Ah, cheap labor. The idea of hiring low-paid or unpaid interns is quite a compelling prospect for cash-strapped startup founders. Indeed, a team of talented, productive interns can allow startups to remain focused on high-level strategy while others do the busywork. What entrepreneur could refuse such an opportunity?
The problem is that many startups do a terrible job hiring and managing interns, causing the process to become more time-consuming than not having interns in the first place. We know this at Brainscape because we've made plenty of mistakes ourselves.
Hiring interns at a startup can be quite different than hiring at big companies. Below are some best practices we've learned about hiring and managing interns at an early-stage startup:
1. Remember to highlight "WIIFM."
To even consider a low-paying position at an unknown company, a candidate will clearly need to know “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM?). After all, having done nothing but mindless data entry for a potentially defunct startup will be worthless on a resume a year from now. Your job description needs to sell the cool, world-changing stuff the intern will be working on, in addition to the usual tedious internship tasks, if you really want a bunch of great people to apply. This is especially true if you are ever considering internships for masters' degree students.
2. Maintain a broad, consistent pipeline of potential interns.
If you're hoping to hire great talented students, then you'll need a huge pool of applications at the top of the funnel. This will likely require several days' worth of proliferating your job description through job boards (local university career centers, Craigslist, internships.com, etc.); begging relevant university departments to email the opportunity to their list serves; attending career fairs; plumbing your own network regularly (for example, by sending out Facebook or Twitter posts); and using foreign internship programs (the programs that help students find the six to 12 months' worth of overseas internship credit that many top foreign universities require for graduation). It should be someone's job to make sure your startup's presence in all these intern pipelines is kept up to date every semester.
3. Minimize the time you spend interviewing interns.
As a startup founder (or early employee), your time is extremely valuable. If you're considering an intern for such a temporary (and maybe even part-time) position, then it's insane for you to spend several hours phone- and live-interviewing a bunch of candidates. There are many ways you can "automate" the process of narrowing down candidates while minimizing face-time, at least until you've narrowed down to finalists:
Send the candidate pre-interview reading materials. This could be as simple as directing the candidate to check out your website and to prepare questions about your company and the position. But if your public website does not fully communicate the extent of the organization, you'll want to consider sending the candidate a short presentation giving them more information about the company, the vision and intern's potential responsibilities. This will save you lots of time having to explain these things on every introductory phone call.
Give the candidate follow-up work after the interview. Once you've chatted with the intern and verified that the position might "make sense" for both parties, send the candidate 20 to 40 minutes worth of "homework" that resembles something they might have to do on the job. Many of your candidates won't do this mini-project and will drop off the face of the earth. You can immediately rule out these non-committed slackers. For the rest of them, you'll now have a much better metric by which to compare them with each other.
4. Give a thoughtful, personal offer.
Remember that the market for top college intern candidates can be just as competitive as the market for good full-time employees. Once you have honed in on a candidate you really want, it's much more worthwhile to spend the time "closing the sale." Have the CEO personally call the candidate rather than just email him. Follow up with a formal offer letter, on company letterhead. Kick off the internship for a well-organized "orientation" and welcome lunch. And do whatever else you can to make the candidate, his or her parents and career advisors feel most comfortable with this sketchy young company.
Now that you have gotten some awesome young internship talent on board, you'll want to make sure you're getting the most out of these new resources. The key thing to remember is that the better the experience you provide to your interns, the more value you will obtain from them in return.
5. Give interns a large, long-term project.
In addition to all the random menial tasks that you plan to assign to your interns throughout their time at your company, you should always give them at least one (non-critical) long-term project that they will lead themselves. This could be a marketing campaign, a video project, a simple satellite website or any number of other large projects that are likely to take a few months. Assigning interns at least one large project gives them something to work on during their downtime when you might be too busy to assign them a smaller tasks, while it motivates them to have a great artifact to mention on their resume when they graduate.
6. Don't treat a part-time intern like a full-time one.
If your intern is working only part-time, you should avoid making him her the sole person in charge of customer service, critical bug fixing or any other responsibilities that may require immediate attention. That means that if an intern has another job to keep him or her busy, or mid-terms to study for, then you can't just expect him or her to be "on call" whenever you need. Also, you should be mindful of giving extremely menial tasks (such as moving your car or running an errand) to part-time interns on their one day in the office per week. That's not fair. If you need a personal assistant, then it's better to hire a full-time intern or employee.
7. An intern should never be your lead software developer.
I often meet non-technical founders who, after having failed to find a "real" technical founder, resort to the option of hiring an intern to build their product. This is almost always a terrible idea. First, a technical intern's biggest motivation for finding an internship is to gain some training and mentorship in a real-life coding environment -- not to be thrown to the wolves as the company's only developer. Second, you are likely to be very displeased at the quality of the inexperienced intern's product & design, to the point that having hired him or her will turn out to have been more "expensive" (in terms of your valuable time) than simply having handsomely paid a consulting shop to build your product. Finally, given an intern's transitive nature at your company, you are likely to be left with half-written code that cannot easily be "handed off" to a new future developer. If you plan to hire a technical intern, make sure you have at least one experienced full-time engineer who will be able to manage and mentor this person.
8. Offer the intern's services to many/all of your company's departments, but have a single gatekeeper.
When you introduce your other employees to your new intern, let them know that they may request the services of that intern at any time, provided that they do it through the intern's gatekeeper. This is a single person who is in charge of managing the intern's time, making sure he or she is working on things he or she will learn from (where possible), and ensuring that he or she is not overloaded with too many assignments. It may be convenient for the intern's manager to be the same as his or her "mentor," but this does not always have to be true.
9. Have a formal performance management process.
Every intern should be assigned a formal mentor on the management staff. For full-time interns, or for multi-semester part-time interns, you should have at least one mid-term checkpoint in which the intern's mentor takes him or her to lunch and verifies that he or she is indeed getting everything out of the experience that he or she had hoped for. This helps to solidify the mentor-intern relationship while escalating any underlying issues that you may not have been aware of otherwise. We've also found it to be helpful to have a performance management form that the intern and mentor jointly fill out at the beginning, middle and end of the internship period, thereby helping to establish a record of the intern's goals and completion.
If you follow all of the tips above, you should be well on your way to creating a lasting and productive internship program for your startup.