Back to insights

Startups and Interns

Nate Lentz
August 20, 2012

I recently introduced a recent college graduate to two start-ups operating in the local food distribution and marketplace business.  The college grad came from a good school, had some work experience, had been a four year varsity athlete, and had a desire to work in the booming local food ecosystem.  I had encouraged this recent graduate to be willing to intern for free and if he was, I would be willing to make introductions for him.  He was and I did (by the way, neither company is a current portfolio company of Osage).  Both CEOs responded positively and hopefully this is the start of something positive for both the intern and the start-up that brings him on board.

I have a little advice for both recent graduates and for entrepreneurs.

  • For recent graduates – be willing to work for free if the job is in line with what you want to be doing.  Don’t work full time necessarily – augment the internship with something that pays the bills like flipping burgers.  Set a timeline by when you will either need to transition to a paid role or you need to leave.  Your goal is to make yourself valuable and to make it painful for the company if you do leave.  Start-ups need help.  Entrepreneurs are learning as they are going.  As an intern, your energy, your intelligence, and your skills will be valued at a start-up.  If you are one of five or one of ten people at a company, you will likely become important.  It is the law of small numbers working in your favor.  And along the way, keep the appropriate perspective on the internship – a paid job is a great outcome but so is experience, something relevant on your resume, and an enthusiastic recommendation from a CEO.  Remember though, as an intern one needs to work independently and recognize where your talents can best be put to use without a lot of oversight.  Entrepreneurs are consumed by running the business and closely managing people is often far down their list of priorities.
  • For entrepreneurs – have you seen the numbers?  An astounding number of recent graduates are unemployed or are under-employed.  Many come from great schools but have less than obvious degrees in terms of relevance for your business.  Interns can do many things that do not require technical backgrounds or domain expertise.  Customer / prospect intelligence, data input into CRM, web-site copy writing, SEO, inside sales, email list creation and cleansing, getting your company “social” – just to name a few.  Which start-ups would not benefit from the addition of a hungry, motivated, intelligent, and free intern?  It is important to align expectations up front and to set a deadline where you either try to find the dollars to keep the person or you help her find her next internship or job.

I encourage our CEOs to hire interns.  It is a win-win proposition.  I do not buy into the arguments that the effort exceeds the benefit.  Try before you buy is a great way to build junior talent in your organization.