5 Tips on using interns in your startup

Interns are a huge asset to the startup community and the often don't get the credit they deserve. Pizza and coffee fueled interns (true life, see picture below) can be incredibly valuable to have. This is especially true in the early days of a company when founders are wearing more hats than they can manage. 

Each year we bring in 5-7 interns to help with our companies throughout the accelerator program. The developers work on the toughest technical challenges that each company will face as they rapidly develop their products. The associates work directly with the founders of each company helping with marketing, product, sales, and business development. It's an awesome opportunity for everyone involved. Interns walk away with 5 references on their resume, a truly unique work experience, and not to mention connections to the 100+ mentors in our network.

From this and other experiences I've had with interns in my own company, I've learned quite a bit about how to find the right people, keep them productive, and what tasks they should and shouldn't be working on. Here are a few tips on how to have a great experience with your interns ...

Learn to Delegate. This pretty much goes for anyone in a management position. As interns may be the first people under the management of your startup, it's even more likely for there to be some friction here. If you're a first time entrepreneur or manager, then it can be even more difficult. Maybe it's simply a matter of "making sure it's done right" or maybe you're more like me and hate investing the time it takes simply to delegate a task. Whatever the cause, find a way to get over it and make sure you are utilizing your interns. Good ones will come to you looking for work but don't always bet on that. Take their interests into account. The last thing you want is a passive intern, making tons of costly mistakes, and taking hours of time to handhold. If they are passionate and they have the opportunity to learn, they are far more likely to be productive. I think this is less of a demographic issue than many people believe on the face of it. People in general want to be connected with and interested in their work. Even if you brought in this intern to help with data entry, if they have an interest in learning more about marketing, give them some tasks. Let them sit in on marketing meetings. It may not be their main job, but do what you can to incorporate their interests. Picking the right intern is as much about the person as it is about skills & experience. We've taken in interns that were extremely bright, went to ivy league schools, pursuing multiple degrees & minors, with multiple other internships under their belt and had an awful experience. At the same time, we've taken interns from local schools with no previous internships and had a wonderful experience. This is about fit. Try giving them an assignment or giving them a taste of working in your company first. You can't predict the future but you can look for red flags.Test their abilities beyond the tedium. If they feel involved they will be far more active and committed. Theses are essential qualities for anyone working in a startup including interns. I fully anticipate the main reason you are hiring interns is to handle the most time consuming and tedious work assignments you have. That said, do not be afraid to test their ability to handle more important assignments. One of the things I used to do in interviews was send them an email with an obvious and important error in it. If they pointed out the mistake in their response I had a better indication that I could trust them with important details. At the very least it meant they would talk to me if anything seemed out of whack. You can't expect them to be perfect, but you should expect them to communicate with you when it matters.Accept the fact they are not going to manage themselves. Understand how much of your time is needed for managing them and plan that into your schedule accordingly.  Don't view the delegation of a task as if it were no longer on your to-do list. Instead look at it as a significant reduction of the time you need to commit in order for it to be completed. The remaining portion is dedicated to managing the people taking care of it. If you ever feel management is taking too much of your time, take a step back to see how much time you actually dedicated to doing it. Did you block out any time for it to begin with? If you did, were you really being realistic about how much time? If the amount of time you're spending managing decreasing over time or is it at least consonant with the assignment? 

I'm sure there are plenty of additional important tips on working with interns that could have made this list. Please feel free to comment if you have any. Apply these 5 tips when you hire your next intern and you should have a much better experience.

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James Shomar
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