How ICX Media Guides Exceptional Interns to Execute Meaningful Work
It’s finally Summer, it’s getting hot in Washington, D.C., and it’s officially been internship season for several weeks now. And I’m not talking about the interns who lead tours of the Capitol building for 3 months, I’m talking about startup internships.
At ICX Media, we currently have 5 interns across our engineering, product, analytics, and design teams hailing from UPenn, UVA, and UW. They have only been with us for a few weeks now, but they are already making a big impact.
It’s the first true internship for many of our interns who average ~sophomores in college (with one notable outlier — a PhD candidate). While this might be their first spin with a startup, my colleagues and I have run many, many, many summer and school-year internship programs. We’ve learned quite a few things along the way — mostly by screwing up!
Whether you have an internship program at your startup that’s been running well for years now or you’re considering starting a new one, I hope you’ll find a few pieces of wisdom from our years of startup internship experience.
How to Build a Great Startup Internship Program1. Recruit the right interns
Nothing will kill a startup internship program faster than recruiting the wrong type of interns or setting the wrong expectations in your interviews.
Startup interns need to be highly flexible: it’s highly likely their roles will change week to week over the summer.
Additionally, your interns need to be fast learners: only a few of their skills will be instantly relevant to your startup, they will have to pick up others in a matter of days.
2. Treat interns like full time employees from day 1
Don’t treat your interns like interns.
Onboard them like you do full-time employees in their respective areas. Give them real projects, not “intern” ones. While they may need more help than an employee with background experience, we’ve been amazed by how interns consistently rise to meet the challenge!
Better yet, you’ll get a strong feeling of how your interns would manage a full-time position with your company, which should be your ultimate goal for all of your interns.
3. Pair interns with mentors
Interns at all almost all companies will have a manager who evaluates their performance, conducts 1:1’s, and ultimately determines if they get a full-time offer or another internship for the subsequent summer.
But, one secret we’ve found to truly activate your internship program is to pair your intern with a mentor. Ideally, the mentor is a leader in your business and can develop a close relationship with your intern that extends beyond the bounds of day-to-day work and your startup.
Mentors can help with class/major decisions, career plans, and more, without the worry that they are evaluating performance.
4. Give many opportunities for visibility + access
Since you’re treating your interns like employees from day 1, you should also be giving them consistent opportunities for visibility and access to the leaders of your business.
We have weekly “Show + Tells” with our entire team, where anyone can present what they are working on, no matter how early or broken it may be. We encourage our interns to share their work too and this past Show + Tell, almost all of the summer interns demoed (after minimal nudging).
5. Bring the fun
Internships are about more than contributing to the productivity of your business. They’re about building relationships both between the interns and your company and the interns together. Make sure you have at least 3–4 fun, outside-of-office, events planned throughout the summer.
We’re hosting a 2-day hackathon in a few weeks, going to a Nationals baseball game, and paddleboarding on the Potomac. You’ll find that these opportunities for fun also build outside of work connections that lead to a higher likelihood of top performing interns returning full time.
How to Be a Great Startup Intern1. Absorb as much as you can
Startups move fast. I mean really really fast. Even people like myself who have been at a few still get thrown off occasionally by the pace of progress and change.
As a startup intern, absorb as much as you can. Write down things you don’t understand or have questions about (there won’t always be time to ask in the moment) and follow up with your manager or mentor after.
2. Ask a lot of questions
At one point in their career, every single person at your startup was in a similar place as you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or book time with people at your startup to learn more about complex concepts.
If you can, try to do this in your first few weeks, so you can put this knowledge into practice over the 2nd half of your internship
3. Take ownership of something
Make sure you find at least 1 project that you truly own during the summer. Put your heart and soul into that project and demonstrate your ability to take it through multiple stages of iteration.
Prototype it, get feedback, refine it, get more feedback, get it into production, and then track its performance!
4. Roll with the punches + the changes
Startups are startups. Things change, people change, roles change, pivots happen (even during a 10 week period). Expect these changes when you join a startup internship program and roll with the punches.
You may find out over the course of your internship that a startup environment isn’t for you or, hopefully, you learn how to thrive on the opportunities that this change presents.
5. Learn about the business as a whole, not just your functional area
At a startup, you’ll usually have a higher level of access to a wide range of leaders (you may even sit next to the CEO as 2 of our interns do!).
Learn from these leaders. Learn about the entire business, hear how they got where they did, and keep asking questions. If you’ve done it right, you’ll walk away from your startup internship with not only domain-specific skills, but also with the broader knowledge of how startups work, raise money, sell their products, grow, and succeed or fail.
That’s a lot of learning!
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