How To Hire Stellar Startup Interns
Hiring great people is essential to growing and scaling your startup. Interns are a key part of this strategy, especially in the early days. Most founders I speak to are looking for one (or many 😉) interns at any given time.
I love interns and keep in touch with many that I worked with. Lots of them have gone onto great things. Why? Students applying to business jobs in college are incredible!!
Interns are one of the best values in business. Get top talent at a fraction of the price in exchange for offering them coaching and experience.
(Note: I’m a huge believer in always paying your interns fairly. It’s the right thing to do, you’ll get a wider talent pool, and they’re more likely to stay on or refer other interns. It’s still a great value compared to what you’ll pay for a recent grad of the same caliber.)
To get started on finding your own powerhouse interns, here’s an overview of the process I’ve used to attract, vet, and retain the very best candidates.
7 Steps To Find (& Win) Outstanding Startup Interns
1. Job Description
First things first. Align internally on the projects and tasks for the role and turn it into a job description.
A Great Job Description Will:
Showcase your company’s brand and personality - make a great first impression!
Be positive but accurate about the work. Misaligned expectations = big headaches later.
Highlight startup competitive advantages like interfacing with customers, doing meaningful work, exposure to a variety of projects, and working directly with the CEO
Appeal to a wide range of candidates. Follow these tips to remove gender bias.
How To Promote:
Post to college career sites, co-working sites, your social profiles, local channels.
Share with your network especially previous interns, other employees, folks with college connections.
Avoid the big name, mainstream career sites to start. Very noisy. Start with the targeted options first.
2. Resume Review
Once your job posting is out in the world, it’s resume time. I try to review daily in batches and follow up quickly with top candidates.
What To Assess:
Leadership experience (clubs, sports, side hustles)
Resume organization, clarity, and writing
GPA and job performance are correlated when you're in or just out of school. The more work experience you have, the less it matters.
Take into account the average GPA for the school.
Look at all of these items holistically. If someone has a lower GPA but put themself through school and started a company, that’s pretty awesome. If they have a high GPA but no other activities or work experience, they may not have the practical work skills for a startup.
When on the fence, I usually give the candidate the benefit of the doubt and set up a video chat.
3. 15 Min Video Chat
It’s a quick intro on both sides. You can learn a lot in a short time.
What To Assess:
Professionalism - on time, dressed appropriately
Preparation - researched the company or team
Social Skills - general politeness, will they be good in front of customers?
Role Alignment - will they be happy in this role based on their goals?
Positivity - any subtle complaining or blaming?
Startup Compatibility - are they self-starting? can they handle change and ambiguity?
“How did you pick UniversityXYZ?”
“What are you looking for in an internship?”
“How did you prepare for our call?”
“How did you hear about the role?”
“Do you have any questions?”
4. Real Work Exercise
Great resume. Excellent video chat skills. Now it’s time to see — can they do the work?
This can be a coding exercise, a work sample, or — my favorite — a take-home activity that involves writing, thinking, and light research.
This step also gives the candidate a chance to understand what the day-to-day work is like.
Event XYZ is coming up. Write an announcement for LinkedIn and Twitter.
Customer is upset because of XYZ. Draft an email reply.
Research 3 locations for a team event with criteria ABC.
Our ideal customer is ABC. Find 3 leads with contact information.
What To Assess:
Writing Quality - clarity, grammar, consciseness
Thought Process - thorough, logical, smart
Conscientiousness - done correctly, on-time
Can they do the work at hand?
(Note: Answers don’t need to be perfect! Especially for interns. Problem-solving skills, effort, and coachability are key. )
5. In-Person Interview
If they’ve made it to this stage, you’re getting close. Here’s where you drill in on specifics or concerns, meet others on the team, and continue to win them over!
What To Assess:
Experience & Project Details
Cross-Functional Fit - can they work well across the company?
Core Values Alignment - do they embody your Core Values?
“What project are you most proud of? Why?”
“What was the most challenging customer situation you faced?”
“What was the most complex event you led? How did you stay organized and handle problems when they came up?”
“Tell me about a time that you <did action that aligned with company Core Value>.”
“What’s the hardest group project that you worked on? Why? How did you work through it personally and as a group?”
Address their questions throughout but especially at this stage. Understand their priorities or objections and speak to those. Always be closing!
6. The Offer
Speed is your friend. Big firms (or indecisive startups) move slowly. College students want to be done and get back to their other day job. Make it easy for them to choose you.
This can be as simple as a Google Doc with a company logo that you tweak for each new hire. (Convert to a PDF before sending.)
Information To Include:
Compensation (e.g. hourly rate)
Hours per week limits or expectations
Start and end dates
Other benefits and perks
Why your company and this opportunity are awesome
Why you want them
A friendly welcome
Remember - this isn’t just a transactional document or contract. The tone and content of your offer letter will help close the deal!
7. An Internship They Love
Now that you’ve got them onboard, here’s how to keep them happy and make the most of the experience for you and them.
Top Strategies For Happy Interns:
Paid internships level the playing field so students of all economic situations can join you
Great for recruiting 💪
Some common ranges for startups in the Southeast
Ask them to do work that matters.
Share business tips, advice, and company insights.
Provide opportunities to do or learn about their areas of interest.
Be appreciative — say thanks and acknowledge their work within the company.
See if they have referrals for future interns!
BONUS - Future Full-Time Hires!
Interns are a fantastic pipeline for full-time hires. Do you have an amazing intern and want to snag them after graduation? Make an offer as soon as you can. Lock it in before they start getting recruited or think about applying elsewhere.
Two Final Thoughts
1. Give yourself time to calibrate your talent compass.
It may take 10-20 candidates before you get a feel for what “good” looks like. Over time, the “A” players will stand out quickly.
2. Be kind and win people over at every stage.
At Pardot, we got referrals from candidates who didn’t get hired but they had such a positive experience in the interview process, they told their friends to apply. It was one of the best compliments.
The interview process is nerve-racking and time consuming for candidates. Being organized, thoughtful, and making candidates feel good, regardless of the outcome, is a powerful (and free!) flywheel for your company’s recruiting and growth engine!
What other strategies have you used to hire great interns? Do you have other steps or recommendations for the process?