Working At Table

A Small Team's Guide to Making the Most of Your Intern

The prospect of hiring and managing an intern at a small company or startup can be daunting. Chances are, you’re already trying to cram 18 hours of work into 14-hour days and onboarding and training someone can be time-consuming. However, interns can be an invaluable (and relatively inexpensive) resource, especially for a small team.

Let’s also not forget that interning in a startup environment can be even more challenging for the intern than for his or her manager. Despite plenty of warnings that they will be required to wear many hats and drink straight from the fire hose, there is no way to prepare these bright eyed young minds for what’s to come.

As we gear up for a new season and bid our interns farewell, it is important to reflect on lessons learned from the summer to make the most of hiring opportunities ahead. In this post, we’ve outlined several simple steps you can take to ensure that both your company and your intern are getting the most out of your summer fling.

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1. Make them feel like part of the team from Day 1.

If you’re a founder or part of a founding team, you may not remember your first day as vividly as others. However, it isn’t hard to imagine the mix of emotions (fear, anxiety, anticipation) that an intern must feel when he or she first sets foot in a new office. For some, this may be their first foray into the working world; but at the very least, most interns will know nobody and may have no idea what to expect from the months ahead.

Even though your intern may only be with you for a few short months, it is important for them to feel like part of the team.

Here are some suggestions on how to give your intern a warm welcome:

  • Host a team event during your intern’s first week; preferably something that involves an activity like bowling, mini golf, paintball, or a local cooking class.
  • Ask your intern to answer a few fun personal questions in advance to be shared with the office in a company-wide welcome email.
  • If you have a standing team meeting, use this time to play a quick game to introduce everyone to each other; consider sharing prompts like “what is the worst nickname you’ve ever had”, “what’s your ideal Saturday afternoon look like?”  or “what’s your go to late-night snack?”
  • Weekly team lunches or happy hours are another great excuse to get out of the office and bond away from the computer screen.
  • Have all your team members take a personality test, like Meyer’s Briggs, and take the time to review the results as a team. Focus on how different personality types work best together and discuss best practices when it comes to communicating or collaborating with each type. On small teams, this can avoid a lot of unnecessary office conflict and set your intern up for success from the start.
  • Take the time to cover informal policies with your intern so they don't feel left in the dark. Most startups and small companies operate according to a long list of unwritten rules. What are you expected to wear to the office and to client meetings? When is it OK to work from home? What is expense policy when traveling for work? 
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2. Invest in onboarding.

Assume your intern does not have extensive experience with tools such as Excel, PowerPoint, STATA, and Wordpress. This is precisely why an internship can be so valuable. However, since most teens and 20-somethings are born digital natives and will learn quickly, there’s a good chance your intern will be teaching you new shortcuts by the end of the summer.

They key to optimizing output when it comes to interns is thorough onboarding:

  • Create a presentation or word document that contains all the critical information your intern will want to know. If you have onboarded new team members before, you may already have an existing document you can work with. This presentation can include background on the company, an organizational chart, an overview of key clients and vendors, active projects, and tools, as well as any important policies. Make sure to save this presentation somewhere your intern can easily access whenever he or she needs to.
  • Provide a brief tutorial for every tool or resource they will be required to use on a more frequent basis. This may include a contact management system, a task management system, Dropbox (or other file sharing tool), the back-end to your website, calendars, directories and databases. Consider including a brief step-by-step guide in your onboarding presentation.
  • Review the organizational chart of the company and make sure they understand who to reach out to for specific types of questions. In some cases, they will only be interfacing with a single manager, but many small companies and startups don’t work that way. Addressing this from the get-go will prevent your intern from running around in circles or defaulting to cc everyone on the team.
  • Make sure that your intern has a primary point of contact that they feel comfortable going to for more trivial matters.
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3.   Be thoughtful about their assignments.

This is another area where adequate preparation pays off. Before your intern starts, take the time to understand what they’re hoping to get out of their time with you. There’s a good chance they have no idea, but you may be able to gain some insight into their strengths and interests: Do they have strong writing skills? Do they feel comfortable crunching numbers? Do they have experience presenting or selling to people? This information will be helpful when outlining their assignments for the summer.

Here are some best practices we have found to be useful:

  • Lay out a variety of independent projects to work on and try to offer a balance between activities that play to their strengths and assignments that will stretch their current capabilities.
  • Provide clear, measurable outcomes and deliverables associated with each project.
  • Make sure that each outcome can reasonably be completed during the timeframe of the internship.
  • Communicate in advance any milestones or deadlines that they will be responsible for meeting.
  • Encourage them to get involved in other projects or initiatives that pique their interest; one of the most valuable things you can offer is exposure to the different types of roles and responsibilities that exist.
  • Avoid overwhelming your intern by coordinating with other team members and make sure that at least one individual has an understanding of your intern’s bandwidth at any given point in time.

4. Share insight into the bigger picture.

Remember that your intern is most likely used to a lot of structure and clarity. In school, results are measured according to a clear rating system (A-F) and there is very little ambiguity when it comes to homework assignments (“read pages 10-22”). Unfortunately, this level of transparency and foresight isn’t always possible at a startup or small company. What you can do, however, is always try to provide insight into the “why” behind certain requests. If an intern understands the value of what they are doing and how you plan to use their work, they will be more motivated to do a good job and able to approach the challenge in a more targeted way, saving you time and iterations.

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5.   Establish regular check-ins and stick to them.

Consistency is key. Make sure that whoever is managing your intern schedules weekly or daily check-ins at a predefined time. Ask your intern to come prepared with updates on each individual project or assignment, as well as a list of questions and/or requests they have in order to move their work forward independently.