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How To Get The Most Out Of Interning At A Startup

Interning is no time to stick to your comfort zone. Luckily, most startup internships don’t let you.

How To Get The Most Out Of Interning At A Startup
[Photo: wavebreakmedia via Shutterstock]

A lot has been written about the changing face of the modern internship, but plenty of it still misses the mark: Network aggressively. Learn as much as you can about as many things as possible. Don’t spill the coffee. It may not be bad advice, but because it’s so general, it’s hard to put into practice in ways that actually pay off when you’re hunting for your first entry-level job.

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Not Your Older Sister’s Internship

The good news is that internships today barely resemble the unpaid gopher work of years past. At many tech startups in particular, interns are more highly valued and wield more autonomy in the workplace than ever before. In fact, some recent graduates are now passing up full-time gigs at more traditional employers in order to intern at leading startups.

“I had a full-time offer from a major marketing firm, but I picked a startup internship instead,” Rebecca Urbelis, who recently finished a product management coursework at General Assembly, recently told me. “I’m aware it’s a little controversial, but I had worked full-time jobs at big companies before, and I wanted to stretch myself and learn new skills, two aspects I was worried would be lost in the shuffle of a more traditional agency.”

For all the benefits of interning at a startup, there are a few risks. Armed with greater independence than interns of years past, it’s now more than ever up to interns themselves to make their experiences count. With that in mind, here’s a look at the new playbook for locating opportunities, approaching interesting companies, and landing the internship offer–then getting the most from your time in the office.

Set Your Priorities

As the range of experiences internships now offer steadily widens, it can be harder for interns to get their priorities straight. Perhaps you’re hoping to learn a new skill or hone existing ones. Maybe you’re looking to network with influential industry folks or, if you’ve graduated or will soon, to parlay your internship into a full-time gig. Whatever your motivation, be fully aware of it going in. Also, don’t hesitate to set out some very specific, small-scale goals–skills to acquire, business knowledge to learn–which can help you focus on the type of company you want to work for. The new era of internships offers interns more license to break stuff, so figure out what it is you’d like to break.

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“I really wanted to understand how a company works to get a product out the door,” says Shweta Rai, a second-year MBA student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, who spent the summer interning at an early-stage startup in New York.

“In big corporations where I’ve worked before,” Rai says, “I’ve found that different departments or aspects are shielded from each other, and employees are restricted to a small segment of the product.” Gaining that insight was one reason for her interning at a startup going into it.

Finding The Right Opportunities

Forget what you’ve heard about scanning company websites for internship openings or flashing business cards at university networking events. While those can occasionally be successful strategies, they’re also time-consuming, frustrating, and often futile endeavors. A much more efficient and effective route is to go directly to the source. And for the burgeoning startup marketplace, that source is often venture capital funds.

That may seem like a circuitous route to a startup–aren’t VCs simply funding those companies?–but VC firms typically work with a stable of startups on the prowl for interns, and interns who come to companies by way of VCs often have a leg up on the competition. Using this route, you both cast a wider net to catch potential employers and avoid applying to those companies with a blind correspondence.

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“People are looking for the quickest, easiest route to an internship, which traditionally has been connecting to a company through your school’s career center,” says Brandon Fong, cofounder of Intern Betas, a service founded by college students aimed at connecting ambitious peers with like-minded startup companies.

“But it really depends on personal connections. The people getting the best internships at the best companies are the ones who know how to build and capitalize on a network through LinkedIn and social media.” So do your research on VC firms that work with the kinds of companies that interest you, then hit those social platforms hard.

Pitch Yourself Properly

So you’ve tracked down a VC, found a hot startup, and scheduled a Skype call with the internship supervisor. You’ve now got 15–30 minutes to stand out from the pack. Don’t spend this time regurgitating your resume; the hiring manager already has it in front of her. Instead, take this time to communicate what they won’t see on the page: your eagerness, adaptability, humility, and energy. Hiring managers for these internships want candidates who are more passionate than accomplished.

Don’t zero in too closely on the scope of the internship itself, but emphasize your desire to learn and get involved on a serious level.

“No matter how you meet these contacts, your first mission is to get past the gatekeeper,” Fong says. “Mention some specific aspects of startups you want to learn more about, ask for advice, make it a conversation. You’ve done your research–on your own skills and the company. Now is the time to put it to use.”

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone Every Day

Internships aren’t the time to settle in and stick to what you know. They are the time to push your boundaries, whether they are technical, like learning a new hard skill, or personal, like confronting your boss with an idea you have, even when it might be easier to fade into the background.

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“The most important thing you can do is make yourself uncomfortable,” Fong adds. “We’re in a society now where it’s less about what you know, and more about what you learn and how fast you can learn it.”

For Urbelis, the startup internship meant “touching” as many different aspects of the company as possible, taking the old internship advice to volunteer for everything possible to the ultimate degree.

“At a large company, I would’ve been pigeonholed into strictly low-level project management work,” Urbelis said. “But at a startup, you get a lot of experience making the real changes to a product and learning from them–being able to say, yeah, I helped tweak our algorithm to better serve our users’ needs.”

What To Do When It’s Over

You’ve just finished your internship. While you may not be ready to launch a startup of your own, it’s likely you learned more about how you work and what kinds of tasks you enjoy than what you might have with a traditional internship.

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It’s important to reinforce those hard and soft skills, whether by continuing to help out on a remote, part-time basis or moving on to another, similar company. As Fong points out, the best result of this new kind of internship is that you can now display a portfolio of accomplishments, rather than a resume of company names.

“Just as the internship was broken, the resume is broken,” Fong says. “Today, it’s about, What are you doing to make yourself more valuable not only in the internship, but in the world? It’s less a matter of looking good than being good. That’s where these internships can get you.”

Yarden Tadmor is the CEO of Switch, a Tinder-like job matching app that connects job seekers directly with internal hiring managers. Yarden has nearly two decades of experience helping to build and launch a variety of technology startups.