Are interns really that helpful to a startup?

QUESTION:

One of our founders asked the question, “Are interns really that helpful?  Every startup I know seems to have interns.  I’m in San Francisco, and I could really use some help, but I’m not sure interns are the right solution for me.”

ANSWER:

There are two schools of thought when it comes to recruiting interns to work at your startup.  One is that it’s more work than it’s worth.  As a startup, you need to move fast and you don’t have the luxury if training up a student, only to have the student leave a couple of month later — just as they are getting up to speed.

The other school of thought says that interns are a great, low-cost way of getting things done that no one else has time to do. And who knows, there are plenty of those tasks in any startup. Interns also give you a good perspective on what younger minds think of your product. And it’s good for the students to be exposed to a startup early in their career.

I come down in the middle.  After working with interns with three of my venture-funded startups, I can say that often it’s a distraction.  You spend a couple months training the intern only to have him or her leave, and then you have to start over again.  And if you don’t train the interns and mentor them, then it’s not really fair to the student.

The big exception, in my experience, is bringing on interns that you intend to hire full-time. I focus on interns who are just about to graduate or have recently graduated. By offering them an internship, I can see how good they really are.  It’s hard to judge college students from their resume or work history, since they typically don’t have one.   So an internship is a good way to weed out the wrong fit and find those college students who can really perform in a startup environment. Also, any training you do may pay off because you may end up hiring the good students full-time after the internship ends.

With that in mind, here are some good Silicon Valley resources you should know about…

If you have any other Bay Area colleges to add to this list, just post them in the comments section.  This list is by no means comprehensive!

Note:  Before making any business decisions based on information on this site, it is your responsibility to check with your counsel or professionals familiar with your situation.

Comments & Advice:
  1. kannannari says:

    I Totally agree with you on paying more attention in hiring an intern and making it useful for both your company and the intern. Even for summer interns in some of the companies I have led Engineering in. I have found it useful to circumscribe a problem that can be solved in three months' time and giving the intern a clearly defined task. That way, I can be sure it is something the Intern finds useful, and our company has solved a problem that it did not have cycles for. In this case summer interns from top schools here in Bay Area shine much better than the other lesser well known schools because the students “get it” quicker and you don't have to spend too much time training them.

  2. Dave says:

    In part, it depends on the intern. If you hire an intern who “gets it”… referring to the general startup culture… you could indeed have a reliable, independent resource for your company. Not a lot of training involved.

    In addition, if your company does think that interns could be a useful resource in an ongoing capacity, why not develop a training manual, or even better a training manual. My company, YouTern, connects startups and small businesses with innovative interns. We always recommend that companies identify mentors within the company. Every company has people who know how to mentor, and who have the ability to set aside some time to guide the new talent.

    Either a well-developed training program, and/or a mentor within the company alleviates “hassles” with hiring interns, shortens their ramp-up time, and both the company and the intern get the most productivity out of the relationship.

    Per your request, you could add YouTern to your list of intern resources.

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