Working for a startup can be a very rewarding experience. Doing an internship at one can offer opportunities for greater responsibility and growth than larger, established companies. Furthermore, you may have the opportunity to work on interesting emerging technologies, and establish yourself in a fast-growing industry. A startup internship can also lead to a full time job later if you get a return offer, and with that might come some equity as well.
Identify companies you’re actually interested in
Start by thinking about what kind of company you’d be interested in working for. Are you interested in machine learning? How about VR? What about the company’s mission? Maybe you want to help humanity become an interplanetary species. Whatever it is, do some research into the different players in the field and what they’re working on. It helps to be interested in what the company does so that when you talk to startups, your passion and understanding of their business comes across to them.
To add to this, make sure you do some background research on any company you want to apply to in order to understand what they do and the state of the business. This will not only help you figure out if it’s a place you’d like to work, but when reaching out to current employees, or in an interview, you can show off your knowledge about that specific company, which always looks good on you. If you aren’t sure about a particular company, or want more information, try reaching out to current or previous interns on LinkedIn and asking them about their experience. Sometimes, you’ll even be able to get a referral by doing this.
You can find interesting startups that are hiring by browsing job listings on sites like:
To find smaller local companies, you can also check out startup incubator programs in your area. Sometimes these are run or sponsored by a university or the city. You can also browse the websites of venture capital firms, who sometimes maintain lists of job openings at their portfolio companies.
Develop useful, applicable skills
Startups, by nature, are more strapped for resources than larger, more mature companies. Thus, they don’t have time to spend on interns that can’t produce value for the company. Make sure that you have something you can offer prospective employers. Furthermore, it’s good to have some way to show off your skills, whether that’s previous work experience, or side projects you worked on. Also, joining a related club at your school, or taking an online course, can help you differentiate yourself from other candidates. If you don’t have applicable skills for the jobs you’re applying for, you will have a much more difficult time landing a position. In this situation, your best bet is probably to rely on your network.
For aspiring software engineers, try looking at startup job postings to see what technologies companies are hiring for. Check out what the most in demand skills are in the field you’re interested in and start learning those to get an edge. You don’t have to be familiar with everything or even be a master of anything, as long as you can more or less hit the ground running and start working on tasks relatively quickly. Also, startups typically don’t do the same kind of technical interviews with leetcode questions that big companies like Google do. They usually will be more interested in projects you worked on, and are more likely to give you a take home project to judge your aptitude.
Oftentimes, smaller startups won’t be hiring interns at all (officially anyways). If they are hiring, submit an application online to their job posting. If you know someone who works for the company, reach out and let them know. They may be able to bring your application to the top of the pile. If the company hasn’t posted any intern jobs, don’t despair. There will often be a way specified on their careers page to apply generally, even if there’s no position available for you. If there isn’t an obvious way to do this, then try reaching out directly to a current employee, or the founders themselves.
Look on LinkedIn for employees, and find someone who works in the kind of role you’re hoping to have, preferably a manager. If the company is under 10 people, it’s usually worth contacting the founders directly. Let them know that you’re very interested in their company, and summarize how you and your skills fit their company and will help them achieve their mission. Hopefully, this will lead to an interview, but if it doesn’t, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of interesting startups in the world.
A note on unpaid internships
There’s no shortage of unpaid internship opportunities being offered by startups trying to get some temporary free labour. While this seems like an easy way to get your foot in the door and gain real world experience, there are hidden dangers to this strategy.
Firstly, if you have living expenses to take care of, and/or relocation expenses to move to another city for the job, it could end up costing you thousands of dollars out of pocket. Second, if a company cannot afford to pay you for a few months as an intern, their finances might be in very poor shape. Do you want to take the risk of accepting an internship at a startup that might go bust before or during your internship? Third, if they aren’t paying you for your time, they likely don’t expect to get enough value from you to make a return on their investment. Companies that pay their interns have an incentive to give you more important tasks that will help them in a meaningful way. Companies that don’t may be more willing to give menial tasks or even busywork because they don’t have to use your talents efficiently. Conversely, because they don’t have to pay you for your time, some companies might be happy to exploit you, because if you’ve valued your time as zero, they might see it the same way. Also, they won’t have to pay you overtime.
In most jurisdictions, unpaid internships are legal as long as they meet certain conditions, although this is not always true. Make sure you do the research for your area to make sure you and your employer are following the law. Generally, it is not advisable to take an unpaid internship. There are a lot of risks involved and it undercuts the rest of the labor market. The only time it might be a good option for you is if you’re extremely desperate to get some work experience, and money isn’t a problem for you.