through their internship, and towards the end. Let them know what you expect from them and whether they’re on target to reach those goals. Think about what you can do to help them achieve those goals. Find out what they need from you (a report, a letter of recommendation, a job, etc).

Identify someone who’s going to be their line manager during their internship and seat them nearby. Their line manager should speak to them at a minimum weekly – and daily if possible. Interns often get moved around to different parts of the business – make sure there’s someone they can go to with problems.

(5) During the internship

Be flexible – to an extent. You know that this person hasn’t got a permanent job and wants one. Don’t set up a situation where they feel like they’re stuck in a work experience programme and can’t do interviews. Be reasonable and talk to them.

Whether you’ve told them that your internship is an extended job interview or not, if you decide you want to hire them, let them know straight away. If they’re so great, someone else is going to want them. If you’ve done the above, you’re going to seem like a reasonable team to work for and you’ll be in good shape. They may want some time to think about what they’re doing and a bit of time to sleep on it. Don’t pressure them to sign right away. Be nice.

(6) Finishing up

Have an exit interview process. Make it clear that they can talk to you about anything, good or bad. Find out what went well and didn’t. Someone good – someone that you identified in your interview process as a person you wanted to work with (this is a topic of another post) is going to see loads of different things about your business and how it works. Unless you’re hiring them, this is your last chance to get it out of them. Talk to them about:

  • Product
  • Customers
  • Internal team working
  • Operational processes
  • The “coal face” part of the business they were working on, what worked well, and what didn’t

(Bonus) How we do it

Our internship programme is still quite new, and this is how we do it. Interns are for six months plus two weeks – long enough for there to be a handover period with the next person, and we pay London Living Wage. We aren’t growing the BGV team, so we are clear that our interns don’t have a shot at a job with us, although we encourage the interns to look for jobs with our portfolio companies and funders.

We talk amongst ourselves and work out who might have a project or something that’ll be interesting to work on, and we advertise the internship on that basis – so it’s focused on impact investment, or marketing and comms, or operations, or whatever.

One of us is in charge of line managing the intern and they are exposed to all of the business – from call for ideas through selection and induction of teams right the way through demo day, and they help select the next intern.

Working with interns can be a great, mutually beneficial, experience – but it can also be awful, for you and the intern. The first intern I ever hired was bright, but wasn’t capable of working unsupervised, and some of his behaviour could have exposed the company to significant liability. Use them – but use them right.

And if you need to just actually hire someone – just hire someone.