4 Success Factors For A Great Startup Internship

I loved doing my interships. Doing an internship in a cool company that is committed to teaching you is a real privilige. Especially if you can do this abroad! Gaining an international experience, making new friends and getting to know a great city, just amazing! But doing a startup internship is not for everyone and definitely not every startup is ready to receive interns.

I’ve seen internships go horribly wrong (first-hand) but I’ve also seen students thrive. So what does it take to have a good internship experience for both the intern and the startup? I had a look at my own internship experiences and the experience we’ve had with our interns at accessART. That’s how I came up with 4 key success-factors that will make an intern thrive in their startup internship. Every single one of these are traits that I look for in internship cover letters and resumes. So feel free to use it to your advantage 🙂 .

This is a “sister post” of the blog on whether startups are ready to receive startup interns or not.

A Startup Internship – what does it take?

Startup internships can be amazing, but also challenging. You won’t be bringing around coffees. But you also won’t have a fancy coffee machine. You may not have a fancy office. But you will know what it takes to run a profitable business. You may not be involved in multi-million dollar deals. But you will learn how to take those important first steps of a business. So what will make that a startup internship will work for you?

  • You are a self-starter

In my dictionary, a self-starter is someone that can motivate themselves to do things independently. Someone that can create a working structure for themselves and asks for help when needed. If you’re not a self-starter, you will have a hard time doing an internship in a startup. There won’t always be someone to hold your hand and explain you everything. Even worse, most things your “bosses” will never have done themselves.

For example, your founder will read this article about link-building. He then decides this could be a crucial factor for the SEO rankings of the startup’s website. The founder assigns the task to do research and make a project plan to the intern. Can you see the issue if you’re not able to motivate yourself to do things? There may not be any experience on the topic in-house, so independent research is needed. You may have to go outdoors, schedule meetings and get to know people. Exciting but not easy for everyone 🙂 .

Bottom line: if you’re not a self-starter you will have a hard and probably unsatisfying time at a startup. 

startup internship selfie
Selfie with the founding team & interns at our office warming party 🙂
  • You can handle changing priorities

If you like to know your tasks for the next 3 months and it makes you nervous if you don’t, skip the startup internship. Priorities change all the time! Or worse: your whole project may be discontinued from one day to the other if other priorities come up. Startups are about learning, trial and error. You start a small project, you test it, and if it doesn’t work, it’s abandoned and you move on to the next project.  Or, you have a couple of meetings planned during the day, but suddenly the website is down. Crisis! Priorities shift all the time. And not week by week, but hour by hour. 🙂

Don’t see this as solely negative though. If you will ever work in a large multinational or consulting firm, it will happen regularly that your client will puts lots of pressure on you to come up with a plan for a project. But then, in the next week they decide that the business case is not strong enough and abandon the whole thing. So it may be beneficial getting used to being flexible and handle priorities as they come in an early phase of your career 🙂 .

Bottom line: if you want to learn to cope with change, definitely join a startup.

  • You are willing to get your hands dirty

You will definitely get the chance to do strategic thinking, follow awesome workshops and do some out-of-the-box thinking. But really, what it comes down to in a startup is that it’s just lots and lots of work. Yes, also (and mainly!) for the founders 🙂 . I always tell my (prospective) interns that about 60% of their time at accessART will consist of daily routine. Whether it’s social media posts, running reports, contacting new leads – these are simply tasks that need to be done. Even thought they may not be sexy, I do expect the interns to perform these tasks at the highest level of quality. Only when I’m convinced that a specific task is going well, the interns will get to the fun “40%” of cool projects, attending workshops and organizing events.

There is a reason I put so much focus on this. One of my former managers once gave me one of the greatest compliments he could give me. He said “you make my life easier”. I delivered high quality work, so his agenda was not cluttered with little side-issues and having to review my work. My manager could focus on the real important tasks and the bigger picture. You make yourself super valuable if your founder does not have to worry about the standardized jobs and the quality of your outputs anymore!

Bottom line: do the crappy jobs with high quality and you will be rewarded with the cooler stuff 🙂

  • You are a top-notch communicator

In all jobs and internships I’ve had, I’ve seen communication make things go horribly wrong. The core of what whent wrong is the following: 1) Managers do not communicate their priorities clearly and 2) Interns do not communicate their progress and issues clearly.

In a startup, your founder or manager will keep throwing jobs at you. Can you do this, can you do that? You will usually have a to-do list with anything between 10 and 30 to-do’s. When this happens, people usually start with the thing that seems easiest.  This is normal human behaviour and, if you pay attention, you see this happening in stressful situations all the time, also in bigger companies.

The problem that occurs here is that the manager forgets to communicate his or her priorities. It can not be expected from the intern that he or she can identify the most important or urgent things on the list. Still, the manager will get frustrated that this one important thing is not done first. So, communicate with each other!

On the other hand, most interns (and many more mature employees) have this thing about not checking in regularly during a project. If there is one thing I learned in all my jobs, is that the initial requirements of the person who gives you the assignment are, at best, incomplete. So, work for a couple of hours, check to see if this what the founder or manager expects and then continue. Checking in often will avoid misalignments between the expectations and the work done. This will avoid that after 4 weeks of work, you are proud of your report, but that the founder is thinking, what has she been doing all this time?!

Bottom line: ask your founder/manager what are current priorities and communicate progress often!

Are you looking for a startup internship ?

This all may seem daunting, but most of all startup internships are lots and lots of fun!!  You get the chance to meet great people, see how to set up a company first hand and  take part in cool events. And most of all, if you work with good founders/managers, you will learn a lot that may benefit you in your future career! If you’re looking for a startup internship check these resources:

angellist.co – comprehensive database of startup jobs and internships

Cocoon – Amsterdam based startup focused on finding that right job for you

Dutch Startup jobs – a great listing of startup jobs in the Netherlands

accessART page 🙂

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