How to Find a Startup Internship

Internships are the best! I wish I could have had 5 internships in different industries when I was an undergrad, so I could have tried everything I was interested in before settling on a career path. I think there are lots of pros to getting an internship, even if you are at a later stage in life. (1) If you aren’t 100% happy with your current job, it is always better to try out a risky new career in a low risk environment to see if you like something or not. (2) Internships are meant for learning so employers generally have lower expectations in case you aren’t a perfect match on prerequisite skills. (3) You gain credibility for your next role in the event that you do switch industries and have no relevant background.

This post is specifically geared towards finding a startup internship, but the ideas are broadly applicable to finding an internship in any industry. The below strategy worked out pretty well for me. I didn’t have a particularly skilled or relevant background, but I was still able to secure several offers from popular startups in the bay area.

10 Steps to Finding the Perfect Startup Internship

1. Identify what you want. Set aside some time and sit down to reflect. Articulate your ideal job, be specific. Define specific roles in a specific industry. Use Wetfeet and Vault guides

2. Make a shortlist of companies in your industry of choice. I would recommend a minimum of 10. I had over 20 on my list. Rank them in order of preference.

3. Review your education and work experience. Craft your resume by identifying core competencies and tailor this to the specific position you desire. It helps to browse related openings from company sites so you use the correct verbiage when you target the role you’re gunning for.

4. Get feedback on your resume from people working in your industry of choice, preferably from someone in a role you’re targeting. But if you have a small network, sometimes this isn’t available. In this case I would ask the most successful people you know. Even if these guys don’t know too much about this job you’re targeting, successful people will have generally reviewed many resumes prior so their BS detector is pretty good and can tell you where your resume is weak.

5. In tandem to #4 above, start researching the industry. Subscribe to newsletters, read blogs, industry journals. Fierce Markets is good for industry specific news. I would also start a google alert for specific company and industry key terms to automatically get the latest updates. I started googling shit like mad and just went down this crazy rabbit hole. I’d learn things and come across terms I didn’t know, which I’d also google, which would lead to other articles and more learnings. Learn as much as you can about the business so you don’t sound like a jackass when you do finally talk to someone in the industry. Depending on what you were doing professionally before, this may take several weeks.

6. About 1 month into your preparation, or however long it takes you to feel reasonably confident that you can hold your end of a professional conversion in some technical detail, I would reach out to your network and see if you have any 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree contacts at the companies you’ve identified in step #2. Try Crunchbase and Linkedin. One of the major benefits of coming back to school is that it really opens up your network to a whole new alumni group. Most of the time I would look up a company on Linkedin and filter by people that went to The University of Chicago.  I would cold email them and even though none of these people had any inkling who I was, 90% of them would be receptive to talking to me.

A referral from one of your friends is an even more powerful introduction.

If I really didn’t know someone, I would do a google search on the person I found interesting and noticed that he/she did a talk somewhere or wrote an article previously and I would just reference the piece saying I found it interesting and would like to learn more. People are surprisingly receptive to speaking with people who are genuinely interested in their work.

Particularly if you are targeting startups or smallish companies, oftentimes you don’t even need an introduction. You can just directly email the founder, CEO, CTO or whoever else is in charge of what you want to be doing. I use gmail as my main email client, so pro-tip #1 for stalking a prospective employer is to download this email plugin called Rapportive. It aggregates social media information for emails and displays an image of the person next to an actively used email address. Lots of times I would just type in random combinations of emails until a picture would pop up, then I would know this is the active email that this person uses. Pro-tip #2, most startup emails are just firstname@company.com or firstname.lastname@company.com or FirstInitialLastName@company.com. I never bothered to come up with crazier combinations then that.

I experimented with different email copy, and found that simple, humble messages worked best. Here’s a sample of something I sent out.

Hi ,

My name is Paul. I am a first year MBA student at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I came across your info on <blank>.

I’d love to chat with you at some point, if you’re available, about <companyXYZ>. I am a huge fan of your product, and this summer, I’m looking to help out and work extremely hard for a startup with guys I can learn from.

Before business school, I was an engineer in the medical device industry. And two years prior, my passion for entrepreneurship and the startup world led me to <state relevant experience> (this is why I’m so familiar with <companyXYZ>). The experience solidified my commitment to working at a startup that I’m passionate about, and <companyXYZ> is one of those companies that I believe in.

I know you are probably getting inundated with internship type requests, but I thought I would reach out and give it a shot. I can assure you that I’m humble and I’m hungry! If you could spare 15-20 minutes, I would greatly appreciate it. Please let me know when a good time is for you — I will make myself available at your convenience.

Kindest regards,

Paul

I didn’t track response rates, but I do know that this email template got me a response from just about everyone I reached out to. Even if it was a “sorry we’re not hiring” response, I still felt pretty awesome considering these people took time out of their day to reply to a complete stranger.

A few times this email was good enough to get me an interview with a hiring manager. If this happens to you, skip straight to step #8.

7. If the person replies and agrees to a 15-20 min conversation, always complete the conversation within the timeframe you set. Any longer and you are being disrespectful and annoying. And make sure you prepare for the conversation beforehand with 5-6 relevant questions. I ALWAYS plan these conversations in advance because (1) I don’t want to waste the other person’s time with an awkward lull in the conversation. (2) This person will likely be a goldmine of information, so I want to ask good questions that will give me an inside advantage to hiring. (3) This is an opportunity to prove that you are knowledgeable about their industry, which will dovetail into a point I’m making later. So just make sure you don’t ask dumb questions.

These questions would change depending on who I was speaking with and how much I already knew about the company. Specific questions are always better than general. But here are a few I might ask.

  1. What is the company structure like?
  2. What are you working on? Do you have choice and flexibility in the project?
  3. What is the recruiting process usually like?
  4. Can you describe life in XYZ role
  5. What is the interview process like?
  6. Why did you choose to work at this company vs ABC competitor?

These conversations are incredibly valuable because if you do formally interview for a position, this will give you insight into challenges that the company is facing, which you can leverage to stand out.

If the topic of an internship did not come up over the phone, I would be very transparent and ask them if there was any such opportunity. If they said no, I would end the conversation by thanking them for their time, reiterating how interested I was in their industry and if they had any recommendations for individuals or companies that I should reach out to.

If you didn’t sound like an idiot by asking dumb question (see point 3 above), then these people should be happy to give you a referral because it will make them look good for sending a smart energetic individual into another company’s arms. Lots of times they would even refer me to another company on my shortlist, which is a great introduction! Because now I can start from step #6 again, and email this new person by saying “hello, so and so person said I should reach out to you because…”  and get the conversation rolling that way.

8. If the conversation went well usually the person you talked to will ask to see your resume, so he/she can forward it to the appropriate manager. The average person would just attach his resume and be done with it. But you’re not trying to be AVERAGE.

I would take this opportunity to put together a 2-3 page document outlining two projects that I had identified from my prior research that I could help solve for them. It’s not as much work as you think. All the work is frontloaded on the first paper, and once you have multiple conversations going on at once, you can just tweak your project document slightly for different companies, since they are all in the same industry and facing similar macro-trends.

A typical project outline might include:

  • Problem statement. Surprisingly easy because you’ve already done industry research and spoke to professionals in tangential fields from steps #5 and #6. These people have literally told you what the challenges for this company are. You just need to copy paste that information here.
  • Identify possible strategy for finding a solution and why you are uniquely suited for this task. Reference what you’ve written on your resume.
  • 10 week timeline for how you will get this done. Everybody is busy at a startup, so nobody has time to hold your hand. Show them that you understand this by having a project identified in granular detail with how you will be spending your time helping them.

For example:

Opportunity #1 – Revenue Optimization

The problem:
Is <company XYZ> maximizing profitability? A comprehensive pricing strategy for <product> may help solve this. A price strategy will consider what differentiating features and services customers are willing to pay for, without adding features that unnecessarily drive up costs more than value. As a former engineer at a Medical device company, I am very familiar with statistical analysis required to conduct such a project. As a part of my MBA curriculum, I will also have completed several courses on pricing optimization. 

Proposed solution and timeline:
Weeks 1, 2, and 3 – Collect data and run tests on market segmentation. Eg. What types of features are being used most by which clients?
Deliverable – List of key features to differentiate <Company XYZ> from competitors.

Weeks 4, 5, and 6 – Assess <Company XYZ’s> fixed costs and service costs. Eg. Servers, customer support etc.
Deliverable – List of methods to collect revenue, so that customers who derive value from differentiation pay more for it.

Weeks 7, 8, and 9 – Test monetization methods in a sample population of the enterprise consumer market.
Deliverable – List of varying prices for tiered products and services.

…I never had any takers for the projects I proposed. All the companies I spoke to had more pressing work in the queue, but I always received very positive feedback from doing this.

9. If you follow steps 1-8, I guarantee that you will get at least one interview at a company on your shortlist. In a best case scenario, these guys already want to hire you.

But in the event that you are asked to interview, the last step is to CRUSH the interview. The best way to do this is to completely overprepare. I’m a firm believer that people should focus on a small number of high impact actions in order to get disproportionate results. This is one of them.

There are standard questions that you should be prepared to answer, such as: walk me through your resume, tell me about your greatest accomplishment, greatest strength, greatest weakness, how do you deal with ambiguity etc. HAVE ANSWERS READY AND PRACTICE ALL OF THEM RELENTLESSLY. Practice in front of the mirror. Practice in front of friends. Practice in front of a camera. Make sure you have completely internalized your answers so that by interview day you can walk confidently into the conversation and actually listen to what the interviewer says rather than get stuck fumbling with your answers.

Depending on the role and position, sometimes people will throw a curveball and ask you something technical or a case type question, such as: the scenario is ABC, now walk me through the process of developing feature XYZ.

I’m terrible at case questions and I don’t think very quickly on my feet, so to compensate, I use the project outlines from step #8 as my talking point. I just whip them out and say great question, I’ve already prepared something similar for this. Interviewers usually get taken aback and will take the time to read through what I wrote and talk to me about my conclusions. At this point I’m much more confident about what I’m talking about because I’ve already thought through the scenario instead of having to think out-loud on the fly.

10. And that’s it! Feel free to buy me a beer if any of this was helpful to you.

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