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Tips on Hiring Interns for a Start-up

My answer to: What are some good ways to hire intern for an upcoming startup if you are absolutely new to Resource Management? (To vote and comment on Quora, visit the link here.)

Having interns for start-ups is a win-win opportunity for both. While a lot of college students look for such opportunities to build skills or résumés or both, start-ups find it inexpensive to manage interns, get valuable work done, create a brand, and also have more informed options of who they’d like to see as future employees.

We first drafted an internship programme for News That Matters Not in 2011. Following the success among college students and good reviews from interns, we launched two more seasons of the programme in subsequent years. What I learnt from these programmes is as follows:

1. Create value for interns: Hiring interns should not be seen as just a way to get work done. This is a chance to pitch your brand to your prospective employees, and this should be done with as much thought as you’d require before pitching your brand to prospective investors. An organization that hires interns merely to get work done is not going to create any interest or satisfaction in the interns, and this will not be a good advertisement for your work. Recognize what value you are going to give your interns. NTMN’s writing and editing programme for example, was designed to give actual skills rather than to get them to write and edit articles. After designing it this way, the task was to ensure that the intern felt this was intern-oriented; to do this, we followed the practice of not publishing interns’ articles on the website, unless they expressed an interest for it. This practice assured the interns that the employers were interested in giving them something rather than milking them. I directly mentored over 150 interns over a total period of six months, and even today, talking to them shows how much they benefitted out the programme. However, this will look differently in different sectors of start-ups and should be thought out according to requirement.

2. Create a brand out of your internship programme: An internship programme may remain a part of your overall organization, but working on the programme as a brand in itself can do wonders. Even if you don’t, handling it in a proper way may be enough for the programme to have its separate identity. For this, you need to follow point no. (1). This makes word-of-mouth publicity possible. This will ensure that your interns genuinely want their friends also to intern. This is what worked for us at NTMN.

3. Design the programme carefully: The internship programme should be well-planned. You can align the timeline of the programme with your organization goals and timeline. Make it a “structured course” for the intern as much as it is getting-free-work for the organization. So this would mean that your programme has a gradual learning curve, where the intern develops as an individual, along with providing you results that are important for your organization. Have scheduled phases where (1) the intern gets basic orientation of the work to be done, (2) is learning, (3) is finding his feet, (4) is becoming independent, and (5) is ready to be a skilled full-time employee if he chooses to.

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4. Establish a trust between you and your interns: A calm respectful working-and-learning culture is what drives your internship programme. Ensure that your interns trust you and they know everything required for them to function well. When they do things wrongly, help them out.

5. Build the programme in such a way that the interns have the option of joining you later: Remember that getting prospective employees through an internship programme is a much better choice than selecting them through interviews, because an internship programme actually tests the candidate over a period of time and helps you decide their compatibility with the organization. When you design the programme, make sure that by the end of the internship, the intern, as an individual, has the requisite skills to immediately join your organization. It should not be that there is still a gap between the minimum requisite skills for an employee and the skill level where the intern is at. This could happen when you design the internship programme purely to suit your own temporary needs. If you do so, the internship programme is a wasted opportunity.

6. Have a rigorous selection process: That’s obvious. If you expect too many applicants, design an interview process that tests applicants on the basis of their understanding of your organization, their past experiences and their expected compatibility with your organization. Make it a two-staged interview process, one a basic application form, and the other a much longer process (such as a detailed cover letter, a questionnaire, etc.). This ensures that (1) you have the details of everyone who might have even the slightest interest in working with the programme and your organization—this helps in future, but (2) only those end up actually completing their application process who are willing to take the longer step too—this is a basic test of how much interested they are in your organization.

Once you have all this ammunition in place, draft a pitch for applicants, and publicize the programme on internship websites. Make sure you describe what the interns themselves will get out of it.

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