How to scale your startup with interns
You’re losing ground if you’re not using interns in your startup, writes Taylor Ryan, CMO at the startup Valuer.ai.
For the last three years, I’ve been working in various leadership roles within the field of marketing in Denmark.
While I’ve learned a lot about different industries and even more about growth hacking Bootstrapped startups, I think the more profound lessons have come from getting involved in the “human capital” or “people element” of these businesses.
Prior to arriving in Denmark, I’ve co-founded five startups back in the United States and due to the size, lack of resources, and constraints of trying to “make it,” I’ve always relied heavily on interns.
I think it’s always so important to pass along the “teachable moments” and lessons learned for those that are open to scaling their business with interns.
This advice is coming from a place of genuine interest in helping others to discover a way of learning faster and improving one’s self on both sides; the employer and the intern.
Before we begin, I practice what I preach
Have I worked for free? I just let out a large sigh as I wrote this.
YES. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology at the height of the economic recession in 2008.
I’ll be the first to say, that my degree has helped me immensely in marketing but every hiring manager for the countless marketing roles I applied for didn’t see it that way.
I spent a good portion of my late teens and early 20s working for free or almost free jobs. I found an interest in video production at a very early age and was nearly expert level in handling three-CCD cameras, lighting, mics and Adobe Premiere around the age of 16.
I used that as a springboard to get chances to put money in my pocket after I had developed a portfolio of free or mostly free work. Great – let’s move on.
Why I love working with interns. Reason 1: Money
If you’re a startup that isn’t generating a ton of revenue and funding is still on the horizon, or the finances are just “tight,” you can’t afford not to work with interns.
Especially in Denmark, you don’t have an excuse not to work with interns because they’re often free.
Especially in Denmark, you don’t have an excuse not to work with interns
In many cases, interns are required by their school and program to find an internship between 10-15 weeks- and those specific internships must be unpaid.
Students need this internship in order to graduate and there are a ton of different degree programs that require this.
If you can’t afford to pay employees with 5+ years of experience, you need to consider the fact that you may not have a lot of alternatives as you’re trying to grow.
I don’t need to focus on this section too heavily because the money isn’t why you should work with interns.
Reason 2: Everyone deserves a chance
Unless your parents were loaded and hooked you up with your dream job, you’re going to have to rely on others when you’re starting out.
I come from the suburbs of Washington, DC. My mom worked as a cashier at a supermarket and my dad sold used cars. I didn’t have the “network,” despite trying my hardest to be born into the lap of luxury.
Whether or not you realize it, all of us have gotten an opportunity over others at some point. If you think back real hard, all of us have had a moment when someone came into our lives and gave us a chance to prove ourselves.
Whether or not you realize it, all of us have gotten an opportunity over others at some point
This can be the busy restaurant owner allowing you to be a table busser. Or the business that’s trying to gain momentum letting someone come in and work on something bigger than ourselves.
Someone reached down or beside them and said something to the effect of, “it’s not the fanciest job, but it’s yours if you want it.”
Sometimes these jobs don’t pay. Sometimes the benefits don’t exist. But most of the time you should take the job because it gives you a foot in the door to learn a process, industry, or understand more from an expert.
For me, a new housing subdivision went up a short bike ride away, and after a chance meeting with the real-estate agent at the age of nine, I was helping her put together mailers and open house invites into envelopes for 2-3 hours once a week for free pizza.
She explained the “why behind the why” of the work we were doing. People would eventually receive these invitations in their mail and then sometimes the people called her to set appointments. Some of the people that stopped by would buy a house from her. Then you could buy a lot more pizzas.
At that time, I understood, but I also just really liked pizza.
I genuinely believe you “make your own luck,” meaning if you’re able to recognize and put yourself in more opportune situations, you might just end up getting “lucky” more often.
But sometimes, people aren’t in the right mindset yet. Or due to unfortunate circumstances, their moment never came. Be the story that someone remembers as their first “real” shot.
Photo credit: Pexels
Reason 3: Interns help you focus on more important tasks
If you’re running a department or an entire company. There are plenty of daily tasks that are below your pay grade. Some might be more mechanical in nature or just a relatively simpler process that you can pawn-off to someone else to save you time.
I’m NOT saying bring on interns to take out trash, clean toilets, or use them for any other custodial type tasks.
Look at the things you’re doing internally.
Do you do competitor research? – You should.
Are you posting content? – You should.
Are you researching topics to produce thought leadership pieces? – You should.
Are you looking up potential customers and connecting with them via email and SoMe? – You should.
You get the point, right?
Give people a real chance to experience some of the elements of your department and industry.
It costs you little to nothing to give someone a chance to save you countless hours every week, so you can spend more time running a business. Focus on what matters, not doing everything yourself.
Reason 4: Interns force you to become an expert and instructor
The Protégé Effect is a psychology principle dating back to ancient Rome and the philosopher Seneca. The theory states, the best way to improve our own abilities is to teach them to someone else.
If you, your industry, or job requires zero previous knowledge to get good at it and anyone can walk in and do the same level of work as you, then you probably suck at your job. And you’ll be replaced by robots in a matter of time either way.
Your job/industry requires some insights for people to perform more efficiently. Things you’ve picked up along the way and insights on better process are the “teachable moments” you should be giving away.
Your ability to teach elements of your craft will ultimately make you better at your job overall
With digital marketing especially, we’re in an arms race. There is a constant evolution in tools, opportunities, and new mediums. What worked just two years ago is no longer “the way to do it.”
You have to stay relevant. You need to be up to date and a practitioner of your craft to continue to evolve with the changing landscape.
But most importantly, your ability to teach elements of your craft will ultimately make you better at your job overall.
Just as a general example, every time I go to show my team a new technique I’ve discovered on AdWords campaigns, I stumbled into a new experiment that I want to test out for the next month.
Photo credit: Pexels
Reason 5: Interns unlock the reason you got into this field to begin with
You need to be exposed to a variety of people. When the motivations of the interns working around you are not financial (which shouldn’t be the case) something interesting happens. You may actually start to care more.
If the interns are unpaid and doing it for school credit, they’re in it because they want to learn (I hope). They might actually be deeply interested in getting into your industry or at least a career in your field.
Think back to the way you did your work only a year ago? How much did you improve in the last year? How much more do you know now about your industry?
By the way, if you haven’t learned anything tangible in the last year, you’re not trying hard enough. Again, a robot will be in sooner than later to take your job or at the very least, someone who cares.
Of course, there are some interns that just haven’t unlocked the motivation or the interest yet, but it’s partially on you to find that for them.
Reason 6: Finding talent early
On rare occasions, you meet a superstar or someone whose skills were rare enough that they made a significant difference in your organization.
Every one of the full-time employees on the marketing team at Valuer started as an intern. They were willing to take as much of chance on me as I was on them.
I believe that you will care more about the company and the work, when you’ve had to work for it.
Depending on your industry and role, it might not be the same case. But it works for me and I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with such a talented bunch.
On the other side of the coin, sometimes you do meet talented people and it’s just bad timing. In that case, I have inserted many of my previous interns into other organizations and I want to continue to try to provide value long after everyone has gone home and the show is over.
Consider it for your own sake
You decide your level of involvement. I’ve met so many Danish companies that find the idea of working with interns laughable. ‘Why on earth would we want to bring inexperienced interns into your prestigious organization?’
Because if you do it right, these interns are the furthest thing from a burden.
Some of the best content that I’ve seen produced inside of the numerous companies I worked for in Denmark has come from interns. And I’m convinced the main reason Valuer won the best new startup in Denmark in 2018 from the Nordic Startup Awards was a direct result of the scaling quickly and the hard work of interns.
They’ve asked to learn and be in a good environment. I have to hope I’m able to provide as much value back to them on a daily basis as they’ve given me throughout my career.
It’s incredibly rewarding to work with some very uniquely talented people and be the “chance” for many of them start their career the right way. Maybe you should consider working with an intern or two in your organization.