Beware Startup Internships

Whether you're trying to intern at a podcasting company or a deep-tech startup, early-stage product companies can get messy. They're cheap, running on empty, and sometimes desperate. I've seen more than a few students get taken advantage of by early-stage companies due to a lack of education on what's valuable to them.

That said, startup internships can be the absolute best, as long as you know what you're getting into. If you find the right startup, you'll not only be making a big impact in the company, but learning more than you would anywhere else, and putting something very impressive on your resume. With that said, I want to write out what I know about internships in each sector.

There are 9 sectors that I feel encapsulate most startup internships:

  1. Market Research
  2. Science and/or Laboratory Work
  3. Development and Coding
  4. Video/Photo
  5. Note-Taking
  6. Social Media
  7. Writing
  8. Business Development
  9. Marketing

Please keep in mind, I am only once source, and you should interview the startup just as much as they're interviewing you to make sure it's a good fit. I am by no means an expert on this subject, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

And PLEASE feel free to email me if you need specific advice on a certain startup, especially if you're in Pittsburgh and you're reading this article via YESpgh. You can find my email on the about/contact page.

1. Market Research

This is a solid first internship, but I would recommend something further along if this isn't your first one.

Unless the research is extremely aggressive and specific, you won't be learning a real skill you can apply elsewhere, so make sure to ask your boss or the founder of the startup if you can help with any other operations.

Great way to get your foot in the door and build relationships with a certain startup, usually not too challenging, but not as valuable to your skill set and resume as others might be.

2. Science and/or Laboratory Work

Anything in the field of science is a bit rare as far as internships go, and most students I've seen have gone to larger companies for research-based internships.

That said, there are a good number of chemical or material-based startups in Pittsburgh, and if you find one of their postings, I would look as deep as you can into it.

Make sure you're getting valuable experience, and learning something that interests you.

Be obvious about your skill set and knowledge in fields of chemical engineering, material science, biology, or whatever it may be so the startup knows how capable you are.

Do NOT accept an offer before you know what your role will be, and you talk directly with the startup itself. You don't want miscommunication going into the role, and the worst thing that can happen is you don't learn or improve your resume, and you waste your time.

But, as long as you're careful, a startup internship in this field can be VASTLY more rewarding than a more corporate internship. You'll be given much more responsibility in operations you may not have had exposure to in the past, which can round out your experience well.

3. Development and Coding

I lumped all those together because they're all associated with writing, editing, or managing code and/or machines, which is obviously highly technical.

Here's what you need to know, and be aware that this all applies even if you're a beginner at development:

You're in high demand. This category is likely the most common internship request on this platform, so don't jump at the opportunity to work for the first startup you see.

Take your time, look through all of them, and understand you have the advantage with high-value technical skill.

I would suggest you email a few startups, if there are multiple offers from different startups.

Speak with each of them, and find the one with the best fit.
By that, I mean find the startup with which you would be working on the most interesting problem, or with the coolest team members, or with someone that could teach you a lot in terms of building your skillset.

Also be very aware of how much you're being paid. Unless you're very VERY beginner to coding, you shouldn't be taking an unpaid internship, ever.
Startups will sometimes try to underpay their interns, so just be aware that, with technical skill, you very much deserve pay if you need it.

Just try to be picky. But be very obvious about your actual skill set, which coding languages you're capable in, and how skilled you are in each when you submit your resume!

4. Video/Photo

One of my mentees works in this space, and I've personally done work in this space as well, but regardless, take my advice with a grain of salt.

There are usually a good number of startups that need some editing and filming done for promotional material, but many people undervalue the skill set.

Video editors alone, with moderate skill, usually charge upwards of 50 to 80 bucks an hour. You won't be charging that, especially if you're a beginner, but it makes the point that it's a valuable skill.

Hence, you should expect some degree of payment, either hourly, or monthly, or whatever. But try not to do it for free, unless you really just want the experience and love the team you would be working with.

I've heard a lot of "secondary" benefits tied to this kind of internship, like saying "You'll get so much valuable exposure to media, content, and you'll learn how we build an audience" or some similar pitch. It's true, you'll learn a lot, but again, this skillset is valuable, and in industry people charge a lot for it, so you should get paid, even if only a little.

5. Note-Taking

This is a common position at companies that have podcasts and do interviews. They can be fun, you'll learn a good amount, but the owners of the startups will likely try to oversell you the benefit of the position.

I've been pitched things like "You'll be in the room with so many amazing people, and hear what they have to say" and while that's great, it's not experience, and it's not your network.

If that's the kind of experience you want to get, start a blog or podcast of your own, and interview cool people yourself. Don't assume just being in the room with cool people on podcasts will be the best thing ever. I'm being a little dramatic, but it's a lame pitch that a lot of people in media companies have given me to try to get me to work for them for free.

That said, if you're interested in media, podcasts, and any form of content like that, these positions are awesome, and a great way to build a bit of a solid starting network.

These types of internships are almost never paid, and should only be taken if you're new to internships and want to get to know how companies work.
But, if you're just starting out, they're a solid way to get your feet wet! :)

While in the role, if you take it, try to ask your boss, or the founder of the company, if you can help with anything else as well. These internships are a great way to get your foot in the door, so always ask if there's more you can do, or if you can help with other operations to gain more experience!

6. Social Media

This is a very common ask for very new, early-stage startups. They see social media as a priority to advertise their business, but don't have the time or energy to run it themselves.

I've done internships like this before, and to be honest, it can be a little lame if you don't seek out different opportunities to experiment.

These types of internships are almost never paid, and should only be taken if you're new to internships and want to learn how companies work.
However, if you're just starting out, they're a solid way to get your feet wet! :)

While in the role, if you take it, try to ask your boss, or the founder of the company, if you can help with anything else as well. These internships are a great way to get your foot in the door, so always ask if there's more you can do, or if you can help with other operations to gain more experience!

7. Writing

Writing internships, I've heard, can be hard to find! I could be wrong on that, but writing is definitely an undervalued skill.

Whether you're doing written content like articles, you're editing copy, or you're just helping organize documents, writing is mostly a creative skill.

If you have a choice, try to find an internship at a company with a fun vision, something you would enjoy writing about.

It's common to use writing and articles for Search Engine Optimization, and if you don't know what that is here's a rundown:

Basically, if a startup has a website with a lot of cool articles you wrote about "pizza" then they're going to show up more on google when someone searches for "pizza". That's useful to startups, because they want whatever product they're building to be seen on google.

That may not be what startups need in terms of writing, but it's an interesting way to learn a bit about marketing, and have fun writing some interesting things.

You may not get paid for writing internships, but if you can charge for articles, I would charge about $50 for an article of about 1000 words, if you consider yourself a good writer.
That's a decent going rate for a beginner in the industry, but feel free to ask whatever you want. Take my advice with a grain of salt, as always.

8. Business Development

Sales internships specifically can be rare at startups, just because the founder themselves is usually doing most of the sales, but if there's an offer in helping a startup build relationships, you can learn a lot.

I've seen these positions as both paid and unpaid, but if the company has more than 5 employees, I'll bet they have the resources to pay you a little bit, so make sure you don't get stiffed.

If you're a business major, this can be a great start, but there are also tons of roles in larger more established companies. It's totally up to what you're comfortable with.

In larger companies, where you find the more typical business internships, you'll likely be with a lot of other interns and it will look solid on your resume, you'll likely get paid pretty decent, but it's going to be a bit boring.

In startups and smaller companies, if you can find an internship in business, you're going to likely be exposed to a lot more than you bargained for, it will look just as solid on your resume, you'll have a lot more fun, but you'll definitely get paid less.

In the end, if pay is the most important decider for your internship, don't go with a startup. But if higher pay isn't the deciding factor, apply for some startup positions here, because you'll have a lot more fun and learn a lot more.

9. Marketing

A lot of startups need this, but it's hard to find students that have enough experience to really run ads.

On the off chance you have the skills, you've done marketing before, and you've got the background, you probably shouldn't be doing it for free.

You may even consider just charging them as a client, if you're starting out as a freelancer, but how and what you get paid totally depends on the situation.

There are other forms of marketing beyond running ads, like writing for SEO, or creating content on social media, but those are going to fit into different categories than just general "marketing", so I recommend you go back to the main internship page and click on the category for advice that most fits the internship position.

Generally, this is a case-by-case decision, and if there's an internship here posted for marketing, you should contact the startup if you're interested, and learn more about what they need.

There are different skill sets needed depending on the type of marketing!

Let me know if I should include anything else in this article, if I'm wrong about anything or what I'm missing! I hope this is helpful, and again, go off what your gut tells you. Don't get taken advantage of, and find a solid startup that knows your value and will give you a rounded set of experiences

Max Mirho
written by Max Mirho

host of EntrepreNerd