Startup Internships – the good, the bad and the signs to run screaming (he said, she said)

Intern with a Startup - work for a startup

That is neither Chris nor Lizzie. (Though who knows, Chris may want to claim that hair.)

I read two great blog posts yesterday, both written by people at the end of an internship with a startup. Both written by clever, articulate and motivated startup interns.

That’s where the similarities end.

These two bloggers had such polar opposite experiences with their startup internships that you’d think one was living in the bizarro-world of the other.

But both experiences offer great insight into the startup internship experience; what you can get out of it, and when you should run away from it.

Love Potion Number i[0] vs. o[no]

Chris Kurdziel just finished a summer-long internship with tech startup Shelby.tv. In his post “Advice for intern i[1]” (he was nicknamed i[0]) he writes about an environment filled with smart, motivated, funny and apparently freakishly good looking, people.

He describes his time there as “better than almost any feeling I’ve experienced.” Ah, okay. Sounds good. We’ll put his internship in the “What a Feeling” by Irene Cara category.

Blogger number two, Lizzie Smithson, also finished an internship with a startup that she doesn’t name. I’m guessing this is in a effort to a). erase the name from her memory in a he-who-shall-not-be-named kind of way or b). avoid any legal hassles stemming from what I’m sure are true, but unflattering statements.

Anywhoo, Lizzie’s post, “You’re not the next Microsoft,” doesn’t have the same I gotta dance around in a torn sweatshirt because I’m so happy, feeling that Kurdziel’s does.

Bad Things, Meet Good People

Lizzie took the internship for the right reasons. To get a first-hand understanding of what happens in a startup. To be a part of something exciting. To spend her time learning and doing more than she would in a corporate internship. All the same motivations claimed by Kurdziel. But Lizzie’s experience sounds more like the Dead Kennedy’s remix of “Take this Job and Shove It” than Kurdziel 80’s Flashdance love feast.

What was the difference? How did one go so horribly wrong, while the other was so hypnotically right? Let’s go to the tape, er, blogs, and see.

He Said, She Said – what drew them to the internship:

He said: “The team is one of the most impressive I’ve had the chance to meet. Sure, they have the technical chops, a few ivy league degrees, a PhD in physics, are ex-pro athletes, and they’re all ridiculously good looking (I’m talking about you, Dan). But what really impresses me about the team is the camaraderie, focus, humility, and passion with which they operate.” (from this earlier post)

She said“I heard about Eccentric Co. [name changed to protect the maybe not so innocent] from a friend of mine who told me their product was innovative and interesting and while their buzz was minimal, they were just starting out and it would likely get bigger. She had me at innovative. I was young and wanted to scratch my name in the world.”

He Said, She Said – about the startup internship experience:

He said: “Spending my summer with the Shelby.tv team was an incredible experience, and exposed me to a ton of elements of early stage startups that I’d never seen before.”

She said: “I got a first-hand glimpse into the crazed mind of some entrepreneurs. The ones who always have a ‘new business idea’ that’s ‘gonna be a big deal’ or ‘gonna go viral.'”

He Said, She Said -about their entrepreneur bosses:

He said: “It’s been incredible to work with people that are so passionate, considerate and intelligent. You have set the standard for the kind of workplace environment I strive to be a part of.”

She said: “The problem with some entrepreneurs is that they’re all ideas and no follow-through. They’ve got the next big thing, but if you ask them who their main competitors are, they’ll say, ‘There’s nothing like it out there right now.’ Yes, there is.”

He Said, She Said – about the startup environment:

He said: “This isn’t a job that you go to and then go home from. You’ll hang out on weekends, eat late night dinners together at the office, and have some hilarious and crazy experiences together.”

and

“Startups are an emotional rollercoaster. Days at Shelby are far more often good than bad, but any startup has an ebb and flow and when people aren’t “in the zone…”

She said: “When I first called my PW (Personal Wonka), his enthusiasm for working together was infectious. Following the first week, however, you can insert any stereotype about unsuccessful, unfocused entrepreneurs who are all ideas and no follow-through and you’ll start to craft a picture of what PW was like. I had to rein him in. I had to keep him focused. I had to bother him to help him.”

He Said, She Said – about their future with the company and the company’s future:

He said: “When next summer rolls around, I know the guys at Shelby.tv will still be firing on all cylinders, so they’ll probably be in need of some more interns.”

She said: “I finished my semester-long internship despite many red flags in the beginning and was offered a full-time position. Oh, only it wasn’t going to be paid. It was basically an extension of my current unpaid internship….The company was shortly abandoned.”

Where Do We Go From Here

Chris has returned to Cornell to finish his MBA, but continues to work with Shelby.tv and looks forward to returning there next summer.

Lizzie was contacted again by her former boss. This time he had two new startups he needed her help with. (Unpaid help, of course.)

“He was so excited he couldn’t form full sentence,” Lizzie told me. “He said, ‘You will love it here. I mean, Lizzie, really, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s like working for Microsoft in the 80’s.’ Then he started to sing, ‘If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.’ Wait … got my Wonka’s mixed up.”

Funny girl.

Lest you think Lizzie a bitter betty, when I asked her if she’d consider working in a startup again, she responded, “Working for a start-up can be extremely rewarding. You can have more responsibility, more involvement and more freedom than interning with a Corporation where you’re a tiny gear in a huge machine.”

Amen sistah. Just be sure it’s the right startup.

Ironically, when Chris first started his internship he wrote a post announcing his job. One of his entrepreneur bosses responded saying that Chris would probably end the internship by writing a post entitled “Why you shouldn’t intern with a startup.”

Nope, no need. Lizzie’s got that covered.

(BTW – both posts are fantastic. If you haven’t already linked over, here they are again for you: he said and she said. Add them to your Friday Must Reads. You have a list called that, right?)

Have you interned with a startup? Did the experience have you singing the blues or twistin the summer away?

About the author: Kathy Ver Eecke works with startups in the early stages, where the good stuff happens. Download a free copy of her ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Getting Any Startup Job, if you’re trying to break into a startup or if you’re hiring employees for your startup.

9 Comments

  • Corinne Edwards

    Reply Reply August 27, 2011

    Dear Kathy –

    No jobs for young people so why not intern. It will keep you from sleeping until noon everyday –

    and interns are treated well – and sometimes it leads to a full time job or contacts for one.

    and you always learn SOMETHING.

    One thing important, since startups sometimes go out of business – is to get a glowing letter of recommendation on company stationery.

    If necessary, write it yourself (they may even ask you to) and have someone at the top sign it.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply August 27, 2011

      Great thought Get the reference!

      And yes, there is always something to learn from a startup. Even if it was LIzzie’s lesson about what to watch out for.

      Thanks for chiming in Corrine.
      Kathy

  • Bryce Christiansen

    Reply Reply August 29, 2011

    This is really interesting. I liked the clever way you used the he said she said theme.

    We are in the process of hiring an intern ourselves. I will personally be the one they report to so this is good learning to have ahead of time.

    Where did you find their stories? I’d be interested in learning more.

    Thanks,

    Bryce

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply August 29, 2011

      Hey Bryce:
      I’m sure you’ll be a great boss! I found Lizzie’s blog because she referenced Working for Wonka in her post “You’re Not the Next Microsoft.” (WordPress let’s you know when your site is referenced). The link is at the beginning and end of my post.

      I can’t remember how I came across Chris’s post. But I loved it, and ironically read it the same day I read Lizzie’s. I’ve had both experiences, so I know where their coming from.

      Good luck with your intern search, there are a ton of good candidates out there now.
      Kathy

  • pratishtha chhetri

    Reply Reply October 15, 2011

    Start ups are the place to intern at,one gets to learn so much!!!
    here is our blog on the same ,check it out http://creativaindia.co.in/blog/intern-start-up-2/

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