The First Signs of Spring | MBA Internships

As winter descends on us in full force, I’m already seeing the first signs of spring: MBA students have started reaching out to talk about summer internships. (MBAers are not the only interns itching for work in startups — more on that later in the article.)

For MBAers and startups, the summer internship promises many glories. I’ve definitely caught myself daydreaming about the amazing work my new summer interns will get done at a fraction of the cost of actually hiring someone. Sadly, the reality can easily come up short of the dreams for both the startup and the MBAer.

The challenges are structural, and they’re exacerbated by high-expectations:

1. Not Much Time – 10 weeks in the summer simply isn’t much time. Most startups are in complex new categories, and by the time the intern gets the printer working and learns enough about the business to engage, the internship is over.

2. MBAers Want Impact – Most interns want to “make a difference.” Unfortunately, this is hard. Usually they do work that someone else has to ultimately implement, which is not a great formula for success.

3. Disorganized Managers – The intern manager is generally pretty disorganized. They don’t have time to think through how to structure the work to create a meaningful 10 week project, and they’re very reactive to short-term issues and other priorities.

4. Confidential Information – In the last 10 years I’ve probably trained almost half a dozen summer interns who’ve gone on to work for competitors. That sucks. So now I try to find projects that are strategic, but not mission critical, and shield the intern from the most competitive information. This can result in the intern being a little more isolated from the mainstream of the business and a lot of the most interesting discussions and meetings.

5. Lack of a Program – Most startups don’t run a well thought-out MBA intern program. They don’t start recruiting early enough in the year. They’re not clear on projects. They don’t have an efficient interview and hiring process.

Ok. So there are problems. But there is also motivation. Startups want low cost/free help, and MBAers want experience in the field, which means everyone has incentive to make these summer internships work.

Tips for Startups

Here are some thoughts for the startup (read on if you’re an MBAer):

1. Define a Project – I’ve had the best luck by creating a well defined project with clear goals, a reasonable scope for 10 weeks, enough isolation from the core business to minimize dependencies, but enough value for the long-term business that it’s worth the investment. One of the best projects was an analysis we did of the global advertising market. The deliverable was clear; the data were accessible; and there was a lot of good primary and secondary research the interns could collect, analyze, and present. Also, the results were actionable, and they helped shape our strategy for the next year.

2. Hire 2 Interns – I like to pair interns. This makes it more interesting for them. When everyone is too busy to talk, they can bounce ideas off of each other so they don’t end up feeling isolated sitting alone at the makeshift desk you setup in the hallway.

3. Manage Them like Employees – Manage interns like they are employees. That means all the usual stuff: clear communication, goals, regular check-ins, interim milestones, etc. It also means a real hiring process. Hire well and you can manage easy.

4. Organize Recruiting – I suggest that you make a recruiting run in March. Instead of the typical rolling recruiting process, create a structured process: a) deadline for resumes; b) internal deadline to sort resumes; c) one focused round of interviews with top choices; d) offers and contracts. If you structure the process, it will help you plan and manage your time.

Tips for Interns

MBAers you need to take the ball into your own hands. The biggest challenge you’ll face is that most of the startups you talk to won’t have read and implemented the items above.

1. Target Series A or B Companies – The best companies to go into are ones that have gotten Series A or B venture investments in the last year. These companies have a number of advantages: a) money to spend; b) growth and strategic problems; c) enough scale to incorporate an intern; d) enough structure to actually use the work. Also, these companies are easy to find — just scan the list of investments in your area in the last 12 months.

2. Be a Consultant – Target the company. Talk to the customer (CEO, CTO, CFO or VP of Marketing). Figure out their challenges then pitch a clear focused project with an actionable deliverable that will help drive their business (see above).

3. Ask to Shadow Something – In addition to your main project, you can look for something to “shadow” which will let you see into the workings of another part of the business. This could be a budgeting process, strategic deal, etc.

4. Add Some Extra Value – Once you are in the company, look for something you can do that will go beyond your core project. Something small for another department or manager that needs some help and has something that can you reasonably scope and execute. This will help make you a rock star.

5. Be Ready to Adapt – The best plans in startups change. Or put differently, planning works but plans rarely do. So expect to show up on the first day and need to re-cast or re-organize. Just stick to the principles above: create a clear, well defined, doable project with an actionable deliverable at the end.

6. Network – No better place to network than on the job, so use the time to get to know people in the firm. You’d be surprised. Maybe that junior engineer sitting down the hall is cooking up the next Twitter. Take the time to meet people across the firm.

What if you’re not an MBAer? The good news is that there are usually lots of other internship opportunities, especially if you don’t want much/any pay. Usually, the recruiting for these internships is not very systematic. But whether you want to do graphic design, coding, or sales, all of the items and suggestions above still apply, just in a different context.

As the snow pelts the East Coast and the ocean spray keeps freezing on the bow of my sailboat, we can all look forward to spring. The interns are coming!


  • Adam Berrey

    That’s a great point. It especially comes up in interviews. MBA students are used to being highly critical of businesses in class, and this can come across as skepticism and disinterest if it’s not expressed the well during an interview.

  • Yohanes Frezgi

    This post is really helpful. One point I would add for MBAers is you need to be interested in the business. If you aren't interested entrepreneurs can generally tell and everyone wants to work with other people who are passionate about their product or service.

  • Claudia Hildebrandt

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