I’ve been a one-man freelance shop for a decade now. I’ve never had any interest in complicating my life by managing employees. So it’s been the life of the loaner for me.
It’s worked pretty well since I’m a work-at-home dad.
But all that changed this spring when I received an email from a college student asking about an internship. I had never considered having an intern before and I thought, why not? If they were willing to work with my conditions—unpaid, off-site, provide your own computer—it might be worth trying.
And it was totally worth it. For 12 weeks this summer I had an intern. It was great. I got to mentor a young student, help her make connections and learn the ropes. I had extra help over the summer, an opportunity to test and sharpen my skills, and a chance to get some needed perspective on projects I’d been putting off.
“Go Far Together” was our theme last year at iThemes. It’s an acknowledgment that we’re not alone in this and we all need help. That’s what an internship can be—an opportunity to go far together. I got my own start with an unpaid internship 16 years ago at a magazine in Chicago. It gave me the experience and confidence I needed, and having an intern of my own is an opportunity to give back.
So let’s talk about why an internship might be a good idea for you and how to go about getting one.
Why an Intern?
Before you dive into an internship you need to understand that it’s not just cheap (or free) labor. It’s also not just babysitting a college student. A good internship should be a two-way street.
As an employer, you should get quality work from your intern, but you should also expect to spend time investing in their professional development.
As an intern, you can expect to work hard. But you can also expect to learn a lot and get a leg up in your career.
For freelancers, you should consider offering an internship if you think you have something to offer people who are just starting out in your field. That should be the primary consideration: Can you mentor a newbie?
Don’t get an intern just because you’re overworked and need some help. If you need some help, hire someone. An internship is a trade-off between productive work and professional investment.
A few more reasons why you might want an internship:
- Supervisor Experience – An internship can be a way to develop your own supervisor skills. If you’ve never managed anyone before, this can be a good way to start.
- Test Expansion – If you’re considering expanding your freelance operations by hiring someone, an internship can be a good (and temporary) way to test the waters. Employing other people will change the nature of your work, as freelancer Justin Sainton discussed in our recent interview. If you’re unsure about it, give it a trial run.
- Recruitment – If you regularly hire people, interns are a great way to have a ready pool of talent.
- Good Word of Mouth – Giving back always generates good will. By hiring interns you’re creating opportunities in your field and people will take notice. You’re being a good business neighbor.
How I Ended Up With an Intern
I always thought an intern would be too much work. I didn’t want to babysit a college student, and I didn’t trust handing my work off to someone else.
And that’s a potential danger.
But in my situation there were two factors working in favor of an intern:
- She had the drive to ask me about an internship out of the blue. That showed me she was a self-starter I wouldn’t have to babysit.
- When I called her references, the number one thing I wanted to know was if she was responsible. I didn’t care if she knew WordPress, I cared if she handed her work in on time. The answer: A resounding yes.
So I moved forward knowing I had a responsible candidate. She was motivated and willing to do the work.
I ended up with an intern because the opportunity fell in my lap.
But something funny happened: As I started thinking about the internship and mapping out my plans, I got really excited. The idea of having meetings, sharing my insights, and tackling some new projects really energized me.
It gave me the opportunity to reflect on what helped me out early in my career (and what didn’t), and how I could share those lessons with someone else. I really cherished the opportunity.
This is why you should have an internship. If something like this excites you and rejuvenates your work, do it.
What Your Intern Can Do
If you think bringing in an intern might be a good move for your company, you should first see what work you have for them to do. How much work do you think you could honestly hand off to a student?
Make a list of all the tasks you could pass off. Focus on the stuff you don’t like doing or find tedious. Not so you can load up the intern with menial tasks, but because that’s where beginners need to start. If there are easy tasks that are well below your skill level, that’s a realistic place for an intern to start. They should be handling some of your grunt work.
But also look for more challenging projects that can stretch an intern’s skill. Maybe you don’t want to trust an intern with an entire project, but is there a self-contained part of the project you can let them tackle?
How much work you come up with might determine how involved the internship is. Some internships are full time. I didn’t have that much work and wasn’t paying my intern, so I stuck with just 10 hours a week. It was enough to get work done and earn some experience, but it still allowed her to have a paying job on the side.
How to Make the Most of an Intern
Once you decide you’re up for an intern and you figure out what they can do, you need to make the most of this relationship. You’ll need to put some work into it to make sure it’s a win for everybody.
- Clear Goals – Every project you give your intern should have clear objectives and deadlines. What do you want them to do? When is it due? Do you have specific expectations? Make sure all of those are clearly communicated. Sometimes you need to over-communicate.
- Regular Check-Ins – You’re handing your work over to a newbie—you better check in with them often to field questions, course correct and just see how they’re doing. You can back off if things are going well, but that’s better than checking in too late and find out they’re doing it wrong.
- Be Available – Those regular check-ins are important, but don’t force your intern to save all their questions until your weekly meeting. Be available to answer questions as they come up, either with an open door, instant messaging or whatever works for you. This will help your intern stay on track and deliver work the way you want it.
- What Do They Need? – A good way to make the internship experience beneficial for everyone is to figure out what your intern needs and help them get it. What are their career ambitions? Where do they need more experience? Find ways to give them that on-the-job experience. Getting the most out of your intern requires giving them your most (it’s a two-way street).
- Pour Into Them – Assignments for your intern shouldn’t just be work projects that benefit you. Help educate them about the industry. Require them to blog, start using Twitter, set up a LinkedIn profile. Whatever you think is helpful, show them how to do it.
- Give Praise – Remember to praise your intern when they’re doing good work. Positive reinforcement can do wonders. It will create a better work environment, creates a positive feedback loop and will result in better work all around. Don’t let your intern wonder if they’re doing a good job or not.
- Network – Teach your intern how to network. It’s not a skill they usually teach in college, but it’s crucial. Meet a colleague for coffee and take your intern along. Help them set up an informational interview with someone in the industry. Take them to local meetup groups and introduce them to people.
- Give Back – It depends on the industry, but a lot of internships aren’t compensated very well. My internship was unpaid. If your compensation isn’t great, then make up for it by giving back when you can. Pay for the coffee when you have meetings, buy any books you recommend for the job, take your intern out to lunch once in a while. You are taking away from your time by investing in an intern and they should be grateful, but they’re also giving up a higher paid job or a better opportunity. So show that you’re grateful too. It’s a two-way street.
You might have noticed that a lot of these ways to get the most out of your intern involve more of what you can give to your intern. That’s how it works. Yes, you want to get good work out of your intern. But an intern is not a regular employee. They’re here to learn. The more you can invest in them and deliver for them, the better work they’re going to deliver. If you deliver a rock star internship experience, you’ll create a rock star intern.
How an Intern Can Make the Most of an Internship
There are lots of things an intern should know about how to make the most of an opportunity. They can figure that out somewhere else. But there’s one thing your intern should know, and you need to make sure they know it:
What an intern gets out of an internship is up to them.
You can provide an incredible internship and do everything in your power to make it an incredible experience. But your intern is only going to get out of it as much as they put into it.
They have to tell you what they need. They have to own up to their inexperience and be willing and open to grow. If they want to waffle about their career path, then there’s not a lot you can do. If they’re not open about where they want to go, you can’t do much to help get them there. If they’re not willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to deliver, then you’re not going to go above and beyond to deliver for them.
An internship is a two-way street (sensing a theme?).
How to Get an Intern
So how do you actually get an intern? This might be the trickier part. The right situation doesn’t always come along.
- Be Findable – My intern emailed me out of the blue, so I might not be the expert on how to find an intern. But she found me because my company was findable in a local search for my industry. So make sure you’re visible.
- Make It Known – A low-key way to start looking for an intern is to let people know you’re looking. Ask around on social media. Put a job description up on your site and invite people to apply. You don’t have to roll out the banners, but simply make it known that you’re looking.
- Advertise – If you’re serous about it, go beyond just making it known and advertise it. List the position on job board sites. Look for intern listings and add your name.
- Reach Out – If you want to find a good connection, you’ll need to reach out. Contact the appropriate department at local colleges and let them know you’re looking for strong, motivated students. A lot of schools have a career services department, and that might be a good place to start. But be sure to contact the department too. Sometimes students don’t always make it out of their departments and down to career services. And sometimes the well-meaning folks in career services know nothing about your industry and won’t realize they’re sending you the wrong candidates.
Consider an Internship
Bringing on an intern isn’t for everyone. Not all of us can be teachers. Some of us don’t have the patience or the time or the temperament. But some of us do. For some of us, it will be like something you didn’t realize you were missing.