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Paid Internships at Startups Exist and Here’s How to Get One

Sara VonDohren
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Published on October 7, 2015

The first thing you need to consider when looking into an internship at a startup is what type of person you are and how you work best. The work environment at a startup is very different from a corporate company. In fact, most startups don’t have traditional internship programs with a set list of outcomes and job descriptions.

At a startup, you will be faced with a considerable amount of freedom. You will have creative expression regarding your work and you will decide how you go about your tasks. Don’t expect someone to be constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you don’t make mistakes; this is up to you. Know that when you do mess up, startups have a very transparent culture and environment, and while this is not a bad thing, you should be comfortable with receiving feedback and airing your mistakes. This aspect of freedom can be either a challenge or selling point, depending on the type of environment you work best in.

Now that you have evaluated your work ethic, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when beginning your search. Paid internships especially at startups will indeed be hard to find, but don’t let this discourage you. These coveted positions are not always pasted on the help wanted ads and don’t often involve HR recruiters. Instead, they require more work.

  • Try checking out local incubators.

Incubators like  500 Startups  invest in a slew of startups every year. Because these incubators are hard to get into, the startups they invest in are pre-vetted as the top of the top (i.e. this won’t be some crazy person working on a whim and prayer). Because these companies are in the earlier stage of development, find ones that are in your area of interest—this will be key.

  • Read publications.

Sites like  TechCrunch  report on early stage startups that are getting traction. It does take a bit of digging to find out what companies are hiring, but this will also give you a taste of the company culture and the services they offer, so you can better narrow your search.

  • Reach out to founders/early employees directly on Twitter or social media

Connecting with people such as founders and VPs may be intimidating, but because startups often have very few employees, they could potentially be your bosses. These individuals are often the decision makers and being bold enough to reach out to them on social media is very impressive from an employer standpoint. I have found this to be a very effective method, and if you are ever in doubt,  ask yourself – ‘What do I have to lose?’

Now that you know where to find positions here are some considerations to help make sure you are able to land a paid role.

Consider what type of projects you would be interested in learning about, and be specific. Most paid internships at a startup are prime real estate because you will be expected to go above and beyond. It is important to know what you’re interested in, but it is also important to know what you’re good at. Know your strengths and weaknesses and keep these in mind when pitching to recruiters and discussing intern responsibilities during interviews.

Know the product you are applying for! If you are applying for a job at a company that provides a SAAS-based service or website, know what the product does, and even use it if possible! You wouldn’t apply for a job at Facebook without having made a Facebook profile, would you? I didn’t think so.

Look for the decision makers and connect with them. It is often not enough to submit resumes or send a simple email. Connecting to decision-makers on platforms like LinkedIn shows your work ethic and interest in the position, which is not something an employer would take lightly.

Originality and passion go a long way.   Startups are all about contributing new ideas on the spot and are genuinely committed to achieving the goal of the company. More often than not, the best people for this job are those who often spend time thinking about the things they like, creating ideas of their own or working on a project they are interested in. Whatever it is you love to do, make sure that you’re all there. Startups don’t want to hear your perfect “picket white fence” story of your education. They want to know you! Remember to be yourself and know that you are a unique individual who has something different to bring to the table.  

So, where are all the cool startup jobs that offer free lunch, happy hour in the office and video games at lunch, and how do you find one? The answer isn’t that simple, unfortunately. These types of internships may sound coveted but have no fear. It is absolutely possible to find a unique startup to learn and grow from, so don’t give up. Keep wowing recruiters, and go the extra mile.

Sara VonDohren

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