How to design an effective startup internship program
A great internship program can build a long-term talent pipeline and help a fast-growing company move even faster. But without proper planning, intern programs can lead to a less than desirable experience for everyone involved, resulting in a lot of work for the involved team, a disorganized experience for the intern, and no measurable ROI for either party. People leaders from FirstMark portfolio companies have been building and perfecting intern programs for years — so we asked for their advice on designing a program that will lead to talented hires, positive company reviews and measurable benefits for both your company and the intern.
Recruit the right interns
Define goals and rewards. Setting your program up for success begins by hiring the right intern for the job in the first place. This requires clearly defining what you want to get out of the program. Are you hoping to find someone you’ll eventually turn into a full-time hire? Do you just need extra help over the summer? If it’s the former, seek out rising senior or graduate students who are hoping their internship will turn into a job offer. If the latter, you can invest in younger candidates.
It’s equally important to consider what your intern will want to get out of this program. Are you offering the chance to gain experience in a specific area necessary to their desired career path? A chance to work on a project that will boost their resume? Companies often feel uncomfortable giving interns “real” work, but this is a mistake.
“Like any other good employee, interns want to make an impact and be part of a team. Keep this in mind when you’re creating your program and designating projects for them.” — Bahar Shah, designer of Bluecore’s intern program
A good test: ask yourself if one of your current employees would accept what you’re offering. If the answer is no, you need to rethink the program.
Create a targeted, attractive application. This may sound obvious, but a listing for an internship should be held to the same standard as any other job description you’d write. Set expectations and team values up front. Identify the projects you want your interns to work on, and ask your team to pinpoint easily fixed pain points to delegate to your incoming intern. Defining these projects will both shape your application and help the recruiting process, since most intern candidates will ask what to expect from the program. This step is especially important if you’re seeking a full-time hire. If you’re hoping an engineering intern will eventually turn into an entry level hire, the projects you assign should align with that objective — for example, teaching them to ship production code.
Tap into your community. Once your intern program is posted, spread the message far and wide. Distribute on platforms like WayUp and LinkedIn and institute an intern referral bonus for employees. Ask your teammates to submit to their alma maters’ job listing and alumni networks: as your program matures you can refine this step to target specific schools, thereby turning student interns into on-campus ambassadors for your company.
If your company has received funding, ask your VC to send any talented entry level recruits in their network your way. At FirstMark we even created an entire program to address this need: FirstMark Elite funnels exceptional, vetted intern candidates to our portfolio companies.
“Our internship program has been a reliable channel for generating great pipeline for our team. Some of our best engineers started at NewsCred as interns. The FirstMark Elite program consistently attracts top candidates the likes of which we may otherwise struggle to access.” — Asif Rahman, Founder and CTO at NewsCred
Manage your interns well
Efficient onboarding and impactful management are the bread and butter of your intern program. To ensure your intern’s set up for success:
Find your backbone. Remember that list of projects and pain points you came up with during the recruiting phase? Pick one long-term project to prioritize above all else and set realistic, concrete deliverables around it. This will form the backbone of your intern’s program, providing them with a guiding mission that will make a lasting impact on your company. Supplement the core project with the other tasks you’ve defined, along with day-to-day support.
“A well-scoped project, in terms of timeframe, complexity and dependency, will form the foundation of a successful internship. You want the intern to generally be able to execute an interesting project autonomously with only some guidance and help from the team.” — Alex Poon, Founder & COO at x.ai
Assign a mentor. It’s important for interns to have a buddy or mentor they can turn to for day-to-day operations and insight into the nuances of company culture. Besides the benefit of helping your intern hit the ground running, studies have shown there’s a direct correlation between an individual’s confidence and how connected they feel to their team. Assigning and prepping a buddy for your intern doesn’t need to be time-consuming — tools like donut.ai make it easy to connect new hires with the right people.
“The number one piece of feedback we hear from our interns is that having a mentor was critical to their success, and their enjoyment of the program.” — Tanya Livingstone, Director of HR & Recruiting at Knewton
Get them involved in the community. Your interns are as much a part of the team as any full-time employee—make sure they feel that way. Invite them to every team meeting, stand-up, Slack channel and team outing. If they’re under 21, keep this in mind when planning activities.
Bringing on multiple interns? Schedule everyone to start on the same day so they can attend onboarding and eat lunch together. This simple action will give them a jump-start on a peer group — both within their team and across the org — that will serve them throughout their internship.
Asking your intern to organize a team outing is a great way to allow them total ownership over a project, while expanding their network and fostering a sense of community. At Knewton, interns are tasked with hosting the official “Knewton Intern BBQ” before the program ends. It has become an event the entire company looks forward to, with food, activities and swag all designed by the current interns. The barbecue provides an opportunity for employees to get to know interns they may not have interacted with in the workplace, and gives interns a rare chance to gain company-wide recognition for their efforts.
Set up a mid-internship review. This is the time to voice what the intern is doing well and provide feedback on areas they can improve. It’s also an opportunity to improve the second half of their internship. Ask your intern what they like and don’t like so far, and get specific feedback on their experience with their manager, mentor and teammates.
How an internship ends is as important as how it begins
Hiring your intern — or offboarding them. If the mid-internship review is a chance to course-correct where necessary, the final review is a chance to gauge your intern’s full accomplishments and provide feedback for them to carry into the next phase of their academic or professional life. It’s also a good way to provide closure on their internship, regardless of whether you plan to make an offer or not. Solicit feedback from teammates who worked closely with them, evaluate their work ahead of the meeting, and let them know what to expect.
For many interns, this is an opportunity to experience a formal review process within a company for the first time — treat them as you would any full-time employee.
Many interns and companies realize the internship will likely lead to a full-time job opportunity. If you’re planning to make your intern an offer, follow your typical hiring protocol. If you were blown away by your intern and they have another year of school, there are still things you can do to ensure they knock on your door upon graduating. Organize a farewell party, write them a glowing review, and mark your calendar to send them a congratulatory note when they graduate in the coming months or years.
On the other hand, if for whatever reason you don’t extend a job offer to your intern, take as much care in planning their offboarding as you did with welcoming them to the company. Leave a good lasting impression by writing them a recommendation and facilitating introductions with those in your network who can can help them on their next career step.
Solicit your intern’s feedback — both privately and publicly. Interns who walk away with a positive experience are more likely to promote your program to peers, and your company to their network of potential recruits. Don’t be afraid to ask them to leave you a review on sites like Glassdoor.
Your internship program will change as it matures and your company grows. Focus on building a strong foundation that can adapt to evolving needs, and watch it pay dividends for your company down the road.