(Editor’s note: Don Rainey is a general partner at Grotech Ventures, a Washington, DC-area venture capital firm . He submitted this column to VentureBeat.)
Internships, as you undoubtedly know, will give you a competitive advantage in the job market. But some are better than others – demanding more of you and providing you with far more in return. Interning at a startup offers these high returns because of the “all hands on deck” nature of the startup’s existence. Everybody needs to do everything. A typical startup requires all its employees — frequently including interns — to play many roles, crossing traditional functional areas as a matter of necessity.
A startup employee has to be flexible – and for interns, that provides great opportunities to tackle new challenges and handle increasing responsibilities. If internships are about exposure and insight, a startup might be the best source of both.
As an added bonus, it’s just as advantageous for the startup.
“Hiring interns has been one of the best things we’ve done as business,” says Tim O’Shaughnessy, CEO of LivingSocial, a social commerce company. “Our interns own projects on day one — we want to see if they can run with it and move the needle. We’ve hired dozens of interns, many of whom have now become some of our best managers and employees.”
The problem is: Startups often don’t have the resources or formal programs of larger companies to recruit interns, so candidates have to find them. And due to their smaller size and relative youth, finding the startups in your area isn’t always easy.
Here are four methods that might make things easier, though:
StartUpHire.com – This site specializes in employment listings for venture-backed startups. The companies have already been professionally vetted by investors and often are looking to add staff. This is especially true for the companies most recently funded, because they will be in a growth mode.. Finding vetted companies that are flush with cash is always a good starting point.
Searching the site with keyword “intern” will yield a pretty good list of opportunities in any large city. (I should point out that StartUpHire.com is not part of Grotech’s portfolio, so I don’t have an ulterior motive for recommending them.)
Job fairs –Always attend local job fairs that promise the participation of local startups. Don’t worry if the event doesn’t advertise internships or anything directly related to your career interest. The people you want to talk to will be there. For smaller companies, the representative manning the booth is frequently the founder and/or the CEO. And this is one of the very few moments when you can get the undivided attention of a startup CEO.
Importantly, job fairs, by their very nature, are biased towards companies in hiring or growth mode. Even if you come up empty-handed in your internship search by attending one, you may have laid the foundation for your post-graduation position. Your conversation with the smaller company CEO will be invaluable if you want to apply upon graduation for a full-time position.
University technology transfer offices – If you’re thinking that there can’t be any startups in the backwater town where your university is located, think again. Universities are natural spawning grounds for startups. The transfer of university faculty-created intellectual property and inventions from funded research into the commercial sector is a major income source for many schools. Most universities have “Tech Transfer” offices responsible for this activity and these offices are an excellent informational source for entrepreneurial activity in the area – with information on local startup resources, recent tech transfers and university-sponsored startup-related activities.
They may not know about internships directly, but they have a wealth of information about local startups as well as insight into which technologies are the most promising. Ask the staff specifically about any current projects under consideration for tech transfer, then meet the inventor professors of these projects. It’s a good way to get in on the ground floor.
Startup incubators – A startup incubator provides office space, technical infrastructure and supporting advice to new companies in their earliest stages – but they don’t provide staff. At an incubator, you may be able to intern simultaneously with multiple companies. The opportunity to work with five, 10 or 15 startups will accelerate your experience and understanding. It will also exponentially increase the likelihood of a post-graduation job.
Reach out to the incubator manager for a meeting. Find out if there is any particular time when most of the startups are there. Show up and volunteer to help out. These startups are all short of resources and time. Your offer to help is frequently an easy “yes” for them to give. (Hint: Bring your laptop so you’re ready to go).
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