Internships at great startups are hugely worthwhile. As with full-time jobs at startups, you’ll likely get a lot of exposure to the workings of the business and its challenges, including seeing how the senior management team and founders operate. If you prove yourself early on, you should also get a decent amount of responsibility. Startups are often short on resources and there’s always a long-list of things to get done.
Since founding Otta, I’ve advised a lot of people on their job applications, but securing an internship requires you to be more entrepreneurial than with standard job applications. This is because there are plenty of opportunities for internships that aren’t advertised. I wrote this article to provide some practical advice on securing an internship at a top startup.
Here are a few examples of people I found on LinkedIn that have secured internships at startups in the past. There are plenty of examples, so it can definitely be done!
- Maxim - interned in Sales & Operations at Atom Bank and Flux
- Elsa - interned in Marketing & PR at The Plum Guide
- Adam - interned in Software Engineering at Thought Machine
Step 1: Check if there are any internships being advertised
It sounds obvious, but the first step is to see if there are any internships being advertised. At Otta we post internships across all of the ~380 companies on our platform, so that’s a good place to start!
You may not find that many, as it’s still not common for startups to advertise internships. Recruitment teams are usually more focused on making critical full-time hires, and they probably don’t have enough bandwidth in the business to be thinking proactively about hiring interns.
Right now (January 2020), we have ~50 internships on the platform from companies like Skyscanner, Palantir and Transferwise, but there will probably only be 5-10 that fit what you’re looking for. As most startups don’t advertise internships, the majority of your time should be spent proactively reaching out to startups you like, even those that haven’t advertised opportunities.
Step 2: Consider your timing for proactive outreach
Internship processes at startups usually don’t work in the same way as they do at large corporates. When applying to corporates, you might send applications six months before you start. However, most startups don't know what hires they will need in six months time, so they can’t commit to taking on an intern this far in advance.
I’d recommend starting most of your outreach 2-3 months before you can start. To make it worth the person’s time, you should also make sure you can commit to 5-8 weeks of work uninterrupted. If you only have 3 weeks to spare it’s not really worth their while getting you up to speed.
Step 3: Find startups you want to target and make a list
Next, you should make a list of startups you want to target. I’d recommend finding 20-40 you like. This might sound like a lot, but when you’re taking this proactive approach, you need a bit of luck, and your chance of catching the right person at the right time increases with how many messages you send.
Look for companies in sectors that you’re interested in, and those at the right size. Companies that are not too big (fewer than 200 employees) will probably work best, as they are likely to have less rigid hiring policies.
In terms of resources you can use to make a list of companies, we allow you to see all our data on companies, so this is a good starting point. You can filter to find companies based on the number of employees and the sectors they operate in. Crunchbase is also a good tool, and you can read about new fundraises from startups in publications like Techcrunch and Sifted.
Step 4: Find the right people to message at each of the startups
Once you’ve made the list of startups, you need to find the right people to message at each of them.
For smaller startups (fewer than ~50 employees), I’d recommend choosing one of the founders. One of the main responsibilities of the founders is to bring talent into the company, so they’re likely to be the most receptive.
For bigger startups, you can still try one of the founders, but it’s also worth trying people in the senior management team. For example, if you’re keen to learn more about the operational side of businesses and think you have a good angle for why that area suits you best, try messaging the Head of Operations.
When you’ve found the right person, you can message them via email or LinkedIn. I would focus on email, as a lot of founders won’t spend much time on LinkedIn, but you can guarantee they read their emails. I’ve written some quick tips on guessing emails in Step 6.
Step 5: Craft your message
Now you have a list of companies you want to target, it’s time to craft your outreach messages.
When writing emails, my main piece of advice is to keep them concise. Nobody likes getting long emails, and it’s very easy to dismiss an unsolicited email when it’s a wall of text. In a few short paragraphs you should cover:
Who you are and what you’re looking for - Include a brief bio (what you’re studying or what you’re working on now) and the dates you’re available
Why you’re interested in the company - You could include where you read about the company and what you like about the mission or product. Use recent articles on the company to make smart comments that show you’ve done your research
What value you can add - You don’t need to be too precise about this, but try writing something that demonstrates an understanding of where you might fit in. One way to do this is to look up the different teams at the company (you’ll find most of the employees on LinkedIn where you can see their job titles to get an idea of the teams), and then highlight the ones where you’d be most useful. For example, if they have a sales development team you think you’d fit into, mention the customer-facing work you’ve done before and your competitive personality as reasons why you’d add value
Make sure you spend time researching each of the companies and writing quality emails. If you send lots of messages that are low quality, you're likely to get no responses. Don’t send the same email to every person on your list. It will be obvious if it’s a generic email, and makes it easy to ignore.
Here’s an example of the sort of email I would’ve sent to the COO of Nested back when I was at university:
Subject: Potential Summer Internship
I’m currently in my second year at UCL studying Economics, and I’m looking to get experience at a fast-growing company over the summer. I’d love to join a startup like Nested after I graduate, and I’m hoping to start a business of my own one day. I’m available all summer, from 1st July to 10th September, and would be happy to come and help for any period between those dates.
I came across Nested after I read in Techcrunch that you had raised from Northzone and Balderton. I truly believe in what the business is working on and really respect that Nested is trying to innovate by bringing a fundamentally new product to the market. An estate agent that helps you secure your new home as well as selling your old one seems like a no-brainer in hindsight, and it’s definitely a product I’d want to use.
As the COO, I assume you run all the operations at Nested. I’ve seen that you have teams focused on valuations and sales. I’d love to come and work with Nested over the summer and help out however I can be useful in either of those teams. I worked for a property developer last summer, so have a good understanding of real estate, and I’m confident I’ll be able to get stuck in and add value with whatever needs doing.
I’ve attached my CV for your reference. Let me know if you have any questions, hope to hear from you soon.
Step 6: Send off your messages and follow-up
Once you’ve prepared all your messages, you’re ready to send them off. It’s usually quite easy to guess people’s email addresses, most will be either firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. If you use Gmail, type the email address into the search bar on desktop. Most companies use Gmail, and so if the email is correct it should bring up their profile with a photo.
Think carefully about timing when you send your emails. Marketing teams do lots of analysis to figure out the optimum time to send you promotional emails, and for this kind of high value email, it’s worth taking a moment to think. If you send it at 5pm on Friday or 9am on Monday it may be more likely to be ignored. Try mixing up the timing and put yourselves in the shoes of the person: when will they be most likely to read it properly?
If you don’t get a reply the first time, you should follow-up with a short email reiterating your excitement and asking if they’d be keen to talk. You could also ask if it would be better to speak to someone else in the company, as this gives them an easy excuse to forward your email onto another person in the team. Try sending follow-up emails at different times to your original email, in case you caught them at a bad time.
As mentioned earlier, there is always a bit of luck required, so be persistent and don’t be disheartened if you don’t get many replies. When I was applying for my first internship, I sent over 50 emails and only got one positive response.
You can increase your chances by sending more, higher quality messages, and also by getting introductions to the right people. Most people are far more likely to be receptive to introductions than cold messages, but this is not always easy to pull off.
One way to make introductions happen is to message more junior people at startups and ask them for advice. If you have a good conversation and make a good impression, they may be willing to introduce you to someone higher up.
If you have any questions on this topic, or there is anything else I can do to help, please feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.