Success with Interns

Photo credit: Octavio Fossatti via Unsplash

Most companies, from bootstrapped startups to large multinationals, are struggling to find talent. Here’s a discussion I have regularly.

Me: “have you tried interns?”

Manager: “that sounds like a lot of work.”

or

“They’re a time suck.”

or

“Entitled.”

Who manages who?

Interns live in a somewhat surreal middle world between education and work. Unfortunately, most interns are being mismanaged.

At Fresco, we’re now starting our 5th batch of interns and the results so far have exceeded our expectations. Below are a few guidelines that have worked for us. I hope they help more companies, from the largest corporates to the smallest startups, find more success working with interns.

Guidelines for success with interns

First off, there is no magic algorithm. You can’t simply follow the 3 page instructions booklet. These are guidelines to help you go roughly in the right direction most of the time.

1. Use simple project based interviews

One of the main recurring concerns about interns is entitlement. An important filter in the hiring process is to use a simple project, ideally similar in nature to work the intern will be expected to perform. If they can’t hand in a simple project to get the internship, that’s not going to change. This quickly weeds out entitlement.

Of course, there are definitely unpredictable circumstances which come up in specific cases and judgement should override hard rules. In one of our batches, two candidates sustained injuries during the interview process which required hospital visits and were actually reasonably serious injuries at the time. Fortunately, both had a full recovery and we hired both of them with impressive results during the internship period. Getting injured is not entitlement, it’s being human.

When using simple project based interview, remember to use common sense.

2. Pay your interns

For some companies, especially tech companies in Silicon Valley and San Francisco where the competition for young talent is fierce, this seems like an obvious point.

In much of the world, however, a depressing trend of free internships has become the norm. There is even a thriving industry of companies who are paid by students (or their families) to find these free internships. While it may be tempting for companies, especially cash strapped startups, to take advantage of free intern labour, the downsides are pretty big. First, in some countries it is simply against the law. Second, how motivated will that free intern really feel? Third, even if the intern may not feel bad at the time, certainly in the future they may look back less fondly and this will ultimately hurt the company’s reputation. Better to solve your business model problems before hiring interns because if you can’t afford to pay a nominal salary to an intern, they sure aren’t going to solve those business model problems for you.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on interns. You should pay them.

3. Buy your interns lunch

When we ask our interns for feedback at the end of each batch, they inevitably bring up how much they enjoy the lunches. What do we mean by lunches? Yes part of it is obviously the food. This usually involves us walking to a take-away place with some healthy options at relatively premium prices for take-away food. For most students, the price points are simply something they won’t ever consider themselves. I remember my days at as a student living off cheap fast food. We’re not just doing it to be nice to them, we’re also investing in making them healthier and ultimately smarter workers.

Our lunches always include some discussion, including during the walk. At the early stages, we’ll use these lunch sessions as a way to introduce our company, values and philosophy. Many of these lunches are Q&A sessions where they are encouraged to lead the discussion with their questions. Sometimes we take them to lunches where they got to sit on meetings we have with external parties and the learning from these experiences is priceless.

Everyone eats. Make it useful and fun.

4. Use quick feedback loops

I still remember my first internship in the late 1990s. My boss, who was friendly but not very talkative, gave me a prospectus for a mortgage backed security and asked me to analyse it with a recommendation for him. I showed up to the office everyday for the entire week trying to translate the thick book into English but nothing made sense. I was too scared to tell him my lack of progress and finally at the end of the week when he asked for my report, it was not the best start. Fortunately, things only got better from there and by the end of the summer it was a fantastic internship experience.

That first week left a lasting impression on me to start interns off with very basic tasks in the beginning and use quick feedback loops. What do I mean by quick? Assign something and then see how they’re getting on in the next 1–3 hours. Usually, they’re stuck on an issue you probably didn’t think would be a problem but it can be solved by a quick 1 minute discussion. After a few of these feedback loops during the first week, you’ll find that by week two the intern has started to understand your approach and, just as importantly, you have also learned about their strengths and weaknesses.

Quick feedback loops help to set the right expectations from the start.

5. Find their strengths

Your new intern won’t bring deep domain expertise in a traditional sense, but everyone has strengths. Many times, those strengths are not necessarily the things listed on their resume or the courses they have studied in school. There are many hardworking students pursuing a degree because they believe it’s the path to a high paying job, or perhaps even because their parents pushed them in that direction. Through interaction at work and activities such as lunch meetings, you’ll start to find out more about their true interests and skills.

One of our interns was hired to focus on content specifically and came with a background in the arts. She was interested in trying new things but had never previously considered venture capital as an industry. One of her strengths is asking questions, and during the process she realized that this skill could be applied to venture capital and a wider range of careers than she previously thought. Understanding this strength helped her and it also helped us.

Look for interests to find strengths.

6. Give interns responsibility

Once the initial onboarding period has finished and there is some understanding from both sides about expectations, it’s important to have interns experience ownership of a project. Instead of micro managing how they should do it, simply give them guidance and the responsibility to figure out how while of course keeping the door open for them to ask you for advice.

My favourite part of the intern process is having the interns be responsible for managing the hiring funnel for their future replacements. Our interns are the best people to know if a new candidate is a good fit for our culture because they understand both us and their fellow students. Giving interns the responsibility to managing the hiring process also brings out the best in them because they know that it’s important.

Responsibility works best with open communication because guidance is still usually needed.

7. Embrace small examples of discipline

John Wooden as a coach famously started every season by teaching his basketball players how to put on socks properly. It worked well enough to win 10 championships in 12 years. It’s worth taking the same approach with interns and helping them embrace the basics of discipline.

Expectations have to be realistic and the goal is not to create a group of machines. Instead, it’s worth picking one thing to do well. I tend to focus on documentation and ask interns to document their projects so that in the future we can them for reference, especially if new interns take over. That’s one small habit that is helpful for us. It’s also extremely important for the interns in their future career no matter what they do.

Discipline starts with something small.

8. Grow the alumni network

One of the misconceptions about interns is that they are being trained for someone else and then somehow useless for you after they finish work. You put in all the upfront effort and another employer gets the benefits. This is an outdated view.

Instead, think of your former interns as your alumni network. They will stay in touch with you over time. A few of them may become future leaders. They will help one another.

Rather than looking at an internship as a discrete event, think of it as the start of a long-term relationships.

The full picture

Is there a theme that connects all of these principles?

Train interns not only for how to do their work, train them for how to live their lives. It’s not just for them, it’s also for us.