Interning at a start-up has many benefits: If you’re interested in technology or think you may want to start a company one day, it’s a great way to try out your future career path. (I credit my college internship at Box as what started me off on the path to co-found InstaEDU).
Or, if you’re unsure what you want to do, working at a small, growing company—think 50 employees or fewer—gives you the opportunity to observe all facets of a business and often contribute in more impactful ways than you could at a larger organization.
Of course, great start-up internships can also be hard to find. Unlike tech giants, start-ups can’t afford to send recruiting teams to every college career fair, and many don’t spend the time to come up with job descriptions or plan for specific intern roles.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t land a great gig. If you’re looking for an internship for this summer or next school year, here are three steps for scoring a position.
Identify the Best Start-ups For You
It’s worth noting that you don’t necessarily want to work for just any start-up—you want to work for one that you’re passionate about. So, to start, think about the websites you use and love (beyond Facebook and Pinterest). These make great candidates for potential internships, because you already know the product and can contribute your insights as a user.
If this doesn’t cast a wide enough net, think about what types of companies you might be interested in or could contribute to the most. For example, if you’re pre-med, a health tech start-up could be a great fit. If you’re an athlete, look for start-ups solving problems in sports and fitness. AngelList is a great resource for finding early stage start-ups in specific fields.
Once you have a list of companies you’re interested in, look at each of their job pages to see which ones have internships listed. If they do, great! Apply and write a great cover letter. But even if you don’t see the right internship position (or any), don’t be afraid to reach out, introduce yourself, and ask if the company is hiring interns.
Explain why you’d love to work there and—more importantly—share your relevant experience and your ideas on what role you could play at the company. Most early stage start-ups have way more to do than they have people to do it, so many are open to taking on interns. You just need to show that you’ll add value through your cover letter, resume, or possibly a personal website.
If you’re invited for an interview, do everything possible to show that you can jump in and tackle things on your own. If you haven’t used the product before, try it out before any interviews. Come prepared with ideas for projects that you’d want to work on and a rough idea of how you’d tackle them. Make a mental note of past tasks that you’ve taken the lead on and excelled at and be ready to share them.
Look for a Learning Experience
This said, while you need to prove your worth to your potential employer, you should make sure that the experience will be worth your time as well. First, look for people you can learn from. You shouldn’t expect to have someone hold your hand through the entire internship, but you should look for someone who can serve as a mentor and will help you learn the ins and outs of a small start-up. As you’re interviewing with various people, talk with them about their expectations and how they plan to work with you.
Also make sure you’ll get the chance to try your hand at all of the areas of the company that interest you—for example, if you’re a social media expert but want to learn about marketing or project management, too, share that goal. And don’t be afraid to ask about the vision of the company and make sure it’s something you believe in.
While there’s usually some grunt work associated with being an intern—especially at a small start-up—it’s an excellent way to get your foot in the door, figure out what you’re good at, and start building your network. And an added bonus? Internships frequently turn into full-time positions as companies grow quickly and find themselves needing to scale up.