Why You Should Hire A Gaggle Of Interns At Your Startup


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Steve Benson, Founder and CEO of Bay Area Badger Maps, intends to hire so many interns this summer that he will effectively double the size of his startup. According to Steve, “Startups are, by their nature, a great place for interns, because there are more essential things that must get done than there are people to complete them. At the same time, most startups are small enough that the interns are able to interface with people that actually have expertise, so they gain real-world skills while performing meaningful work.” 

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At both Expertcity (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, acquired by Citrix) and Computer Motion (NASDAQ RBOT, acquired by Intuitive Surgical), our intern programs generated dozens of full-time employees. Although imperfect, these programs proved to be economical recruiting channels. Each program incorporated the following characteristics:

Components Of An Effective Intern Program

Meaningful Work – Treat your interns as adults and magical things will happen. We insisted that our interns produce something of value during their brief summer tenure. In several cases, we eventually productized summer intern projects, including a mobile version of GoToMyPC which we called PocketView.

Working on real-world projects will shorten the interns’ learning curve, thereby ensuring they will reach an acceptable level of productivity soon after being hired full-time. Additionally, you can pragmatically assess which of them will become effective contributors once they join your venture as a full-time employee.

Law of Large Numbers – Even when your startup is relatively small, you should hire an outsized number of interns. At Expertcity and Computer Motion, despite the fact that both companies were comprised of about 50 – 200 employees at the time, we routinely recruited 30 – 50 interns each summer. Within reason, the larger your intern class, the greater the volume of creative ideas and more talented recruits you will subsequently hire full-time.

Competition – Make it clear that only the best interns will be granted offers for full-time positions. An explicitly competitive environment will cause the high-achievers to excel. We typically hired about one third of our interns.

University Affiliation – Both Expertcity’s and Computer Motion’s Founders were former Professors at UC Santa Barbara, which greatly facilitated our intern hiring efforts.

If you do not have a direct relationship with your local university or college, create one. Do not rely on the campus recruiting office, whose goal is to find every student a job, irrespective of their talent. Instead, network with professors who can direct their best students to you.

Team Building Fun – It is summer after all, so keep it fun. In addition to assessing your interns’ talents, you should also court them. At Expertcity, we organized off-site field trips to nearby Santa Cruz island where we conducted a variety of team-building exercises.

Invest – Frugality should be a core competency at your startup, irrespective of the size of your bank account. However, don’t scrimp on your intern program. If properly run, the aggregate recruiting costs will be substantially less than hiring a like number of employees via conventional means.

Academic Setting – Your interns’ frame-of-reference is the school, so facilitate the transition from the classroom. Create intellectually stimulating teams comprised of interns and full-time employees from a variety of departments and challenge them to solve problems as a group.

Mr. Benson supports this approach, noting that, “Interns need structure. You can’t say, ‘Go get on Linkedin and find me some prospects for a front-end engineering role that we have an opening for.’ You need to teach them how to do these things in a step-by-step way, as if it were a school assignment. Then once they understand how to do it, they can iterate on it and get better and better, until when they leave they actually have a marketable skill. A lot of students are keenly aware that they aren’t given the tools to succeed in a classroom setting and that they have to earn those skills by getting real world experience.”  

Multi-Department Exposure – Integrate your interns into cross-disciplinary teams in order to expose them to a cross-section of your full-time employees. This will allow them to gain a broader understanding of your company’s culture. It will also help you decide which interns to hire full-time, as you can solicit feedback beyond the department in which they will eventually work.

Summer Fun And Mutual Profit – The mutual “try before you buy” aspect of an internship allows both you and the prospective employee to better assess the potential fit.

Pay To Play – Don’t delude yourself into thinking the experiential value you provide your interns will help them pay their rent. It won’t. We always paid our interns and you should too.

Follow my startup-oriented  Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about interns gone wild or that killer burrito I just ate – just startup stuff.

Image: Dean Calma / IAEA via Flickr

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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