Why My Summer Startup Internship Ruined My Life: An Editorial

summer intern holding chalk sign summer startup internship

Greetings! I’m Danielle, a close-to-graduating college student driven by ambition and fueled by Red Bull. I’m similar to my university-aged colleagues in that I am a vessel for my hopes and dreams and am navigating through life with blinkers at the ready—waiting to see the turns in the road that will lead me toward achieving my goals. We’re all trying to find our passion. I’d like to share where my career path has taken me in hopes of bringing clarity to the course of your journey.

In the spring of this year, I was an intern at one of the top multinational conglomerate businesses. I was on track for landing a corporate job which would develop my finance skills, allow me to slowly and steadily climb the ladder, and live comfortably in my 20s (which is an important consideration for us millennials who are currently saddled by student debt and a frustrating job market). But then, I learned about the Startup Colorado’s program, Startup Summer, and on the advice of a friend, I looked into it. I wasn’t 100% convinced I wanted to leave my current position unless it was the absolute perfect fit and at first, nothing particularly struck me. After a few weeks, something popped up that I couldn’t ignore. A scrappy marketplace lender out of Denver, Colorado, was looking for an intern to support their marketing department. I knew my background in finance, marketing, and entrepreneurship would be the perfect triple threat to not only land me the job, but hopefully allow me to contribute in a meaningful way.

I got the job. And after only two weeks, I knew I was ruined. You might say I drank the Denver Kool-aide (it’s made of craft beer so can you really blame me?), or you might say I’ve been blinded by the shiny lights of startupland. Maybe at some point the novelty will wear off, but I hope it doesn’t. What I do know is after a relatively short period of time working for a startup, my life and career goals have shifted significantly, and the comfortable, corporate career roadmap I’d built for myself is long gone.

Startup work certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s a constant challenge. But for anybody else who has recently graduated or will soon graduate from college and is actively trying to find their passion, I hope I can convince you to seek out your local entrepreneurs and give an internship in startupland a try. Here’s why:

1. You’ll get the experience you want… and then some.

If you manage to land a job at a corporate company, you’ll probably walk in on your first day expecting to perform job functions that at least faintly resemble the skills you said you possessed during your interview (which you probably tailored to fit the job description almost exactly). Sorry to break it to you, folks, but you’ll most likely be disappointed. I’m not saying you won’t have at least one cool project to work on. What I am saying is the majority of your work is going to comprise the gritty, daily tasks your boss and colleagues don’t want to do themselves. At a startup, it’s almost completely the opposite.

Your interview will be confusing—why is this crazy person asking what my spirit animal is? You’ll likely be puzzled about what you’re going to be working on for the next three months after discussing a myriad of project options that dabble in virtually every department. But here’s what’s actually happening: Startups have a lot of business needs to fill, and if they’re good at anything it’s allocating resources wisely and efficiently. They’ve probably already looked at your resume and want to gauge your interest in a few places where they think you can really contribute that they don’t have the time/resources to tackle themselves. My suggestion here—pick your poison wisely because once you do, you’ll be thrown into that pool head first and expected to deliver results.

 2. You’ll learn how to set your own expectations

Because startups are working hard to achieve hockey-stick growth with limited human resources and capital, there is virtually no limit to the number of projects you can take on if you choose to. If you’re a high-achiever driven by results and project completion, this is your Nirvana. As soon as you successfully complete one task, you can identify another need and rise to the challenge. Your learning potential is virtually uncapped.

It’s so different from the bureaucratic red-tape you typically encounter at larger companies where your expectations and functions are clearly outlined and it’s challenging to navigate outside of them. This kind of self-guided goal setting is an invaluable skill to develop early in your career.

 3. You’ll learn what it means to work lean and be agile

Startups don’t have a lot of cash to burn or resources to waste. Even if they’re funded, it’s not exactly what you think. Your team is operating on a minimal budget and trying to maximize results. This makes working at a startup incredibly creative. You’ll learn how to appropriately measure and quantify your contributions to the company and why it’s so important to make sure every dollar spent or hour burned is moving the needle. If it’s not, you’ll quickly figure out how to adjust and shift focus.

Large corporations do this too (in their own way), but unless your internship spans a few quarters, you likely won’t be around to witness the changes. At a startup, you’ll move through the process of testing, measuring, and reviewing results almost weekly. Working with limited resources is an incredibly valuable skill you can bring to future jobs. Learning how to report on your cadence and showcase the impact of your work will help you set and reach your personal and professional goals down the road.

4. You’ll build great contacts

Members of the startup community are very willing to give support and help each other out in any way they can. There are events almost weekly where like-minded entrepreneurs come to share, challenge each other, and act as a sounding board for ideas. I’ve met so many key players in the startup community not just from Denver, but all over the Front Range and received invaluable advice on steps I should take to build my career. And I now have a network of people who I know I can turn to for advice and guidance.

Also, building this kind of wide-reaching network will prove invaluable as you continue your job hunt. You’ll build relationships with investors, incubators, other entrepreneurs, and startup groups and communities who you can reach out to down the road. It’s been a game-changing realization to learn that the majority of the best job opportunities are shared person-to-person in back channels. If two people are equally qualified then it usually goes to the person the hiring manager already knows, likes, and trusts. Fair or not, that’s the way it generally goes. So, every single new contact or friend you make is worth their weight in gold. Through Summer Startup Colorado, I’ve built a huge network of successful people in the startup community.

5. You’ll leave feeling inspired

Entrepreneurs are engaging, welcoming, and passionate—you have to be to be crazy enough to start your own business. On an emotional level, surrounding yourself with people who are highly motivated, eager, and optimistic can have an incredible impact. I truly believe being surrounded by so many entrepreneurs these past few months has transformed how I’m going to navigate the rest of my life. These folks have provided me with invaluable resources and knowledge (check out the lessons I learned from the Colorado Tech Association’s Women in Tech conference).  Although new ventures are very risky, they make the payoff of being your own CEO seem incredibly worth it.

All in all…

Regardless of your career goals, I highly encourage soon-to-be or recent graduates to try out a startup internship. If you’re still unsure of your path, check it out anyway and I promise you will learn a lot about yourself, your passions, and how to apply your skills in a work setting. It will serve as a catalyst for personal creativity and help lead you to your goals. You need to be hungry and ready to hustle—but you can do it in your jeans which is pretty awesome.

For people who need something really high to reach for, my experience tells me a traditional internship just won’t cut it. I made the decision to venture out and try a non-traditional career route, and I’m never going back. Many of us dream of creating new things with super motivated people. At a startup, you’ll be disrupting industries and innovating alongside your colleagues. If you want to be given real responsibilities and gain remarkable skills, then do yourself a favor and look into summer startup internships.

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