If you are a startup founder or leader and your company is growing, you are probably in need of some additional help. Hiring is a big milestone but it’s also a big expense, and one of the biggest challenges that a startup will face.

For these reasons, It’s no surprise that many startups begin by hiring interns to join their team. Interns want valuable experience and often are willing to work for very low pay if not for free.

But, how do you choose which candidates to hire? What qualifications should they have? How can you be sure they’ll add value to your company? In this article, you’ll find answers to these questions and more as we discuss everything you need to know about hiring interns for startups.

If you still have questions after reading this, GrowthMentor can connect you with successful startup founders and mentors who have done it before and can help advise you through the process.

The benefits of hiring an intern

When you’re just starting up, interns are a great source of cheap, enthusiastic labor. They can be trained to do anything from answering phones to managing social media, and they’ll work hard to learn the ropes. The enthusiasm is contagious and will often even rub off on the other employees. Plus you will be helping a bright-eyed college student get a head start in their career.

Especially in a startup atmosphere, where hiring is no easy feat, internships are also a great way to vet potential full-time candidates and generate excitement about your company. Prior interns make some of the best full-time hires because you can see first-hand how they work and what they bring to the table.

If the intern proves themself during the internship, bringing them on full-time is a great way to get proven talent at a startup-friendly budget. Startup internships have become a lot more competitive in recent years, but with the right people and the right expectations set, they can be successful and mutually beneficial experiences.

The downsides of hiring an intern

While interns can be a great way to get some help at an affordable rate, internships have their downsides.

For starters, as a founder or leader of a fast-growing startup, your free time is scarce and interns often cannot work completely independently. This is most likely their first corporate job and will need a great deal of training, supervision, mentoring, and delegating.

After all, that’s why they accepted the offer in the first place—to learn and gain experience. This simply isn’t going to happen if they are being mostly ignored and asked to work through a list of monotonous tasks. Additionally, an intern is only a temporary solution to the larger concern of being short-staffed. Interns will only be around for a couple of months, so the time that you, as the leader will spend training them, is an opportunity cost that could be better spent training someone who will be around for the long haul.

When to hire an intern

Now you can understand how interns can be a great addition to your team. The trick is determining whether they’re right for your startup and its needs. Many startup founders rush to hire interns because they need the help but can’t afford to hire a full-time employee or don’t want to spend as much time vetting candidates. But as any seasoned founder would know, this is not a good reason to start recruiting interns.

When you bring on an intern, it needs to be a mutually-beneficial experience for the intern and the company. The intern is looking to learn and gain experience, while you are looking for someone who can help handle certain tasks or projects. Neither of these goals can be met if there is not someone readily available to coach, train, and lead the intern.

For this reason, it’s usually a good idea to hire an intern after your core team of full-time employees has been developed and you can delegate the intern management to a more-entry level team member (who likely will also want to benefit from the leadership experience.)

How to find the best candidates

If you’re looking to hire an intern, create a clear plan of what you need and then actively search out candidates that can fit those needs.

  • Of course, the easiest place to start is listing a job posting on a job board like LinkedIn or Indeed. Have a clear understanding of what the intern will help with and what the responsibilities will be so you can construct a candid job description.
  • We also suggest approaching local universities or graduate schools— many of them will have career fairs that you can attend or job boards that you can contribute to. It’s also a good idea to reach out to the alumni network at your alma mater in addition to other universities in your area.
  • You can also tap into your professional network or industry to see if someone junior who’s already engaging with the industry wants to gain more professional experience to get their foot in the door. Let’s face it, a ton of jobs today don’t need a college degree. If you’re hiring in sales, marketing or even ops, consider getting someone who has a ton of ambition but not enough credentials. Utilizing applicant management software can make the process easier and more efficient for both parties, streamlining job applications and facilitating the review of resumes to ensure the right candidate is found

Setting up the interview process

While an intern is certainly not an executive on your team, they still should be thoroughly vetted to ensure they will add value to your company. You need to assess their skills and determine whether they are right for your startup before hiring them. Keep in mind that if the intern performs, they could be joining your team as a full-time employee in the future, so they should be treated as such.

Put in place a standard interview process that includes (1) a formal application, (2) a Zoom call or video chat, and (3) meetings with other people in the team to see if they’re a cultural fit. The interview process should resemble what you would put a full-time candidate through so the intern can benefit and learn from the screening experience. This is also your opportunity to sell the intern on your company and the team.

How to screen your intern candidates

Hiring interns is a little different than hiring full-time employees since internships are largely based on potential. The goal is to hire the best and brightest, who will then hopefully turn into full-time workers once they finish school or graduate.

  • If you are running a startup, you probably know what kind of candidate you are looking for. You most likely want a go-getter with an entrepreneurial spirit who is not afraid to get their hands dirty or wear multiple hats. While your working relationship with the intern could only last eight to ten weeks, it could potentially last much longer than that, so you should screen them as you would a full-time employee.
  • Standard hiring practices apply such as going through their CV to find relevant keywords, topics and experiences.
  • If this internship requires past experience, consider contacting their references (potentially time-consuming) or providing a task for them to do.

Keep in mind, however, that if the internship is unpaid, the screening process cannot be the same as it is for employees, so take this approach only if you plan to pay your intern.

The thing to keep in mind when hiring interns is that you’re not really looking for people who can start right away, but rather for people who can step into a job and excel later on.

Assess candidates on their work ethic, personality, and potential by asking yourself questions like these: Do they work well with others? Are they proactive or do they need constant supervision? Would you be happy if the person was running your operation after graduating from school?

Questions to ask your intern candidates

Before deciding which candidates to bring in for an interview, it’s always a good idea to write down some questions you’d like to ask. This allows you to set up a common framework and make sure that both you and your team are getting what you need out of each conversation.

Because interns likely aren’t going to have impressive resumes to flaunt or prior work experience to brag about, your typical interview questions aren’t going to cut it for your interns.
Following are some questions that you might find helpful in deciding whether a candidate will be a good addition to your team.

  • Why do you want to intern at a startup?
  • What excites you about interning for us?
  • What do you know about our industry?
  • What are your goals after graduation?
  • Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
  • What are three words your friends would use to describe you?
  • What is your biggest strength?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • What skills can you bring to the team?
  • Tell me about the time you took on a leadership role?
  • Why did you pick your university?
  • Why did you choose the degree you are pursuing?
  • Who is your role model and why?
  • What do you do in your free time?
  • What is important to you in a company culture?
  • What are you hoping to get out of this internship?
  • Why should we hire you?

These questions all probe at different competencies of the candidate that go beyond the usual realm of prior experience. Especially if the internship has more of a technical element to it, we suggest implementing a test project to see how they work, and better yet, watching as they do it so you can hear how they think. If there are multiple candidates in the pipeline, you can have them work on a group project together to see how they interact as a team.

Regroup with your team

When selecting interns, it’s important to meet with your team to review the candidates and get feedback from others who met with them. Presumably, you had the candidate interview with multiple team members. Now you should get in a room with all of them and discuss the candidate. (We suggest doing this with all employee candidates, not just interns.) Not only will you get more perspectives on the candidate, but you’ll also have everyone on board with your hiring decision. This can help foster a positive work environment and keep morale high. Of course, as the founder or CEO, it’s important that you have the final decision on any hiring moves.

Important things to keep in mind

Before you offer an internship, make sure it fits the definition of an internship in your jurisdiction. Many startups opt to bring the interns on as part-time employees or independent contractors. Both have different pros and cons. If you are looking to bring on an unpaid intern, there are many legal requirements that need to be met.

For example, the screening process must be different and the position description needs to revolve around education. To make sure things are clear, we suggest consulting your lawyer on how to bring the intern on board.

How to create an impactful internship

Unfortunately, many internships in the tech world don’t make much of an impact. They don’t give interns a sense of how their work matters or allow them to get hands-on experience. But, it doesn’t have to be that way! When done right, interns aren’t just glorified coffee fetchers—they become team members who help your startup grow by adding value from day one.

A good internship program should have clearly defined goals, clear processes for the intern to learn, well-organized structure, and enough direction to guide interns but let them make some meaningful contributions of their own.

As with any business endeavor, measuring success is important. The intern should be able to brag about the value he or she added to your organization and have new skills to bring to their next endeavor, be it within your company or elsewhere.

Go back to the interview question about what they wanted to get out of the internship and do your best to provide it. If possible, try to assign projects or responsibilities that align with the intern’s career goals, interests, and studies.

Give your startup the talent it needs

Internships can be a great way to build and grow your team but should be treated with care. If you treat your interns like an important part of your team and offer as much structure to their role as possible, they will develop a stronger understanding of what it takes to be part of a startup team. If you need more guidance from those who have been in your shoes, check out Growth Mentor for access to seasoned startup founders who can help you make excellent hiring decisions and beyond.