Career Advice, Watercooler

Tips To Land An Internship At A Start-Up Or Small Business

Summer work is showing up superbly this month.

It’s a great time to look for a summer internship – especially if you’re searching outside of the Fortune 500 and other giant companies.

Small companies and start-ups may just now be wondering how they will manage the vacation-heavy months of July and August or who’s going to help handle the surge in business. They’re developing posts that will show up this month; March is usually the peak month for internship job postings, according to job search site , which offers advice for would-be interns on its blog.

“Every day it’s something new” at a start-up company, said Daniel Aguiar, Santa Clara University’s executive director for entrepreneurship programs. Interns could end up taking on a broad array of duties – from assisting with the business plan to developing a website to sales calls with the CEO – if they work for a company with only a few paid staffers.

Here are some ideas from Aguiar on where to seek start-up and small company opportunities:

  • Head to business incubators and business parks. Incubators can house 20 to 100 start-ups and growing companies, so bring a lot of resumes along. Business parks may have dozens of prospects too, many of them below the radar.
  • Read up on who’s revving up. A company that has just landed an angel investor or some new funding may want some bright young talent. So will one with a major new client. So check the business journals, small business magazines and blogs, and watch the chamber and economic development newsletters for profiles and news that shows promise.
  • Look to lawyers and alumni associations. Both may be fertile grounds to identify small business owners and start-ups, Aguiar said.

Small businesses have been creating more jobs than the major ones recently.  For each of the last three months, small employers, those with fewer than 50 workers, have added 100,000 jobs, according to the ADP National Employment report. That’s way more than the larger companies with 500 and more workers. Small company job growth may be less obvious because it comes in ones or twos not 200 at a time, but the totals add up.

Understand that interning or working for a small company can feel very different than a huge company. Expect a start-up to be less structured and to offer less support than a major company. Most have no one handling human resources and the founders are probably working 70-hour weeks already. Plus they may have fewer forms and more personality, or quirks.

Start-ups don’t work for everyone, Aguiar said. One student told him: “It’s way too chaotic.”

Students need to show they’re very flexible and have a breadth of academic or other experience to land at a small company. “Show a lot of initiative. They’re going to look for fit, someone who’s a go-getter,” Aguiar said. Demonstrate that you’re proactive and a good communicator.

At Santa Clara University, the university places up to 100 people a year at a variety of start-ups, and  three-quarters or so of them are unpaid.  Even if the start-up internship is unpaid, you can try to negotiate a stipend or even an equity stake in the company. One student ended up with 5 percent in the start-up he worked for and others have received stock or stock options too, Aguiar said. Or go to your professor and ask for an independent study built around your internship so you’re earning credit at least. Another payoff: Many result in full-time jobs after graduation.