Co-founder of the ed/tech startup AdmitSee.com shares how to build a virtual internship program and why it’s important to early stage startups. By Lydia Fayal (Co-founder, AdmitSee.com)
When we came up with the idea for AdmitSee.com in the fall of 2012, people didn’t believe college students would upload their very personal college application files. We needed confirmation from real students, so we took to the road: passing out AdmitSee sunglasses and flyers at various orientation events in the northeast. Shockingly, we didn’t get that many questions about privacy (Facebook had, after all, been around since these students were seven years old)… Instead, the most common inquiry was: Are you hiring interns? We saw an opportunity.
Interns are critical to a lean startup, especially one targeting high school and college students. They keep costs down and serve as guinea pigs for product development. To date, we’ve hired more than 60 from 20 of the top U.S. colleges. Based on their feedback, we’ve added new features and pivoted our model to sell profiles through curated packages.
Here’s what I’ve learned about growing an internship program. I believe (at least, I hope) this is useful for all entrepreneurs!
Post on college job boards—it’s free and links improve SEO. Make sure to set the job location to their college town. You can also reach out to student groups focused on business or tech; they’ll email their members about the opportunity. Once you have interns, offer a referral bonus for recommending friends at unrepresented schools ($5 tends to work).
Keep the interviewing process informal. When an intern sends me their resume, I set up a Skype call. I provide background on AdmitSee, ask them about aspects of the site that could be improved and outline internship expectations.
Send weekly emails to interns. Be transparent about changes to the business model and new developments. Provide a variety of assignments so there’s something for everyone – even the extreme introvert. For example, they can write blog posts, grow our database of college counselors, recruit new users, and/or pitch stories to school newspapers.
We send individual interns special projects (e.g. translating content, editing blogs, designing ads). These assignments require follow-up Skype calls and meetings, usually with my partner, Stephanie Shyu, or project manager, Jiangeng Zhang.
Utilizing their Networks
Getting people to try something new is an uphill battle. Think of interns as your evangelists – sharing and explaining the startup with their networks. College students are incredibly well connected. They’re on listservs and Facebook groups for fraternities, majors, student groups, dorms, etc.
We pay our interns to draft emails to these groups and we offer a referral commission. We also ask them to contact high school students, teachers, guidance counselors, and college consultants whom they’ve worked with. We provide email templates and require they bcc us on emails to monitor quality.
It’s important to pay interns and provide incentives for outstanding work. We state how much we’ll pay for each task in the weekly emails. Payments are based on time estimates ($10/hr). We also offer bonuses for user referrals and results. For example, we’ll offer $5 for reaching out to a reporter, plus a bonus of $40 if an article is published about AdmitSee (like this article in USC’s Daily Trojan). We pay interns as independent contractors and send money through PayPal.
It’s important to remember why college students apply for internships: they want to build their resumes. I always ask our interns what types of work experience they hope to gain. If they say they don’t know, I ask them how they’d want to describe this internship in their resume. We’ll create an assignment so they can then gain that experience.
I credit much of our success to date to our team of dedicated interns. They’ve contributed invaluable feedback and are responsible for most of our early customer acquisition. No matter what kind of startup you’re working on, I highly recommend building your base with interns.
Have you been inspired to take on interns?
About the writer: Lydia is the co-founder of AdmitSee.com, a social media / e-commerce hybrid where college students share their application essays and advice. Over the past decade, she has worked with a variety of test prep and college consulting companies, including Kaplan and Omnitest Prep.