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August 13, 2021

5 Things You Need To Know Before Starting an Internship at a Tech Startup

Alexis Clarfield-Henry
Alexis Clarfield-Henry

Interning at a startup is going to be different from a big, traditional company. There are some unspoken rules, ways of working, and little idiosyncrasies of startup life - and knowing them will make your experience easier. With that in mind, here are five different things you didn’t know you needed to know about interning at a tech startup: 

1. You will be treated like a full member of the team (for better or worse)

Things move quickly in startup land, so chances are the employees are going to treat you like a full member of the team from day one. This has some amazing benefits to it, like a lot of real responsibility in an area you want experience in, taking full part in culture events (hello, retreats!) and other perks. However, it also means people will sometimes forget you’re an intern and give you an intense amount of work. 

The key to surviving this is self-awareness, time-management, and managing up. When you first arrive, ask questions about the vision of the company, the company’s values, and then what major initiatives you’ll be working on or supporting. From there, work as hard as you can, but don’t push yourself to burnout because someone else forgot you haven’t been there for a year already. Communicate regularly with your manager about what’s on your plate, especially if projects are coming from multiple people, and work with your manager to prioritize your workload daily. Most importantly, TELL your manager if you can’t get something done in time or if you’re feeling overwhelmed. 

2. Change is inevitable and rapid

Uncertainty is a common theme in startup life, meaning that you could do a ton of work that gets thrown out because a strategic priority changes all of a sudden. Most of the time, this will be explained to you. But sometimes it won’t, and it will suck. You’ll feel like your work is not appreciated. The vast majority of the time though, your manager and the team will still see the quality work you’ve done, which will in turn build trust with your team. 

So the best thing to do in this instance is maintain a “bias to action,” meaning focus on delivering the best work you can and a little less on what happens after you deliver, since you have little to no control over that portion of the project.

3. Your team wants your ideas 

Startups are filled with smart people, but that doesn’t mean they know exactly what to do in every situation. Frankly, it’s often the opposite. Teams will have a sense of where they want to go or what they want to accomplish, but not always know what they need to do to get there. 

That’s where you come in: you’re another intelligent mind looking at a problem with a fresh lens. If you think about the goal outcome and have an idea how the team could get there, say something. Even if it doesn’t work out in the end, bringing ideas to the table is usually celebrated. 

4. Failure is expected

To build a multi-billion dollar startup, you only need to be good at a few core things. And chances are the whole team will fail multiple times before nailing those core things down. As an intern, you’ll be part of that process - and part of those failures. It’s not only natural, it’s expected. Not that people want to fail, just that people understand it’s inevitable.

The best way to minimize failure is to focus on preparation and high-quality work. Do that, and you’ll be giving the best you can. And when you do fail, focus on learning: what made the project fail? Could you try something differently next time? If you learn from your failure and share that knowledge with the team, there’s a high chance it will be part of a winning idea in the future.

5. Try to solve your own problems first, but then ask for help

When you join a startup, it will feel like learning a new language. What’s ROAS, ARR, ACV, BAU, EOD, etc? Does PR mean public relations or pull request? And what on earth is “speed-to-market” and how is it different from “go-to market”? Even if you’re talented in your job, you’ll learn from other people in different roles and it will seem dizzying. 

You can’t avoid feeling out of your depth. But you can try to self-teach as you go. If that doesn’t work, though, ask for help. While the reality is that the time someone would take to explain something to you is far less than the time it would take to fix an error down the line, your team will notice and appreciate when you’ve attempted to solve something before coming to them. Googling and reading internal documentation is the life line of an intern, but at the same time, don’t waste hours – a two-minute conversation with a teammate will likely solve the problem.

It’s ok to feel overwhelmed

Startups are an entirely new environment from traditional businesses, consultancies or banks, government and academia. And while startups come with a ton of perks, they also have their own set of challenges. As you embark on your internship, know that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed. You’ll learn as you go - just as most of your colleagues are, even if they aren’t showing it.