Build Your Business (on a shoestring): Hire a College Intern

By: Tara Alexandra Kachaturoff

Starting up a new venture or business can be one of the most exciting times of your life. It can also be one of the most stressful. In the early months, or even early years of your business, cash flow is often not what you would like it to be. If you’re a solo entrepreneur, you’re wearing many hats – in fact, you’re probably wearing all of them.

Not only are you selling your product or service, you’re marketing it, doing the accounting, paying the bills, answering the phones, designing and updating your website and preparing and sending out mail. And, certainly for your own business, you can easily think of ten or fifteen additional tasks to be done in addition to these. In the early days of your start-up, many if not most of these tasks seem doable. But, once you’ve started making sales or the public interest in your business begins to grow, wearing all the hats becomes impossible, frustrating, and highly stressful.

One quick and easy solution is to hire an intern – a college intern. During my corporate career in finance, I made use of many college interns over the years. Not only were they diligent, responsible, and some of the best employees, they were eager to learn and to contribute ideas. My interns were reliable and many of them hired on as regular employees after graduating from college.

With more and more college students choosing to start their own businesses rather than working for others, having a first-hand opportunity to work in a business start-up, like yours, might be just what they’re looking for. So how can you find an intern that will be just right for you and your business?

Simples Steps to Hiring an Intern

1. What do I need to do? What can the intern do? One of the first things to do is to take a clean sheet of paper and begin writing down all the tasks that you perform in your business – and I mean everything. Next, decide what tasks you absolutely need to do yourself and which ones might be assigned to an intern. Typical tasks that you do might include:

  • inputting business card data into your database

  • contacting local chambers of commerce and ordering mailing lists

  • marketing mailings – printing letters, stuffing envelopes, putting stamps on letters

  • writing and updating your marketing plan

  • keeping your marketing calendar current

  • calling on prospects – phone and in person

  • writing marketing collateral

  • updating website information

  • confirming appointments with clients

  • writing and updating your business plan

  • appearing at tradeshows (perfect for an intern to work as your assistant)

  • buying office supplies

  • going to the post office to mail packages, letters, etc.

  • miscellaneous errands

  • meetings with clients

  • reviewing local newspapers, business periodicals and trade journals for possible business prospects or other opportunities

  • article clipping

  • attending chamber functions and other networking events

  • filing

  • answering phones

  • bookkeeping

Certainly there are a lot of things to do in your business! And, obviously, not all of these can be done by anyone other than you.

Once you’ve drafted a comprehensive list of tasks, using different colored high-lighters, or something as simple as a check-mark, determine which of these tasks can be assigned to someone else. This will become the basis for writing up a job description for your intern.

2. Drafting a job description. Write up a simple job description that includes a list of tasks you need completed on a weekly basis. Also, estimate how much time these tasks will take and, if possible, what days of the week might be best for someone to work for you.

3. What type of intern? My suggestion is to hire a college intern who has background in the areas that you most need help with. For example, if your start-up is heavily focused on using computer technology to either produce your product or service, or if it is a significant part of the interface with your clients, hire an intern who is studying computer science. On the other hand, if you have a business focusing on delivering corporate sales training programs, hire a marketing major. If you have general office work that needs to be done, consider a business administration student.

4. To pay or not to pay? That is the question. Nowadays, interns are readily available for pay or no pay. The hiring market for new college graduates is rather strained so they know that any and all work experience they gain prior to graduation will serve them well in the future.

5. Offer benefits other than money. Money is not the “be all, end all" of a relationship with your intern. Many interns are looking to learn new skills which can best be learned in a real-life scenario. They also know the importance of networking and the possibilities that might accrue by meeting the right person at the right time. In addition, if they really enjoy the experience (and you do, too), they’ll want you to write them a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference in the future.

There are other ways you can “compensate" your intern. Consider developing a coaching program for them which entails teaching them your business in an organized manner. Teach them the steps of creating a business from scratch. By having them assist with all aspects of the business, you may be opening up the door for them to start their own.

Consider offering them commissioned-based compensation based upon product or service sales they close on their own. Or, you might design an internship where they can earn college credit. Contact the appropriate faculty member in charge of credit-based internship programs to see if you might be able to create a development program which will fulfill some of their elective credit hour requirements.

6. Minimum requirements. Before you’re ready to contact your local college or university to place the advertisement for an intern, make sure you have the following information ready:

  • Company Name

  • Company Address

  • Your Name

  • Telephone Number (you may not wish to give out your telephone number so that applicants are forced to submit resumes through fax or via email)

  • Fax Number

  • Email Address

  • Job Description (including complete list of expected tasks, expected number of hours to be worked, days to be worked (if necessary), hourly rate of pay (if applicable), negotiable rate (if you wish to evaluate their qualifications before setting a rate)

  • Type of college major desired (business administration, accountancy, finance, computer science, etc.)

  • How best to contact you (phone or email) and what to send (resume, letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc.)

7. Contact career services. Once you’ve gathered all the necessary information, contact the career services center of several local colleges and universities. They will either give you online access to a system where you can input your job description information, or you can simply provide them with the information and they will do it for you. Once your posting is approved, it will be made available for students to access.

8. Gather resumes and start interviewing. Allow your advertisement to be posted for at least two weeks. Start sorting through resumes right away to see who might be the best fit. Begin setting up interviews immediately to find the best candidate for the position.

9. Interviewing. Ask both closed and open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions require a yes or no answer, whereas open-ended questions request explanation and elaboration. Find out about their prior work experience; ask for examples of how they’ve handled particular situations, all while carefully evaluating their communication skills. You might even ask for a copy of one their class papers to assess their writing skills. Make sure that you are comfortable with them in every aspect. After all, you will be entrusting them with your top priority – your business.

10. Status reports. You might consider asking your intern to fill out a weekly status report which tracks the assignments completed, including how much time each task required. It will give the intern a sense of accomplishment with respect to their contributions, while providing you with useful information about what has been completed.

11. Enjoy the benefits. There’s so much to gain from building relationships with others. While the intern is learning from you, you’ll be surprised at how much you will learn from him or her. Encourage them to take ownership and pride in what they are doing, praise and acknowledge them frequently for jobs well done, and welcome their comments, criticisms, and contributions.

Using college interns to help you with your business is not only a cost-effective way to get things done, but it’s a wonderful way to contribute to the knowledge and experience of someone who might very well follow in your footsteps. In any case, it can be a win-win situation for everyone.

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