Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What to do over Winter Break to get an internship with a startup

I often get asked by students what they need to do to get an internship with a startup.  I've listed many of the resources I suggest on the internships page on the DukeGEN website.

I have also seen students work their way into internships over the last few years, and want to share some general strategies that I've seen work.  This is targeted at students who are conducting an "off campus" search and want to land in a startup (though it may work just as well for larger companies).

1) Figure out where you want to live.

Brad Feld (Foundry Group, TechStars) gives the advice of first choosing where you want to live, and that advice resonates with me.  A lot of students I work with can answer this question pretty well, but some can't.

- For a few of you, it will be plainly obvious.  Maybe you want to live near family, or maybe you are enamored with a city.

- For many of you, there will be a few choices.  Maybe you could see yourself in San Francisco or New York City.  In that case, take the exercises below, and do them for each city.

- For some of you, you have no preference.  You could live anywhere.  I would then challenge you to do your best to prioritize.  Try to select your "top 5" and then do the exercises below for each of them.  I will warn you, spreading yourself across 5 cities will be difficult.  If possible, whittle it down to 1-2 while you are doing the following exercises.

Undecided? If you want to max out your startup experience, I would highly recommend spending time in Silicon Valley. As I look back on my experiences, this is something I wish I had done.  And having spent some time there (a week in 2007) and hosting events there (DukeGEN Angel Pitch events in 2010 and 2011), the vibe and startup culture are really impressive.  It feels like almost everyone is starting a company or connected to a startup in some way.

In comparison, Boston (lived there four years), New York City (lived there one year, hosted two Angel Pitch events), and Washington DC (lived there three years).  Those are all great places for starting a company, but I don't think the entrepreneurship culture is as prevalent and celebrated there as it is in Silicon Valley.

Of course, there are many other locations to get startup experience.  It's probably equally important, if not more important that:

- You are working with someone who will teach you things. Who are you working with? (they should be willing to teach you).  Are you going to see important decisions get made or are you just another body to help out? Will you have access to observe important things happen in the startup?

- You are working at a startup you believe in. What is the startup doing? (choose a startup that you think is doing something really interesting).

- You choose a startup that you can reference later in your career.  Is it something that builds your experience in an industry you are interested in?  Or builds a skillset you are interested in?  There is "reputational equity" that you get by working at a startup - try to pick startups that will have a good reputation later.  For example, if you interned at Twitter when it was starting, that would have been a good investment.  If you interned at a startup that has failed, that may be harder for you to sell.

Regardless, if you have a target location in mind, I would start now to develop your network and experience in that location.

2) Within that location, figure out which startups are on your Bullseye lists.

A Bullseye company list (also may be called an ABC list) is a great piece of advice that the Fuqua Career Management Center (thanks Meg Flournoy) gave to me back when I was an MBA student.  It's kinda similar to how a lot of students applying to school will create their "Reach, Match, and Safety" schools that they will apply to.

The goal is to create three sets of companies that you would want to work at, from the most desirable to the least desirable (but still acceptable).

A - Center of the bullseye. These are your ideal companies.  Pick 5-10.  These are the ones you would love to work at. Basically the idea is, "If you could just choose any company and get the job, what company would it be?".
B - 2nd ring of the bullseye. These are your companies that would be good to work at.  Again pick 5-10.
C - Outer ring of the bullseye. These are your "safety" companies.  You would be ok working there for a few years, but you aren't thrilled about it.

Are you having trouble figuring out what kind of startup interests you?  Then you might do what Duke alum Liz Reaves Walker did.  She read the Wall Street Journal each day and noted the things that were personally interesting to her.

3) How do you find these startup companies?  

First of all, check out our list of internship resources on the DukeGEN website.

More generally, I think your best bets are:

1) Portfolio companies of venture capital firms that are local to that community.  You can also look at Angel Groups/Funds in that community.

2) Local venture conferences where startup companies demo (look at the listings from the last few years, as some of the companies that pitched a few years ago are now ready to hire if they've raised money).

3) Porftolio companies of local incubators (TechStars, Y Combinator, etc...).

Here is a good listing of incubators.

Duke has alumni at MuckerLabs (LA), TechStars NYC, DreamIt Ventures (Philadelphia), Shotput Ventures (Atlanta), Joystick Labs (RTP, NC) and Dogpatch Labs (Palo Alto, CA).

Duke has also had some alumni that have recently gone through:
  • TechStars Boulder (Yoav Lurie, Justin Segall of SimpleEnergy)
  • Y Combinator (Howie Liu of Etacts, Jason Freedman of FlightCaster, with Kathryn Minshew of The Daily Muse, and Chris Morton about to start)
  • TechStars NYC (David Goldberg, Contently)

4) Start looking at the tech journals and business journals from that local region.
- For example, in North Carolina, there is the WRAL Local TechWire, and TechJournal South.
- More generally you might start to read TechCrunch and Mashable, which are the big names in the larger techsphere.  GigaOM is also great (sign up for their daily newsletter).

5) If there is a local non-profit that focuses on startups, get connected to them.
- For example, in North Carolina we have the Council for Entrepreneurial Development.
- In Silicon Valley, there is Joint Venture Silicon Valley
- In New York City, check out the New York Tech Meetup

And of course, join the Duke Global Entrepreneurship Network (DukeGEN) on LinkedIn, with over 3,000 Duke members.

4) Start Networking

Personally, I used to think that "networking" was a bad word. Like it was the equivalent of "using someone". Just before starting my MBA in 2002, I heard someone talk about networking, and I had a strong negative reaction to it.

Networking is important.  And for many in the business world, it is common and accepted.  As a student, you may not have networked before, but you should take the time now to try it out.  Even if you make some mistakes, it's important to understand how networking works.

Why is networking important?  There is a highly cited concept that Mark Granovetter published on called the "Strength of Weak Ties".  Basically it says that there's a lot of value in "weak ties", or the friends of friends.

In accordance with this research, many believe that you get a job, not through a good friend (a "strong tie"), but through a friend of a friend ("weak ties").  The takeaway?  You need to identify, build, and reach out to these weak ties, or else they won't know that you exist.

I think the key to networking is to find those people that are willing to help you, develop a real relationship with them (one that you could see continuing for years) as opposed to thinking of it as a transaction (just help me get a job right now), and do your best to provide some value to them.

Why network? I would argue that there is a strong correlation between the amount of networking you do, and the number of job opportunities you will see.  How many startups are out there?  Thousands.  How many will come to recruit on campus?  Maybe a few dozen.  Unless you are out there looking around, networking with folks, how will you find the thousands that are out there but not visible to you?  You need to talk to people.

As an example, one of my students recently used on-campus recruiting to get an interview with at Top 5 consulting firm.  He didn't get it.

He really wanted to get into a consulting firm (not a terrible choice for an undergraduate that wants to build a skillset to eventually jump into a startup).

So, I asked him how many consultants he had spoken to (aka How much networking have you done?).  It was a small number, maybe 2-3.

I told him that he needs to really grow that number, to 10-20, and that the more consultants he speaks to, the more opportunities he will find.

It's his senior year.  He only has about five months until he graduates.  This winter break it will be important for him to reach out to people, to lay the groundwork for finding opportunities and developing relationships with people.  Unfortunately, with the time pressure, it will be difficult.

The takeaway: Don't find yourself in the same situation.  Start to network before you need it.  It's much easier to network when you aren't stressed about "needing to find a job".

DISCLAIMER.  You could bypass steps 4 through 8 and just reach out to the startup you are interested and say "I'm interested in interning with you.  I like what you are doing and I'd be willing to work for free.  I'm available June - August".  In other words, it's possible a cold email will work.  Startups are often looking for help, and (depending on their size) don't have much in the way of resources (time, money) to find people.  If you reach out to them, there's a possibility they may say "yes".

5) How do you get the meeting?

So the next question is "How do you get the meeting"?

There's a few parts to this.

First, think of it like a key in a keyhole.  There are several tumblers, and you need to set each of the tumblers correctly to unlock the door. (Thanks to Peter Johnson for this analogy).

I think this analogy works for thinking of networking.  The people you are reaching out to are generally very busy.  They want to find a reason to say no to you.  They have their own priorities, and helping a student is usually not high on their list.  Or even if they want to help a student, they've been contacted by a few students already, so why should they help you?

Ways to get the meeting:

a) Warm intro: This is most important and hardest to get.  Do you know someone that knows them? Can they vouch for you?  Will they write an email intro for you?  If so, that may be the "master key" that unlocks the door all by itself.

Example of a warm intro email:

I want to introduce you to Jodie Smithson, a fellow Dukie '05.  She just started at Company X as manager for their technology programs.  She is trying to get an idea of what resources are already available, and what their company could do better for Duke students. It would be great if you guys could connect over the phone or a cup of coffee.

Hope to see you soon, and in the meantime I leave you two connected.

This warm intro makes it difficult to say no to this request.  It also turns out that the topic is one I am interested in, so the "key tripped all of the tumblers" and the door opened.  Meeting request accepted.

b) Same school: People from your alma mater or from the school you are at are generally more receptive.

c) Informational interview: You want to learn more about the industry (as opposed to just wanting a job).  You are "seeking advice".  These are things that people feel they can help with, without overcommitting themselves.

d) In person is better (see below): They "may" take you up on a phone call, but it's better if you can come to their office.  This makes it easiest for them.  I wouldn't suggest you invite them to coffee or lunch (but if they offer, then you can accept), because that takes more time out of their day.

e) Be "politely persistent".  I can't remember who coined this phrase, but it's a great one.  If you send one email and give up, then you almost shouldn't have tried.  I would suggest you send at least a few emails, maybe spaced about two weeks apart.  You might try a service like Boomerang to remind you of when you need to send an email.

f) Say something about yourself that is interesting enough/impressive enough that they will want to meet with you.  Perhaps you won an award at some competition?  Perhaps you are a fellow of some sort?  Perhaps you already did a summer internship at a startup?

g) Be working on a school project that could use their input.  Maybe it's a survey of all startups in the mobile sharing space?  Maybe it's a startup you have conceived of in the travel technology space?

Here's an example email:

My name is Fred Sampson.  My teammate, Melissa Proctor and I are currently enrolled in Duke's Program for Entrepreneur's class at Fuqua and are testing a new media business idea we call JetSetter.  JetSetter is a travel startup that seeks to make vacation booking simple for families looking for family friendly locations and deals.

Given your experience in the travel industry, Howie thought you would have some particularly valuable insight into our project.

Would you be available for a brief phone call to discuss the following questions?
  1. What is your personal opinion of the travel industry and it's future?
  2. What are the vacation destination companies thinking/planning?  How are they dealing with the “crisis”?
  3. What are their strategies for dealing with the apparent decline in vacation travel? How are they managing the transition to digital?
  4. What revenue models are they considering? How do the structural changes affect vacation travel?
  5. What new partnerships/joint ventures are they entertaining?
  6. What potential issues to do you see with our current business model?
If email is more convenient for you, that works for us too.

We appreciate any help and perspective you can offer!

h) Ultimately, I think you need to do your research.  Especially for your first few attempts, spend more time trying to figure out why they should talk to you.

6) Create your own "recruiting trip" in the city you want to live in.

This is something I think most students under-perform on.

It's easy to think of Fall Break, Winter Break and Spring Break, and even Summer Break as "down time".  But I have seen some students effectively utilize these as opportunities to create a "recruiting trip" to their target city.

For example: J. was a student who was really intent on landing in San Francisco. He took the lead on organizing the "official" student trips (called "Week-in-Cities" trips at Fuqua) to San Francisco, which also meant he got to email all of the companies he wanted to visit, and also got to set the agenda for which companies to visit.

In addition, he made additional trips back to San Francisco over Spring Break, Fall Break, and the summer, to reach out to more people.

By the time he was looking for a full-time position, he knew the landscape pretty well.  When he got an interview for a position, not only did he know the industry, but he also knew some of the players.  He credits his ability to land the job to the groundwork he laid with his trips.

7) How do you stay connected with your network?

This is hard to do. You want to be adding value without taking up too much time.

First of all, and unlikely, is that you find some way to work with the person.  Perhaps you are volunteering on some project that they need help with.  With some of my own students, the ones I work with the most (and therefore develop the strongest relationships with) are the ones that volunteer for the Duke Start-Up Challenge, for DukeGEN, or for the Program for Entrepreneurs.

There's a high opportunity cost for volunteering for someone, so make sure you are truly passionate about what you are doing, or that you really want to help this person.

Second, assuming you aren't volunteering for them, I think it's reasonable to write a once or twice a year update.  I love to get these. Something that says where you are, what you've been doing, what you're learning.  It's so easy to lose track of people that I want to keep in touch with.  When a student writes back with an update, it is really a wonderful thing.

Third, I find that some students do a good job of sending articles.  I do this myself, I will be on Twitter, find an article, and forward it to someone that I think it is relevant to.  I maybe do this once a week.  I just write a note at the beginning like "thought this would be of interest to you".  I try to only send stuff if I think it really would be valuable (as opposed to just sending marginally interesting articles).  I also try to send them directly to the person (not send the article to a whole bunch of people).

Fourth, and this is obvious, connect on LinkedIn, Twitter, and even Facebook (some people will welcome this, some prefer to keep Facebook more for personal contacts).

Ultimately, I think for you to stay connected to your network it needs to be a mutually beneficial connection. I've heard others describe it as a "authentic" or "real" relationship.  This has been true in my experience.  I won't feel connected to someone "just because" they're sending me articles once in a while, but I will feel connected if we have shared some good experiences (shared successes like running a great Duke Start-Up Challenge or DukeGEN Angel Pitch Event or great analysis in Program for Entrepeneurs).

A lot of networking relationships tend to fade away over time, but the ones where you are helping each other out and "in it together", those seem to stick around.

Back in 2005 I wrote down a list of my "top 250" contacts.  (I had read an article that suggested this).  As of now, about 6 years later, I'd say that
- 80% are people I'd feel comfortable reaching out to now (have kept good relationships, or built enough of a relationship at the time that they would remember me)
- 20% are people that I can only barely remember (I met them once, but haven't had significant follow up since then).  Some have moved away, or aren't in this space/industry any more.

Of the 80%, I'd say that:
- 20-50% I work with on a fairly regular basis (quarterly)
- maybe 20% I work with very regularly.

The takeaway:  Find real reasons to be in a relationship with this person.  And find ways to add value for that person.

8) How do you tap into your network to find an internship with a startup?

As a student, I didn't quite understand how to utilize the network I had.  I remember as a first year MBA student, I reached out to someone I had met once before and I basically asked "Do you have an internship spot available for this summer?".  That's really forward of me (too forward).  Try not to do that.

Instead, I think the way to work with your network is to subtly put out there what you are doing.  It might be an update like.

"I have had a great time at Duke, and am about to complete my Fall Semester.  I recently interned with a startup in Silicon Valley called XYXYXY and had an excellent experience.  I got to see the ZUZUZU IPO first hand and how it affected our industry.

I'm currently looking at opportunities in the startup scene in Silicon Valley and wondered if you have 15-30 minutes to help give me some advice."

They will be able to read between the lines and understand that you are available for positions.  They can then tell you if something is available.

Occasionally, I think you can, in fact, ask for the job. I think this should probably be with someone who you have a good relationship, and I would be somewhat gentle about it.  "Hey, I realize this may put you in an awkward spot, but I really like what your company is doing and it'd be great if I could work with you more. Are there any job opportunities that you think might be available for someone like me?"

In contrast, I've had some people call me, with whom I don't have much of a relationship and, without small talk, just said "I need referrals to people in the industry that are hiring.  Who do you know?"  I begrudgingly helped them (it had come in through a warm intro, and I was already on the phone with them), but I don't plan to help them again in the future.   Interestingly, he also said "I'm really interested in helping you out with what you are doing, maybe in a future call", but he hasn't reached out to me to help.

Here's an email exchange I had with one startup CEO that I had referred in a student for:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Startup CEO
Date: Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 5:06 PM
Subject: RE: quick reference
To: Howie Rhee

Perfect – thanks.  I’ll formally offer it to him

From: Howie Rhee []
Sent: Thursday, April 1, 2011 5:03 PM
To: Startup CEO
Subject: Re: quick reference

Worked very very closely with Franklin Jones.  I think he's fantastic.  He would do well for you guys. 
Tenacity - yes
Attention to detail - yes
Organizational skills - yes

Let me know if you want more info.

On Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 5:01 PM, Startup CEO wrote:
Am thinking of getting Franklin Jones to do an internship for me this summer on a special project that involves doing lots of market research.   Do you know him and how would you characterize his tenacity & attention to detail & organizational skills?

Thanks for any informal feedback you can provide.

In summary
In summary, networking is important in your job search, and takes time and effort to cultivate. As a student, you may not have much experience with networking.  Now is a good time to try it out. People will give you more leeway as a student, so it's ok to fall.  As someone recently tweeted "School is a nice place to try new things because it's like a sandbox.  Even if you make a mistake, the fall doesn't hurt that much".

Thanks and good luck!

Howie Rhee (Duke/Fuqua '04, MIT '97) is the Managing Director for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Fuqua.  He is working on helping Duke be one of the best environments for students interested in entrepreneurship.  More at  And you can follow him on Twitter @howierhee.

1 comment:

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