Internships SXSW: Tackling the Big Questions for Small Companies

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This past week, InternMatch took its first trip to SXSW, where I had the opportunity too-host a panel with Larry Smith of SMITH Magazine on interns for small businesses, nonprofits, and startups. We had a great turnout, and over the course of the hour it became clear that for most companies early in the internship program process, there are a ton of questions. As a follow up for those who missed it, I wanted to share some of the most pressing questions and my answers.

How do I know if interns will be worth the investment?

At SXSW this was probably the most common question for companies who had yet to bring on their first intern. Asan opportunity for busy employers, interns are hard to ignore. The general rule of thumb is that the more you invest in your interns, the more you’ll get in return.

Strong college students are capable of high-level independent work, but they are used to achieving in an academic, not professional, setting. You will need to respect interns like employees. Provide strong mentorship with a dedicated supervisor for each intern. Give interns total responsibility on specific projects that they can start and finish – both for a sense of completion and to add to their portfolio. And help interns network within the company. They are building their professional network for the first time so every new relationship adds a ton of value and potential learning experience.

Many of the complaints we hear on the student side result from interns floating around the office without having a person who can act as an anchor when next steps are unclear. Once you decide yes to interns, check out our guide on How To Setup a Summer Internship Program.

What’s the right way to compensate interns?

Paying interns is in the self-interest of the employer. On InternMatch, we’ve seen time and again that companies offering paid internships receive more high quality applications. Paid interns work harder and have more ownership over their projects, they are more likely to convert to full-time employees, and they are more likely to evangelize the company to other students.

In addition, from a fairness perspective, paying interns promotes economic equality because student that must make money (to pay tuition, support family, etc) have the same career building opportunities as students that can afford to work for free. We have more information on compensation and logistics in our FAQ on Everything You Need to Know to Hire Interns.

What types of meaningful projects can I give to interns?

If you’re asking this question, you’re on the right track. Companies should always strive to provide projects to interns that allow them to contribute and learn at the same time. Not every project is going to push interns to full mental capacity – sometimes work just needs to get done. That being said, offer interns projects that require actual problem solving followed by execution and you’ll be surprised at how often they can rise to the challenge. On the first project, work with them closely to solve the problem, but don’t do it for them. Also, check out our Ten Tips to Effectively Manage Interns for more info!

How can I compete with big sexy companies to get great talent?

At InternMatch, we’ve learned that the listing model makes it challenging for smaller companies to compete for the best talent. A couple of text paragraphs almost always fail to differentiate your company from the major players on the field. You have to showcase what makes your experience uniqueas a small company. Students want to understand your culture and get a sense of the people they’ll be working with if they come on-board. (Plug – That’s why we created the Campus Hub). Whether you go with us or another way, use rich media like video, photos, Twitter/FB/Blog to actually with students.

Timing matters. Bigger companies are competing for top talent earlier in the academic year (even early spring or fall for summer positions), so waiting until you need an intern next week will leave you scraping the bottom of the academic barrel. You should be open to engaging with talented students year-round, even if you don’t have an immediate need.

How do I know whom to choose?

Hiring interns requires a different lens for evaluation than normal full-time roles. Interns often don’t have much (if any) professional experience. We’ve found that the most successful interns engage in projects outside of academic requirements that demonstrate passion about a particular field. The best computer science students build applications and websites outside of school. Students truly passionate about marketing have a blog and actively use Twitter. Look to these projects as an indication of passion, potential, and existing skills. Academic success is important, but arguably secondary to independent projects.

Evaluate students for cultural fit. The environment on Wall Street is very different than culture at a Silicon Valley startup. Project your culture proudly and look for the students that get excited about the way your team operates. When it’s time to let candidates know they aren’t the right fit, check out our Rejection Letter Advice and Sample.

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Nathan Parcells

Nathan Parcells is VP of Marketing and co-founder of Looksharp. He has spent the past decade helping students launch their career, researching best practices for hiring millennials (including running Looksharp's annual "State of College Hiring") and sharing these insights with employers. Nathan's work has been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, Business Insider and more. Outside of work, Nathan is an avid rock climber, back packer and Bob Dylan fan.