Startups Share Best Practices for Hiring Interns

Memorial Day isn’t just the unofficial start of the summer season. It signals the beginning of summer internships for many college students, especially entrepreneurially minded ones.

One source of interns for San Antonio companies comes from Trinity University’s Students + Startups program. Various startup companies in downtown San Antonio are in the process of onboarding 61 interns for the summer, program director Luis Martinez said. Thanks to a grant from the 80/20 Foundation and in partnership with Geekdom, a downtown co-working space, students receive a $4,000 stipend and one hour of class credit in exchange for 10 weeks of full-time experience working at a startup.

Programs like Trinity’s makes using inexpensive—or unpaid interns from other sources—an attractive option for cash-strapped startup founders. Many early-stage companies, however, may have little to no experience in working with interns.

Startups San Antonio asked local founders and experts for best practices startups should consider when hiring interns.

Think carefully about which tasks to assign to interns.

The coding boot camp Codeup has used Trinity interns since the Students + Startups program started in 2016. Director of marketing Yumi Jeon described Codeup’s process for developing a master list of intern projects.

“Before screening candidates, we got together as a team and created a list of tasks to be done that we hadn’t had time or resources to accomplish,” Jeon said. “In our first year, we needed more help with marketing, while in our second we needed help with operational and financial tasks.”

For 2018, Codeup discovered they needed help with all three areas. Jeon recommends creating a startup list of suitable intern tasks every year, as a startup’s needs change over time. That list becomes the foundation for an intern’s job description.

“During the interview, we let the intern talk about their strengths and desires for their intern experience,” Jeon added. “We listen closely and look for alignment that leads to a match.”

Brandy Howell, the founder of an internship program consulting practice, works with companies, including startups and small businesses.

“The first rule I’d advise founders set is never to ask an intern to perform a task that you would not do yourself.”

So, if everyone in the startup takes turns making coffee runs for the office, an intern can take part in the rotation, but only if you as a founder would have done this yourself.

Develop orientation resources for interns, but don’t go overboard.

“Make sure you have a plan in place so interns can become familiar with your industry by giving them background information on your startup, your industry, and the task you have in mind for them,” Howell emphasized. She cautioned there is no need to “reinvent the wheel.”

“Use online resources already developed on SEO, content development, or whatever task you plan on assigning to the intern,” Howell added. “If your startup has a company blog, website, or other documentation that will be helpful, too.”

Give interns a large, long-term (but noncritical) project.

At large companies, an intern’s work can easily disappear in the background of an established business structure. Jungle Disk CEO and founder Bret Piatt thinks smaller startups offer one distinct advantage for interns: Your performance is visible, and all your efforts count. Startups focus on priorities, with everyone working on the top ones. Founders often have a long list of important, but noncritical projects that would bring value to the entire company, if only someone had the time to tackle it.

“If you can give your intern goals and your list of projects that could make your startup better if one or more were completed, you might get to cross something important off your list and in the process, get that intern excited about the accomplishment and your company,” Piatt said. “If the intern isn’t able to complete the task, it’s still on your list—nothing has changed.”

Piatt points out the time, money, and energy invested in hiring an intern is (or should be) lower than in hiring a skilled professional or going through the contracting process for a subcontractor.

Last summer, Piatt interviewed Sarah Scott, a freshman English major from Trinity’s Students + Startups program interested in tech writing. Piatt asked Scott to define her job in her Jungle Disk intern interview because the startup was interested in employees who could leverage their interests and skill set on one of the company’s projects.

Intern Sarah Scott at Jungle Disk
Trinity University intern Sarah Scott wrote Jungle Disk’s user guide during her 2017 summer internship. Photo courtesy Jungle Disk.

“I went through Jungle Disk’s website, and tried to identify missing pieces,” Scott wrote in her blog post for Jungle Disk. “The lack of a user guide stood out to me.”

Scott had never read a user guide for software before her time at Jungle Disk. Her summer project was writing their comprehensive tech user manual.

“From a user testing perspective, Sarah is as tech knowledgeable as we expect our customers to be, so she asked us questions that highlighted the areas where we needed to produce a support knowledge base article or a video for the guide,” Piatt said.

Have a formal performance management process for interns.

Codeup’s Jeon recommends creating a structured process for overseeing interns and their progress. At Codeup, the intern is assigned to a manager who will work with the student over the course of the summer. Managers document internship goals and create actionable objectives that are tracked over time to make sure students reach their goals and get the Codeup task done.

“It’s the same process we use with our full-time employees, just more intensive,” Jeon said. “You can’t complain about interns if you haven’t taken the time to give them the guidance they need.”

Treat interns like full-time employees, because a happy intern equals benefits for everyone.

Piatt, Jeon, and Howell agreed it’s best to treat interns like a full-time employee. The mindset goes beyond the management aspects of tracking progress and checking on goal alignment to keep everyone engaged. It also means remembering that interns typically have a short time to integrate with the startup’s staff, so taking some extra steps can help with that integration.

“Within the first week or so of an intern arriving, organize a company team outing so the intern can get to know your staff,” Howell suggested. “Try to schedule a team building activity, especially a collaborative exercise or experience like a panic room or laser tag.”

Internships ideally should be mutually beneficial. If you have unpaid interns, there are legal considerations founders must heed—the internship must be more akin to a training program than employment.

The bottom line for startups is to remember the potential to discover talent that can lead to a job offer.

“A successful internship is a great recruiting tool for startups,” Piatt said.

Featured image is of Trinity Students + Startups interns Melanie Orellana (left) and Haley Hultman, who worked at Codeup over the summer of 2017. Photo courtesy of Codeup.

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Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez is a writer based in San Antonio, Texas, covering innovation in emerging tech, cybersecurity, and bioscience startup companies in San Antonio.

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