Careers

The Value of Interning at A Startup

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Every year, my colleagues host StartUp! Fest, an event that brings together local startups and graduate business students. And every year, I encourage my students to attend, even if they aren't sure about joining a startup team. I especially encourage those with limited or no prior work experience because they are the most frustrated that all jobs seem to require one to three years of experience and that employers expect candidates to contribute immediately, even for entry-level positions. As pre-experience graduate students, they worry they'll never find a job. Gaining experience, though, doesn't only mean working in a traditional environment. Interning with startups is one option to apply knowledge and explore interests.


So if you are still in the career exploration stage, are frustrated with a job search process that doesn't make sense, and/or are eager to flex your skills in an environment that challenges you to learn and grow, exploring opportunities with local startups may be the starting point you need. The experience can help you enhance skills that may otherwise take years to develop. Specifically, by joining a startup team, you are likely to achieve the following.

1. Gain Real-World Experience

That's exactly what you need as a young professional struggling to convince employers you have what it takes to solve real problems. A meaningful internship at a startup is not about adding an entry on your resume. You'll be expected to put in the effort to make the startup's vision a reality. Your input and contributions will matter. You'll have the chance to apply what you've learned and you'll immerse yourself in knowledge you can only get by doing. Trust me, you will need to do the work. You can't wait for tasks to be assigned and you can't slack off.

As you consider this option, what are the skills you hope to practice? Do you aim to position yourself as a content creator, a social media whiz, a web developer, a project leader, or a business analyst? Whatever the value you want to show employers, an opportunity with a startup can help you build examples that highlight your abilities in action. Even if you aren't sure what direction you want to go into, working at a startup allows you to explore what's possible.

2. Explore Different Roles

Whether you have a specific interest or not, an internship at a startup will force you into trying out different roles. At an early-stage startup, you are expected to jump in and contribute as needed, regardless of what initially brought you on board. You will more often than not engage in activities that stretch you and have you test skills you hadn't even considered. That may seem disorienting and confusing, but it could be exactly what you need if you are a student still figuring out what path to follow. Immersing yourself in the startup world helps you discover your strengths and weaknesses as well as your preferences when it comes to roles and responsibilities. Should you develop a thirst for the startup environment and decide to stay, you could design your own path, an easier feat to achieve at a startup than at a traditional employer.

3. Learn to be Resourceful

Early-stage startups don't have a bottomless well of resources, whether financial or otherwise; in fact, they may have no resources other than a vision and the founders' passion and grit. To perform well, you'll need to flex your creative muscles and come up with ways of accomplishing your goals without many resources. You won't have manuals, guides, processes and procedures to follow, so you'll have to figure things out on your own while braving the unexpected. You can't use what's been done before and may need to experiment. You'll hustle and learn from trial and error. Showing you can do what needs to be done with virtually no resources is a skill future employers will respect and value.

4. Foster Resilience

Successful startups grow quickly, and as they expand, startup teams often find themselves changing strategies to adapt to new realities. You'll probably get to apply what you've learned in ways you didn't think possible and you'll also have to quickly learn whatever new skills may be needed to move forward with a project. Some of your approaches will succeed and others will fail. In fact, failure is a constant in the startup world and to maximize your experience, you'll need to get comfortable with it. The good thing is, you won't have time to think about not having enough experience or the right skills. In this fast-paced environment full of unknowns and uncertainty, you dive in and do. Facing failure on a regular basis and recovering from it quickly helps you build resilience and shows you can handle the pressure.

5. Become an Independent Self-Starter

In the startup world, you may be close to leadership but you may not have many opportunities for training, guidance and mentorship. Don't get me wrong. You will learn a lot from the creative and innovative people you collaborate with; you just won't have the luxury of onboarding resources and regular supervision. You'll be expected to come up with ideas for projects and run with them. You'll have to learn on the go and become comfortable with taking initiatives and making your own decisions as you move forward on projects.

You may have to do the above while working remotely, as many of my students end up doing. To succeed, they become responsible communicators and disciplined time managers. If they don't, they may still complete the internship, but the value will be minimal. Remember, you get out of it what you put in. Having such experiences early in your career builds confidence in your own abilities. Although an initiative may be a complete bust, having the option to see a project through can be quite empowering. By the end of your experience, you'll have stories to show how you can take a project from conception to completion and case studies to show how you handle failure, both ideal to share in future interviews.

How to Find Opportunities and Excel

Now that you understand the value of interning at a startup, you may be curious about finding such opportunities. If you are currently a student, check out events your institution may be hosting that give you access to local startups. Research venture capital firms in your geographical area to discover startups they work with and are in need of interns. Attend events, meet people, hear their stories and build relationships. As you evaluate startups, think about the issues they are addressing or the products they are creating and select one that aligns with your values. If you are excited about the work the startup does, you'll be more likely to commit the hours and effort needed for success in the role. As you pitch yourself to a startup, show yourself as someone who believes in their product or mission and emphasize the fact that you are a self-starter not afraid of experimenting, flexing new skills and adding value.