I started Internshala in 2010 and for first 2 years I was the only full time employee and entire operations (WordPress platform, content, sales, customer service, digital marketing etc.) were managed by a team of virtual interns working remotely from different parts of India.
As an internship platform ourselves, it was as much a choice as a necessity of a bootstrapped business. Barring few hiccups, it worked out so well for us that it became our default hiring strategy.
Over the next 3 years, as our business grew, we gradually moved from virtual interns to short duration (1-2 months) in-office interns, and later to min. 6 months in-office internships. More importantly, many of the interns converted their internships to full time roles and today 50% of our permanent team members started as interns first. One can only imagine the wonders it did to the culture!
In today’s investment scenario, where VCs are tightening their purse strings and you need to reach a certain scale on your own before becoming profitable or raising a round; the intern based model of testing an idea and growing it to a scale without burning a deep hole in the pocket could be extremely useful for new startups or those who are thinking of starting up.
The pros (energy, ideas, not expensive, flexible, easy to mould) and cons (short duration, lack of experience and maturity) of hiring interns are relatively well known in the startup community. What is perhaps lesser known is what it takes to run a successful internship program and I would like to share my learnings –
1. Understand what stage your business is in – Virtual interns were perfect for first two years when there wasn’t much long term clarity on roles, we didn’t have an office, and had little revenue but more time to mentor and explain things to interns over email and phone calls. As the business grew, we preferred in-office interns who were more expensive but still allowed us to execute faster, and today we prefer interns who can spend a min. 6 months as the time cost of training an intern every 2 months became prohibitive.
2. Invest time in hiring – Interns are your first team before first team and will have significant impact on how your idea grows. You should do as much due diligence in hiring an intern as you would do for a full time member – especially, if you expect the intern to convert into a regular role. Focus not just on technical skills but cultural fit and attitude also.
3. Invest time in mentoring – For an intern, the biggest take away from an internship is learning which is possible only if he/she is attached to a manager who enjoys mentoring & teaching. Interns learn really quick and can do wonders for you; moreover a happy intern becomes your brand evangelist among her friends building your startup’s visibility for free.
However, if you are someone who does not have time or patience to train and expect interns to be self-sufficient, you should probably be hiring experienced folks and not interns.
4. Set them free – If you have spent time hiring and mentoring, you wouldn’t need to spend time micro-managing them. Give them the space to think creatively and freedom to execute (Eyes on but hands off approach) and you would be surprised how much work they are able to take off your plate so that you can focus on more important things.
5. Be ready for a few heartbreaks – By very definition an internship is a first professional experience for a student and there will be times when some of them would act their age (no show, absconding, being casual). In a country, where this happens even at experienced level hiring (gasps!), you need to buffer for it the same way you do for a sale gone bad or one of the other hundred problems that crops up unannounced at your startup. But if you have done a good job of hiring (2nd point), you can mitigate this risk to a large extent.
6. A stipend goes a long way – Finally, while the primary objective of an internship is to learn, there is no denying the hugely important role a stipend plays in an intern’s motivation to work. For you it may be a small amount, but for them it is their first pay check and a huge incentive to work even harder. Setting clear expectations on stipend upfront has worked far better for us than offering ‘performance based’ rewards.
So if you are looking to hire interns yourself, the timing is great, as summers are approaching and students all over India are looking for 8-12 weeks internships. Start your intern hiring for free on Internshala today.
Disclaimer: This column is brought to you by Internshala.