10 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Their Interns

Periodically I post in this series about things that entrepreneurs can learn from others and from the world around them. The older we get, the more we discover that we are not to smart and that the best thing we can do is pay attention to the people around us. From them we can draw inspiration, learn valuable lessons, and become better at what we do. In the series I have discussed how great standup comics can teach us about taking personal risk, how politicians are expert at differentiation, and how dogs exemplify loyalty.

I have also written about mentoring, and with this post I want to focus on the lessons that entrepreneurs can draw from the very people they are supposed to be mentoring: their interns. Every startup I know of depends to some degree on these young people and the effort they deliver, usually at a very low cost. These young people bring energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and (hopefully) an endless source of ideas. And they do it with the lowest of expectations; all they want is a learning experience, a resume item, and (hopefully) a leg up into a real job.

Two things started me thinking about interns this morning: First, our friend Amanda Werner, who started with us as an intern and has been working for the past year as a part-time marketing assistant is leaving us for a full-time job(!). Second, I saw a trailer for a movie this week with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in a story about two 40-somethings who land internships at Google. The movie looked like it will be rollicking fun, but I suspect that entrepreneurs will not be able to draw many lessons from it. Except the part about beer (below).

1. Interns are eagerHow many times have I observed a new intern arriving for work on their first day their eyes shining with excitement and anticipation? Too many. And every time I see them, my instinct is to sit them down and tell them how the world is waiting to destroy their dreams and crush their naive hopes. But I stop myself, because it is this very enthusiasm and eagerness that is at the core of the value a good intern brings and as entrepreneurs we should work to kindle that same ardor within ourselves but also to instill it within the entire team and the company’s very culture.

2. Interns sacrificeWhen was the last time you worked 30 hours a week in exchange for a few free lunches and a transit pass? The vast majority of interns enter their new jobs with their financial expectations set to minimum. They know that the are expected to work hard, be reliable, take on the shit work that nobody else wants to do, all in exchange for an opportunity to learn and grow. Wait a minute. That sounds pretty much like the job description for every startup entrepreneur I know, especially the part about the shit work and growth.

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3. Interns are here to LEARN. Every good intern I ever met told me the same thing when asked about what they hoped to get out of their internship: learning. Interning is, by its most essential nature, an educational experience. Not that many companies don’t take advantage of interns by loading them down with mundane tasks and leveraging their unpaid hours to the max; this happens all the time and is the nasty reality that many interns find themselves in. But the good internships can and do provide tons of opportunity for those who want to learn and grow. Good interns keep their eyes on that prize – they happily take on the tedium in exchange for the value they can extract in usable knowledge and professional experience.

4. Interns keep their heads down. Over time most professionals learn to dodge overtly political situations in the workplace. Good interns seem to intuitively grasp this from day one. They try their best to be non-confrontational and to avoid making enemies or getting into arguments with co-workers.  Entrepreneurs can learn a great deal from this ability to sidestep controversy and keep away from conflict. We all need to know how to focus on our jobs and stay out of the line of fire.

5. Interns watch for opportunity. This is eally what it’s all about, right? An internship is a means to an end and good interns are all about moving up when they can. The smartes amongst them are always watching carefully for jobs inside company and out and for any opportunity that presents itself. Entrepreneurs, too, should learn to be opportunistic in their approach to business and their own professional lives. When the occasion arises or the moment presents itself, jump! An intern who misses a great opportunity will have to wait until the next one presents itself and who know how long that might take?

6. Interns leverage great mentors. In business and in out professional lives we learn to leverage the opportunities which are presented, yes, but we also learn to take advantage of the assets we have. For smart interns finding a great mentor on the job can be a ticket to success. Mentors can teach us much of what we need to know from a practical standpoint, but they can also provide us with invaluable introductions, possibilities, and the benefit of long experience. Entrepreneurs too can benefit from a great mentor, especially when moving their way up their own steep learning curve.

7. Interns drink beer. Lots of BeerHave fun, for crying out loud. This is one thing that interns do NOT need to learn as part of the on-the-job training they receive. A good internship can lead to as much social life growth as it does to professional growth and entrepreneurs can also gain by taking time to relax, have fun, and get to know the people around you in a relaxed, social, and enjoyable setting. By the way? Beer helps.

8. Interns get coffee. Humility is a key component of a successful intern and I like my coffee served black, thanks. Why? Because when you are given the crummiest, boringest, most mind-numbingest tasks to do every single day of your working life you had better develop a bit of servility in order to get by. But the best interns understand that these tasks are just a part of a good internship and that the tradeoff is the interesting, engaging, and instructive  experiences they signed up for. Entrepreneurs, too, need to be humble – after all there is the trash that needs taking out and the dishes that need washing, and a Founder worth his or her  salt should be the first one on the team to make sure those things get done.

9. Interns make friends. Networking opportunities abound for the good intern and taking advantage is one of the benefits of a job that lacks most others. Where else can a young person, just starting out, have the chance to meet others in their field, gain exposure to people at other companies, interact daily with their own peers, and start building that rolodex that they will carry with them for the next 40 years. Entrepreneurs can also make an effort to get their head out of the sand and build their own networks and create their own lasting friendships among the people they encounter every single day.

10. Interns will hire us one day. So be nice, alright? Remember that people remember those who treated them well and those who didn’t. And one day (maybe soon) any of us might find oursleves in the position of needing something from someone. And who better to ask for that hand-up then that ex-intern who might just be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company? Hmmm?

Photo: Bill Couch

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