Case Study – What Happened When I Hired Two Interns?

March 3, 2015

A few months ago I had the “brilliant” idea of hiring an intern for my blogger outreach software business, Ninja Outreach.


At the time I wasn’t exactly sure what would come of it, but to my surprise I ended up taking on not one, but two interns over a six month period.


Although I don’t have a lot of experience in this domain, this is likely new territory for a lot of readers, so I deemed it worth writing about, despite my relatively limited experience.


This should in no way be viewed as a comprehensive article on hiring interns. Without a doubt there are rules and regulations based on your country/state you should consider if you are going to formally take on interns.


This is mostly a summary of my experience, with some opinions mixed in.


What Makes An Intern Different From A Virtual Assistant?

The first place to begin is – what is an intern, and how is it different from a virtual assistant?


Honestly, I don’t believe there are any hard rules here – most of what I can think of is generalizations. In my opinion it’s the following:



  1. Interns can work for free, virtual assistants never do (at least not any that I’ve ever met). However there are some clear guidelines with unpaid internships that need to be considered.
  2. Although interns and virtual assistants can be from anywhere, I believe in the context of online business, interns tend to be either from first world countries or at least developing countries with first world education. Virtual assistants (again, this is based on my usage and everyone else who I know), tend to not be.
  3. An intern can be present in an office. A virtual assistant, by definition, is virtual.
  4. Interns tend to be university students. Virtual assistants can be of all ages.
  5. An intern participates in an internship, which outside of work requirements should provide some sort of experience. This experience is not typically provided to virtual assistants.
  6. Interns may be invited to become full time employees. This is rarely the case for virtual assistants, who tend to remain as contractors even if they are working full time hours.
  7. Virtual assistants are found through marketplaces like oDesk, interns can be found in a variety of places, but I wouldn’t call them marketplaces.

You may disagree with some of the above, and I don’t think you’d be wrong.


Regardless, I have worked online for several years now and know quite a few online entrepreneurs, and while virtual assistants are quite common place, I very rarely see interns/internship programs – so clearly there is some notable difference beyond semantics.


What Are The Pros And Cons Of Hiring An Intern?

If virtual assistants are so easy to find and manage – why bother with an intern?


Here’s a few pros I was considering:



  • “Free” Labor – Interns are the only group of people who I can think of that will work for free. I know you shouldn’t go into something purely with the mentality of getting US college educated talent at below market prices, but there is some truth to it. Without a doubt that is a large reason why internships are so common in the workplace. Of course there are big costs in time that come with hiring an intern (more about that later). Additionally, there are rules that need to be abided by if you are hiring free interns.
  • Transition To Full Time – If you ever get to a point where you want to take on additional employees, your interns are a fantastic place to start. They should have intimate knowledge of the business, and you should have intimate knowledge of them and whether or not they would be good fit for the culture/role.
  • Be A Mentor – Having an intern is an opportunity to provide a valuable, hands on experience to the intern (often a university student).

But there are many cons as well…



  • Lack Of Skills – Many interns have close to no practical skills, so they will have to be taught.
  • Time Investment – As a result of their lack of skills, a lot of resources may need to be put into training. Outside of job related activity, there may also be mentoring and things of that sort.
  • Fit – It is a lot more difficult to find an intern to fill a particular role, as compared to going on a marketplace, searching up someone’s skill and reviews, and hiring them. If you have a slot to fill, hiring an intern would be a very round about way to go about it.

The simplest way I can put it, is I believe interns are an investment in the future, whereas hiring a virtual assistant is about filling a need right now.


Where Can I Hire An Intern?

internships2


All right, you’re down with all of the above, so now what? Where do you go?


Here’s a handful of ideas:



  • Internships.com and LookSharp – These are the closest things to marketplace equivalents for interns. You can sign up for free as an employee, create a listing, and interns might apply. This is the route I went, and I will share my results below. Here is one of my listings.
  • Craigslist – When has Craigslist not been a viable option for something? It has a jobs board for each major metropolitan, on which you can post.
  • Inbound – If you are actively hiring, put a link up on your home page in the navigation menu. Here is an awesome listing from Empire Flippers.
  • University Career Centers – Most interns are university students, so just go directly to the source. Contact the career offices of a university near you, and see if you qualify.

Case Study – Hiring Interns At Ninja Outreach

I’ve worked with virtual assistants for years, but this time I had something different in mind; I wanted to bring on someone who I thought could eventually become a full time employee if things went well.


Hiring for startups is very delicate, as the company is small, one wrong hire can really upset the culture balance and cost the business a lot of time and money.


As a result, interns are a great option to test the waters over an extended period of time, for a low upfront cost.


On the flip side, I felt we have a lot to offer, being a completely virtual tech startup. That’s a rare internship opportunity for most college kids, and I was going to supplement that by providing real mentoring.


And yes – I was somewhat lured by the idea of free labor.


So I went over to LookSharp and submitted a listing. I didn’t put a heck of a lot of work into it to be honest. I just wrote that it was a no busy work internship at a tech startup.


internships3


An example of excellent listings (and people you should turn to for advice) include:



Over the course of two months I received eight applications.


And as one would expect – most were uninspired, similar to the ones I probably submitted in college; lacking in personalization and showing a clear mass submission approach. There were even spelling and grammar mistakes (mind you these are American university kids).


But I did find two that I wanted to take a chance on. I will call them J and T.


J


J was a very nice girl from Princeton. Although her background was in biological sciences, she seemed to want to transition to something more business oriented. She was already working with one startup, but wasn’t getting the real behind the scenes experience she was hoping for.


I met with her, explained the terms, and we agreed to give it a go.


My approach during this time was to simply provide opportunities. For example, I offered to let her:



  • Accompany me to customer meetings (via Skype).
  • Attend all business meetings with the partners.
  • Meet with me once a week, during which I would explain the background of the company and speak in general about startups and SaaS.

In short, there would be no busy work, mostly strategy.


Unfortunately, after meeting with J one to two more times, she just disappeared. Never heard why, and she never got the chance to attend any meetings.


T


At this point I had pretty much thrown in the towel until T came along.


T seemed like a go-getter. He contacted me directly on Skype and set up a time to meet. He had real business experience, having taken time off college to run a business. He was somewhat familiar with digital marketing, and interested in learning more. He was going to school full time, but his classes were arranged as such that he felt he had a lot of free time.


T made it a lot farther than J. We sat together and came up with a plan of action. He installed the software, imported contacts, and was ready to do some lead generation. He even joined the G+ group.


But again, after a few weeks, he disappeared and I never really heard from him.


Conclusion – Why I’m No Longer Trying To Hire Interns (But Some Advice If You Are)

I was fairly on the fence about it to begin with, but after the two disappearances, I lost my appetite for pursuing this further at the moment.


I definitely believe hiring an intern can be a powerful boost to a startup, but it is also a costly upfront investment. I probably put in about five hours throughout the whole process; meeting with these interns and preparing a mentorship program for them.


That’s not an awful lot, but it also isn’t something I want to turn into 50 with no results, and I suppose should not be a focus right now.


It may just be the case that the role we are offering is just not a good fit for interns, and in general is just too unstructured.


That said, I did learn some valuable lessons right off the bat. Additionally, I have done a fair bit of research, and collected some advice I would like to impart:



  1. Don’t have expectations about your guy/gal wanting to be an entrepreneur.
  2. Look for reasons to reject, not accept.
  3. Be fluid in their job responsibilities/tasks.
  4. Take care of their room/board and day to day chores, if possible.
  5. Offer the potential for the intern to get full time work after they graduate if they do exceptionally well.

What about you – have you ever hired an intern?

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