Interning at a startup is a great opportunity to learn about how companies are formed while getting an in-depth view into how a particular industry operates. In the weeks leading up to the internship, you’ll hear a lot of advice that seems like common knowledge. Work hard, ask questions, become friends with your co-workers. You’ve heard the same messages countless times and have learned to drown them out. But as much as we are here to learn, we are also here to work towards future employment (wink, wink, nudge, nudge CrowdTwist) and want to make a positive impact. Here’s some advice specific to the startup world that will actually improve your effectiveness as a team member (and increase your hireability).
1. Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize
If you’ve never worked in a startup before, you may not realize there will likely be a significant shortage of FTE’s in your firm. In addition, any expanding company will have an enormous amount of work to be accomplished. As such, you have a great opportunity to truly contribute to the firm because there is so much to do and a dearth of employees to complete vital tasks. However, because there are so many tasks to accomplish, it can be easy to get lost in the amount of work you have. Before you begin working on anything, determine what the best use of your time is. Then, determine if this is a priority task that the company needs completed. As important as it is that your company purchase branded stickers, maybe you should focus on completing RFPs or software updates first. You will likely not be able to accomplish all you are tasked with, but make sure you complete the most vital jobs.
2. Play as a team and understand your role
If you are able to finish everything you are assigned (highly unlikely), your day isn’t over. A startup is a team. It’s a family. It’s a group of individuals all dedicated to creating the best company possible. You had better believe that if you have no work to do, there’s a lot of other work that people could use your help with. Assist your team and always ask other workers if they could use an extra pair of hands. Chances are, they could use the extra help. You may be hired as an intern in a particular department, but don’t think that precludes you from taking on other work, so long as you have the requisite skills or are eager to learn.
3. Attend events at other companies/incubators etc.
This advice is specific to the startup world. If you’re working in more established industries, you may be asked to attend networking events, but these tend to be more about meeting people and making connections than expanding your knowledge base. What makes the startup world so awesome is that information-sharing amongst companies is a critical component of the startup culture. The knowledge you can gain from companies in other industries is just as valuable as information you can obtain from talking with fellow employees. There are so many crazy, innovative ideas floating around, and you may discover new ways to apply your company’s product or discover a new method of problem solving that can be applied to your work. Talking with employees in other industries will further aid your professional growth, and part of the reason you are in an internship is to figure out what you want to do after college. Most people who work in startups are young and adventurous, and are willing to help you out. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to gain insight and learn about industries you may not be familiar with.
4. Learn about the different departments in the firm.
This is particularly important to business-side interns. If you are a business-side intern, learn as much as you can about the development side. Pick up a book on basic coding. You can be well-versed in sales or marketing, but until you understand what developers do and how important they are to the company, you’ll lack critical understanding about your firm. Sit in on conference calls with different sectors of the firm so you can better understand what they do on a day-to-day basis and the struggles they face that are specific to their role. Part of selling a product is selling the team that will work with the customer, and you’ll only truly know your team if you understand what each person does. If you arrive with a basic understanding of how each part of the firm operates, your co-workers will be more willing to allow you to quickly assimilate into the company as a competent, valuable part of the team. In becoming a respected worker, you will understand the most valuable part of your company: the people.
Interning at a startup is an incredibly rewarding experience. Yes, the hours can be long, you may get shot in the eye with a Nerf gun bullet, and it may not always be clear exactly what you should be doing, but you will do work that is actually valuable and contributes to helping build a company. There’s much to learn in the startup world, so take advantage of it. As much as the advice can be helpful, most of your success will be based on how hard you work, how innovative you are, and how willing you are to put the company first. Work hard. Play hard. Or as CrowdTwist taught me, give more. Get more.
Hailing from Orlando, Florida, Geoffrey Block is a Junior at Cornell University where he is working on a B.S. in Industrial and Labor Relations. He spent the summer of 2012 as a marketing intern for CrowdTwist, a multi-channel customer relationship and loyalty platform.Subscribe to the Podcast