2015-2016 Ambassador of Entrepreneurship
Neff Entrepreneurial Intern Fellow
So you’ve decided to turn down the free dinners at Google, the microkitchens at Facebook, the Napa excursions of LinkedIn. You’ve decided to try out an early-stage startup for the summer in-between your business school years. And as you try to sort out what enterprise recruiting actually means, hopefully my little bit of advice would be helpful.
If you think from the startup’s perspective on what it means to hire an MBA for the summer, it’s a pretty costly experience – an MBA intern comes in with fairly high expectations on their contribution and impact, with little technical and engineering contribution and potentially limited content expertise, and is looking to get paid a decent amount and get high visibility in the company.
And specifically at that point, early-stage startups are scrambling to find product-market fit, reducing their burn rate from their last fundraise, and looking to push the next product out as quickly as possible with information heavily centralized with a few visionaries who have little time to babysit a new employee.
So the dichotomy between the two motivations are pretty wide. So what can you do to get into an early-stage startup? Say ‘yes, and..’.
“We have a lot of flat data we need to input into our new database – can you help?” – “Yes, and I can create a new process to standardize data entry.”
“We haven’t been able to track executive team OKRs in a meaningful manner – can you interview each one?” – “Yes, and I can put together a slide for your quarterly board meeting highlight growth over the last 3 months”
Don’t be afraid of doing the grunt work – in all honesty, you’re probably more useful doing the work that other people don’t want to do. Optimize for diversity of experience – you’ll learn just as much as doing the grunt work as doing the high-level strategic work. Once you’ve shown that you can walk, there is endless greenfield for you to run in.
Picking the right startup is by no means a simple solution, but I can offer what I did as a data point. I looked at my previous set of experiences, and distilled down to a few functional skills what I could offer. From there, I looked at a few sectors that had interesting, macro-level developments, and reached out – through a warm introduction if possible – to a handful of companies that seemed to be positioned to do well. I started with at least an informational interview to better understand the company and escalated it further to interview for a role (or propose one if one didn’t exist).
So what did I learn in my summer at an early-stage tech company? Cue the Vitamin C graduation song.
Develop an expertise: being a jack-of-all-trades might be interesting, but being the go-to expert of a particular industry will be valuable
Don’t worry about your functional title or even role – that will change if you like it, and that will change if you don’t like it
At the end of the summer, don’t feel the pressure to drop out of school or work part-time at the startup – doing so isn’t the only indication of success or you making the most of your summer
How did you find the position?
I found my summer internship through the Technology Club Startup Trek – I helped organize that trek as a 1Y, and in doing so, was introduced to a handful of startup companies. URX in particular was a great fit give my interest in mobile, experience in ad tech, and desire to find something on the smaller side. I stayed in touch with John (the CEO), and re-engaged with them closer to the summer.
What was your motivation for working at a start-up this summer?
I wanted exposure on two separate fronts: working at an early-stage company with a strong technical product, and see whether I liked being in San Francisco. Finding a meaningful role at a technical company was particularly challenging as I don’t have any engineering experience, but by (1) knowing what you’re looking for, and (2) having the tenacity to not loosen that filter especially later and later in the academic year was critical.
What advice would you give to students interested in working at a start-up this summer?
At many early-stage startups not run by MBAs – there is no inherent role or position for MBA students – being able to operate in a very ambiguous environment is critical, as well as having some hunger to not only do the really awesome high-flying strategy work but also the pretty dirty, slightly grunt-y work would help you both appreciate the startup experience as well as become really valuable to the organization.