Dear MBAs, go the extra mile when pursuing a startup internship

MBA recruiting programs focus almost entirely on on-campus recruiting.  Students are wined and dined literally on day #1 by large companies such as McKinsey, BCJ, General Mills, JP Morgan.  It's an unbelievable process with expensive dinners, networking sessions, mountains of shwag.  Remember, MBA programs are designed to help people prepare for the very careers these companies are offering.  The integration of the career development office and the structure of the MBA program is almost seamless.  Most of that process takes place in the fall, culminating in on-campus interviews in late January.


By the time you get to April/May/June when startups are ready to seriously think about hiring interns, the vast majority of the class already has their BigCo internship.  And because those BigCo internships will most likely lead to full-time offers, those MBAs have a sense of certainty and stability that can be very alluring.  They have large paychecks coming, pre-internship retreats at fancy resorts, Facebook groups filled with successful, attractive people, mentor assigned, etc.


There are two types of MBAs that apply for a startup job in the late spring: those that failed at snagging a BigCo internship and those that deliberately waited.  For the former, they are beaten down and depressed, desperately looking for a plan B.  For the latter, they deserve kudos for sticking to their guns.  Regardless of whether it was deliberate or not, an MBA pursuing an internship needs to understand that the process can take just as much work as getting a BigCo internship--only, there's no career development process bringing startups to campus to make it super easy.

I've seen most MBAs fail at getting good internships with early stage startups.




I had an MBA come into our office a couple of weeks ago to seek advice on getting an internship with a startup this summer.  I asked him what he wanted to do, and he responded:


"I'm willing to do anything.  I could help do analysis, anything with excel/powerpoint, could help raise money--really anything.  I just want to be involved."




Let's translate this sentence from the perspective of a founder:

Willing to do anything:  You have no idea what we do on a day-to-day basis and you'll need me to figure out something to do to keep you busy.

I could help do analysis, anything with excel/powerpoint:  You basically have two skills, both involving Microsoft office products.  You'll spend a week on the most complex, gorgeous spreadsheet I've ever seen, totally ignoring that fact that it's garbage in, garbage out.  

could help raise money: You think that your presentation skills are so good that you'd be better in front of investors than the actual founder.  You don't understand that investors look for determination, passion, technical ability, and authenticity. 

I just want to be involved: Your classmates have sweet-ass internships with consulting firms and banks, getting paid $25k to party all summer.  You're making a huge sacriface to be here.  We should be so lucky to have you!  We just have to make sure we keep you entertained all summer.


There's a place for an MBA like this--it's just with a bigger company that has a more formalized internship program.  Series A and pre-funded startups don't have time for this sort of mindset.  They need 100% of the people on board building stuff, not strategizing on stuff.  A non-technical startup person needs to be kicking ass on user experience mock-ups, business development, marketing, social media, SEO.  They should be bringing their execution skills to the table, not asking for a good learning experience.


Contrast this with a hacker that contacted us recently for an internship.  He first contacted us through twitter by RT'ing us and responding to interesting posts.  He then showed us his open source projects and then offered to spend his spring break hacking with us.  In two weeks, he really helped us move forward on some big architecture problems.  I would do anything for him--hire him, recommend him, anything.  I've never seen his resume, read his cover letter, or checked a reference on him.  But he knew how to contribute.



MBAs!  You too can contribute through an internship!  But YOU have to go the extra mile.


A few suggestions for getting a job with a startup:


1. Pick the right size of start-up where your current skill set can be utilized

2. Read the startup's blog and add to the discussion with insightful comments

3. Follow the founders on Twitter and RT and @respond when appropriate

4. Engage with the general startup community: Build up your twitter account, blog readership, and Hacker News karma score

5. Learn the startup's actual challenges by talking to people in advance of requesting an internship

6. Propose your own internship project

7. Do an unsolicited proof-of-abilities project in photoshop or balsamiq if you want to be product manager

8. Do an unsolicited SEO analysis if you want to do marketing

9. Be respectful but uber-persistant

10. Move to where you want to work

11. Accept the fact that the best opportunities become available in May and June

12. Get other founders to highly recommend you

13. Throw away your resumes and cover letters--they're no longer needed.


Most importantly, try to internalize the risks a startup CEO faces when bringing in a non-technical MBA intern.  The actual cost is probably not much if the company has already raised money and if the internship is subsidized by the MBA program.  The real cost is in focus, time, and company culture.  Getting a startup to devote their time to you is a huge risk to them and you need to prove that that risk is worth it.  


In contrast, a large company will treat its internship program as mostly an advanced hiring process.  You don't actually need to contribute that much since the internship is little more than an extended interview process.  For startups, they can't even think about hiring that far into the future, so you have to be worth it on contributed value alone.



Find discussion of this post on Hacker News.



I'm Jason Freedman.  I co-founded FlightCaster.  

I would be remiss not to recommend the following opportunity: @JasonFreedman.

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6 responses
Jason, I think that you have some valid points in the suggestions, but are being a bit harsh in the initial part of the post. Most MBAs are slammed with work, pushing themselves through a program taking on large amounts of debt and may have employer investment in their progress. With that said, asking someone to come up with their own project is a bit much - like you said, start-ups are dynamic, constantly changing environments: to have someone come in an imply that they understand your business, where your priorities are, and how to answer those challenges in a 3 month period may be presumptive, at worst arrogant.

I like the MBA that walks in and says I can do anything. "Perfect" is my answer, then help them find and hone what that project should be, based on needs and priority. Along with everything that happens after that -participation / regular check-ins / integration with the team and the MBA's overall utility will probably be the measure of their worth.

I'm pre-disposed to think that MBAs suck and that the majoirty of those programs are time-wasters and paper-promotion kindling, but honestly some of those candidate are looking to become more well-rounded from where their initial education may have taken them. Granted, the count for those might be few, but if you happened to have one walk in the door and tell you that they'd do anything, that they are excited to be a part of your company and they're willing to do whatever it takes. I'd probably take them up on it.

I don't really believe that applicants for start up jobs haven't done their homework on the company, it's the only way you even hear about who's doing anything in the entrepreneurial world.

Good post, thought provoking, fun to respond too!

nick hall

founder | sketchl tv

good use of "oy".
There are a ton of MBA students who are interested in being an entrepreneur. There is not a log of MBA training that prepares you for what it is like to actually be an entrepreneur.

MBAs who want to get into a startup company need to bring a distinctive skillset. Can they write? do they understand how to do emerging product/technology management? can they do business development work? have powerpoint skills? -- pitch to prospective customers? can they use their student status to do market research where the company cannot reach?

There is a ton that they can do. Most 20-something MBAs have no idea what it is like to be in a technology startup and the vast amount of grunt work that the C's and V's do day in and day out to keep things running.

I just graduated with my MBA and followed a similar plan for getting my internship last year with a startup based out of the NYC area. I contacted a company that was working in a field I was passionate about, sent them an email explaining who I was, what I could do and how I felt it could help them. They didn't respond.

So I did it again, adding that I know they didn't have any internship positions open but I knew what I wanted to do with my life and thought that this would be a great opportunity for me to help them grow their business. I also offered to fly myself up to NYC from Atlanta to meet with them if they were interested in talking further. This time they got back to me.

I went up there the week after spring semester ended, talked with the two founders and a couple other people, and had an offer that afternoon. No, I didn't make a ton of money, but I got to work with a young and growing company, meet their VCs and clients, and ride to work with one of the founders every day talking about strategies for growing businesses and fundraising.

It was an amazing experience and now I have a couple more people in the startup scene who are willing to vouch for me and the work I can do. That plane ticket was the best couple hundred dollars I've ever spent.

I was lucky enough to get an internship at a cool start-up with some of the approaches you recommend in your post even though I didn't see this until just now. Some of these comments are excellent as well. You were one of my favorite hosts during our Bay Area tour and I have no doubt you'll be one of the best speakers when you come to Fuqua. See you soon.
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