How to Get an Internship … at a Startup

Thinking about an internship? Learn why you should investigate startups and how to break into this dynamic sector of the economy.

Consider Startup Internships

If you’re looking for an internship, your mind may immediately turn to established companies. Not so fast. If you want to learn, make an immediate impact, and potentially nab a job at the end of your internship, you should strongly consider getting an internship at a startup.

What do we mean by startup? While there isn’t a single definition, the hallmarks of startups are newness and innovation, typically with a technology component. This idea isn’t set in stone — billion-dollar tech companies like Uber and Airbnb call themselves startups — but think of it as a cultural approach, a mindset.

Why should you choose a startup? While you typically won’t enjoy a company cafeteria or a 9–5 schedule (although more and more tech startups are offering perks such as free food, massages, and ping pong), you will benefit from an extraordinary learning experience. You’ll be exposed to more of the business operations, and you’re likely to find your co-workers — all the way up to the CEO — much more accessible than at a traditional organization. In addition, the rapid product release cycles of startups will allow you to see the immediate impact and value of your contributions. That said, be prepared to work hard, be proactive, and demonstrate that you can contribute.

Find the Startup

The first step is to find startups that are addressing a problem you’re deeply interested in. Keep in mind that startups exist to bring a new idea or product to fruition. They are generally comprised of tight-knit groups of creative, hardworking people who share a passion for the company's mission. If you’re not an animal lover, for example, don’t seek out a position at DogVacay (the Airbnb for dogs). If you’re fascinated by health care, Oscar or Pager might be of real interest to you. And if you're interested in utilizing technology in the form of GPS and algorithms to deliver in-home Massage On Demand, you might try Zeel (full disclosure: I'm the CEO of that company).

Editor’s Note: And if you’re passionate about education, consider interning at Noodle!

You can learn about startups that appeal to you by consulting websites like CrunchBase, AngelList, and Product Hunt, which are all databases of startups with information about founders, dates started, numbers of employees, and funding. You can also check out industry blogs like TechCrunch, Uncubed, and Mashable.

Find the Position

Now consider the role you want to play: Sales, customer service, social media, design, and development are all common roles for which startups hire interns, either in the summer or throughout the year. Keep in mind that some startups will post their internships and some won’t. The first place to look for potential openings is on the company's own website, as well as on LinkedIn, Facebook, and the company’s Twitter feeds. It’s also a good idea to look at specific job sites for internship opportunities, such as any of the generalist sites mentioned above. In addition, check out specialized sites for particular roles. For example, developers (intern or otherwise) should check out Dice and Y Combinator's Hacker News.

Find a Way in

Now that you’ve identified several companies and roles that interest you, it’s time to find contacts. There are a number of ways to do this, none of which preclude the others. According to Brian Shoicket, the University & Community Programs Lead at Uncubed, “You should try to avoid cold outreach at all costs — not just when applying for a job, but in life. Use a site like LinkedIn first to see if anyone you know may be able to make an intro (you'll be surprised at how often you already know someone who can). If not, however, many startups host or attend meetups, panels, and networking events — try to introduce yourself to a team member.” You can also tap alumni networks at your college or university.

Many universities have specific job fairs or meetups for students interested in startups, like Princeton’s “Hire Tigers” Startup Fair or Michigan State’s “Spartan Startup” Fair. If your college doesn’t host these events, look for local startup career fairs, such as those offered by Uncubed or Startup Job Fair, the latter of which holds events in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, among other cities.

Even if you don’t see an opening posted, contact someone at the company and present yourself as a potential intern anyway. Many startups will respond positively to an intern applicant who’s focused, passionate, and proactive. One of them may well create an opportunity for you.

Make the Pitch

It’s now time to sell yourself. Prepare a strong resume and cover letter. Be sure you’ve done your research so you genuinely understand the company’s mission and goals — and so you can articulate how you can help it reach them. As with any position, be prepared to demonstrate your skills. If you are applying for an editorial/social media position, for example, expect that your Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts will be examined carefully. Similarly, if you’re being considered for a graphic design internship, prepare a portfolio of recent projects, and be ready to discuss them.

Startups are great places to find internships to start or boost a career. Not only are they surprisingly accessible, but they also offer invaluable learning opportunities and exposure to growing, innovative businesses that will boost your career — whether you end up at that company, in the industry, or on an altogether different career track.

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