Last fall I took a leap of faith. I moved to San Francisco and hacked for four months with some awesome guys on a product and a company that I now love. I started as an intern at Meldium in September 2013 and am now back for a second round. The following is a guide intended for young smart folks that want to have an experience like mine. I'll also explain why it was and is awesome.
3 Reasons Why You Want to Intern at a YC Startup
Feel free to skip this section if you don't need convincing.
1. You won't really be an intern
If you intern at Google or Facebook (or even a mid-sized company) you'll be treated very much as an intern. This will mean fun events & parties but also isolated "intern projects" and the like. If you're an intern at an early-stage startup, the company doesn't have time for you to act as an intern. You'll be trusted with real responsibility from day one. In fact, you will ship production code and help grow the business the entire time.
2. You will learn a ton
A startup needs you to produce ASAP, which will feel like a trial by fire. That said, after a couple of weeks to pick up the stack (I came from a Python background to a Rails stack), you will step up to the challenge and get building. Even more, you will have to touch way more than product development. My typical day as an engineer intern might involve: writing code, building out UX, proposing/punting features, discussing marketing strategy, customer support, designing t-shirts, drinking overpriced coffee, etc. Instead of learning how to write software in a team of a 1000+ developers, you'll learn what it takes to build out a company from scratch.
3. There's no real risk to you
Working full-time at a startup is risky. By jumping into a startup as an intern, you can explore if this is the kind of life you want without having to put your career or family at risk. Personally, this was the biggest factor in my decision to join Meldium over a larger company.
Now, forget what you know
Now that you've been convinced that an internship at a startup is a great experience, you're in a pool of a bunch of young, smart, and enthusiastic individuals that feel the same. Congratulations. Turns out there are some stark differences between getting a "normal" job and getting a job at a burgeoning startup. You'll need to stand out, work your network, and be social.
But... Look at my GPA!
Got straight A's? Good for you. That's not gonna get you very far. You're competing on badassery here. Have a neat side project? That's better. Volunteer feeding baby seals? Sweet! Run a karate dojo out of your garage? Bad. Ass. Yes, you will need solid technical skills if you're going to be a technical intern, but you'll need something to get you that interview. This is particularly true if you're going to be sending cold emails.
But... I Know a Guy!
Absolutely use your network to your advantage, as a referral from a friend will get you a foot in the door (especially since founders don't have time to sift through tons of applicants). If you have a professional network, use it and find a connection to a startup that isn't actively looking for an intern. That said, don't expect to get a job because you know someone who knows someone that works at that hip startup. If you don't have a professional network to speak of, start tweeting, reading, writing, linking, and meeting. You will grow one organically over time, but why wait?
5 Actionable Steps to an Internship Hire
1. Pick your targets
Pick out some startups that you want to work for, not companies that necessarily have intern ads on their jobs page. I have had multiple internship offers throughout my university degree, and from a variety of different companies (Freshbooks, 4ormat, 500px, Upverter, Disqus, Flipboard, and Meldium). None of these companies had an ad posted stating they were looking for an intern. They were all simply excited at the prospect of a young enthusiastic person joining their team. Searching for great startups isn't that hard. There are a lot of websites with this data.
2. Reach out.
Call a phone number if at all possible. It's sometimes tricky to get a number for small companies, but try Googling for stuff like: “[company name] [area code].” The response on the phone will almost invariably be “Sure, email me your resumé.” The goal here is to establish some amount of rapport with an individual at the company and to get an email address that’s not something generic like “info@“ or “jobs@“. If you can get “alex@“ or similar, the human on the inside the company will be more likely to read your email. Even if you can't get a phone number, you can try guessing these addresses from the founders' names.
3. Write well.
Write a short, customized, effective, email. Seriously.
4. Prep for interviews.
Be ready for unorthodox interviews, instead of 5 1-hour whiteboard interviews, you might spend all day working on a single problem. The startup may even have blogged about their interview approach, so be sure to look into it. In a big company, you're likely interviewing with a middle manager & engineers. At a startup, you're interviewing with founders who are exceptionally passionate & driven about their space – so adjust accordingly.
These are busy people. More than likely most of your emails won’t get replies. Just do this a bunch.
Working as an intern at an early-stage startup is a very empowering experience. You'll probably get hooked. I highly recommend it.
If you're a founder and a potential intern approaches you enthusiastically, don't ignore an opportunity to diversify your team and bring on a fresh perspective. If you're a potential enthusiastic intern, don't be shy. Want to join me at this great company? Reach out!