Running your own business can be difficult, especially if you can’t really afford to hire a supporting team. Hiring an intern may seem like a good idea, especially if you live in an area with a few neighboring colleges and universities. Just the fact that they provide free or low cost labor, may seem like more than enough reason to hire them. A team of talented, productive interns can be just the boost your business needs to grow. I mean really, what budding entrepreneur could say no to an opportunity like this?
The problem is that many new businesses do a terrible job of hiring and managing their interns, ultimately costing more time and money in the end. We launched our intern program about 3 years ago, and in the beginning we had our fair share of nightmares. But most of it was our fault. We didn’t know how to field candidates. We didn’t know what types of work to give them. And quite honesty, when we were in disaster situations, we didn’t know how to fire our free laborers.
Hiring interns at a small business is very different than hiring at big companies. Below are some best practices we’ve learned about hiring and managing interns:
Maintain a broad, consistent pipeline of potential interns.
First things first, if you’re hoping to hire talented, productive, smart and honest students, then you’ll need a huge pool of applications at the top of the funnel. Even if there are just a few colleges in your area, you’ll want to post your position on every local job board you can find. Colleges and universities usually offer free postings because they want you to hire their students. Indeed.com is another free job board.
But you may want to consider investing a small budget to post on places like Craigslist, internships.com, and others. Also, call the university we’re you’re trying to recruit and find out if they can send your job posting out on their list serve emails. You may also want to inquire about career fairs, especially if they offer free events for employers. Don’t forget to reach out to your own personal network through your social media sites. Also, if you can, design a header for your website and post a “We’re Hiring” image on your business’ social media pages. It should be a part of someone’s job at your company to make sure that you are constantly recruiting possible interns for every semester.
Remember to highlight the benefits.
To even consider a low-paying (or in most cases, no pay) position at an unknown company, a candidate will clearly need to know what’s in it for them. Be sure to include the benefits in the job description. Keep in mind not to overdo it, especially if their real duties will include nothing but mindless data entry for your startup. Your job description needs to sell the cool, career-changing stuff the intern will be working on in addition to the usual boring internship tasks, if you really want anyone worth their salt to apply.
Minimize the time you spend interviewing.
Any startup owner (or employee) knows that time is extremely valuable. If you’re considering an intern for a temporary (and maybe even part-time) position, then it’s insane for you to spend several hours phone- and live-interviewing a bunch of candidates. There are tons of things that you can do to automate and speed up the process. Ultimately, you’ll have to identify ways of narrowing down candidates while minimizing face-time. You should only spend face to face time with your finalists:
Send the candidate pre-interview reading materials.
A good way to do this is to direct the candidate to your website and ask them questions about your company and the position. If your website does not fully communicate the extent of the organization or the position, consider sending the candidate a short presentation giving them more information about the company, the vision and intern’s potential responsibilities. This will save you a lot of time having to explain these things on every introductory phone call.
Give the candidate “homework” after the interview.
After your initial phone call with the intern, give the potential intern 20 to 30 minutes worth of “homework”. This should be similar to a task they might have to do on the job. The overwhelming majority of your candidates won’t do it, and will drop off the face of the earth. Fortunately, you can immediately rule them out. You’ll also have a much better metric to use to compare the others with each other, and determine their work quality and if they’re a fit for your team.
Give a thoughtful, personal offer.
While you might have a huge pool of interns to choose from, also keep in mind that most interns are applying for more than one internship. If you are a small, fairly new business, its highly likely that your company is not their dream job. So, once you have identified a candidate you really want, spend some time closing the sale. Instead of just emailing your new intern, have someone from your leadership team, ideally the CEO, personally call the candidate and offer them the job. Follow up with a formal offer letter, on company letterhead. Kick off the internship for a well-organized “orientation” and welcome lunch. Do whatever else you can to make the candidate, his or her parents and career advisors feel comfortable with this sketchy young company.
Now that you’ve hired some young awesome talent for your team, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the most out of these new resources. The most important thing to remember is that if you provide an exceptional experience for your interns, they will in return give you exceptional work.
Give your interns a large, long-term project.
In addition to all the boring, menial and repetitive tasks that you’ll assign to your intern, always give any intern at least one (non-critical) long-term project that they will lead themselves. This could be a marketing campaign, a video project, a simple satellite website or any number of other large projects that are likely to take a few months. Assigning interns at least one large project gives them something to work on during their downtime when you might be too busy to assign them a smaller tasks. It also motivates them to have a great project to mention on their resume when they graduate.
Don’t treat your intern like a full-time employee.
No matter how many hours per week your interning is working, avoid (at all costs) making him or her the sole person in charge of critical responsibilities such as customer service, bug fixing, etc. In the end, your intern should not hold the future of your business in his hands. Keep in mind that most interns will have another job, in addition to studying for school, partying and other college student activities to attend to. You can’t just expect him or her to be “on call” whenever you need. They’re interning to gain experience, which means they probably don’t have very much. On the other hand, be mindful of giving extremely menial tasks (such as moving your car or running an errand) to part-time interns on their one day in the office per week. That’s not fair. They want to learn about your business, not how to run your errands. If you need a personal assistant, then it’s better to hire a full-time intern or employee.
Your intern should never be the ONLY person in a department.
I often meet business owners who are non-technical, failed to find a “real” technical co-founder, and then resort to hiring an intern to build their product. Or business owners who need help with marketing, so they hire an intern to manage it all. Or business owners who need to have a website designed, and instead of hiring a real designer, hire a student. This is almost always a terrible idea. First, any intern’s biggest motivation for finding an internship is to gain some training and mentorship in a real-life environment — not to be thrown to the wolves as the company’s only person responsible for an entire aspect of your business. Second, and this is most important, you are likely to be extremely displeased at the quality of work an inexperienced intern produces without any guidance and support. In the end you will find that hiring an intern turned out to be more expensive in time , and sometimes in dollars, than hiring a professional to do the job. Last, but not least, since your intern will be leaving your company in a few months, you are likely to be left with half-finished project that cannot easily be “handed off” to a new future intern or employee. No matter what tasks your hiring an t intern, make sure you have at least one experienced full-time employee who will be able to manage and mentor this person.
Have a single intern gatekeeper.
When your new intern is officially brought on, let your other employees know that they may request the services of that intern at any time, provided that they do it through the intern’s gatekeeper. Only one person should be responsible for managing the intern’s time, making sure he is working on things he’ll learn from (where possible), and also preventing him from being overloaded with too many assignments/responsibilities. It may be convenient for the intern’s manager to be the same as his mentor, but this does not always have to be the case. If your intern is being graded or earning work-study funds, this person should be responsible for completing the time sheets and performance reviews, as well.
Have a formal performance management process.
Every intern should be assigned a formal mentor on the management staff. Every intern should also have at least one mid-term checkpoint in which the intern’s mentor takes him or her to lunch and makes sure that he or she is having an enjoyable learning experience. This helps to solidify the mentor-intern relationship while identifying and handling any issues that you may not have been aware of. We’ve also think it’s helpful to have a performance management form that the intern and mentor complete at the beginning, middle and end of the internship, which helps to establish a record of the intern’s goals and performance. Maintaining a formal management process will also help if there is a serious issue with performance that would require you to let an intern go. Finally, many colleges and universities require that performance reviews are completed in order for the intern to receive credit, so you may as well be prepared.
This is just a framework and every internship program will need to be tweaked to fit your business’ needs. However, if you follow all of the tips above, you should be well on your way to creating successful and mutually beneficial internship program for your small business.