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How to Succeed in an Internship: Startup Edition

So you’ve made it. You got that startup internship that you hustled your way into. You’re probably feeling pretty good about yourself. After all, you’re employed now, and you’ve got a whole summer in front of you. Time to pat yourself on the back and relax, right? Wrong.

In fact, here’s where you really put the pedal to the metal. That chip on your shoulder is what allowed you to be here in the first place. The process of getting this job was the qualifier, actually performing in your internship position is the Tour de France. That means you’ve got to keep up that chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. Scrap scrap scrap.

Your mission is to prove to your new employers that you’re worth every bit of their time, energy, and (sometimes) money, and more. Your mission is to make sure that your employers feel that the decision to bring you on was the best decision they’ve ever made. Your mission is to make the other members of your team feel like every day is Christmas and the gift from Santa is having you around. Sounds daunting. Christmas is pretty awesome. Well you will be too, if you follow some key pointers. Here are some tips that will have you shining so brightly, your boss will want to stick you on top of his Christmas tree.

Here’s How to succeed in an internship: Startup Edition.

Don’t let anyone beat you to the office.

You’re the least proven and (usually) the one with the least to offer in terms of experience and skills. So what you lack in the former you’ll have to make up with effort. Find out when everyone usually shows up in the office before your employment period begins. Plan to get there 30-45 minutes before that time. That way, you can usually have a decent chunk of work done before anyone else even shows up. Most people hate waking up early in the morning. Therefore, respect is afforded to those who do it and take advantage of their additional time to be productive.

Be Proactive: Better to ask for Forgiveness than to ask for Permission. 

That quote comes from something my boss said to me on my very first day of work (actually he just said those exact words), that I have taken to heart during my time in the office as well as in my life in general. Oftentimes in the work environment, individuals in lower positions are paralyzed by their fear of failure. Especially new team members. They’re just trying not to screw anything up on one of their first days at work. The problem is, this severely handicaps how productive a person can be.

Obviously, being handed a token of faith made it far easier for me to embrace this attitude of being proactive and accountable, but I believe that adopting this mindset is highly conducive to innovation and delivering impact. After all, employers want to see that they’ve hired an independent, creatively-thinking A player, not an instruction-following zombie. If they just wanted someone to follow instructions, they would’ve gotten a dog. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that you go gung-ho, rebel against the company, and carve out your own agenda. But it’s always nice (I imagine) as an employer to be able to count on your intern for the designated intern work with a couple unexpected gems on top.

Be Flexible.

Don’t go into this opportunity with any preconceptions on what you’re going to be doing at work. Why? Simply because this will limit the possibilities. One unique trait of the startup space is that team members are often asked to complete tasks that don’t exactly comply with their “job description.” That being as it is, you’re going to need an open mind and a whole lot of enthusiasm. Business development intern being asked to try your hand at web development? Let’s do it. Engineer having to fill in on some sales calls? Fake it ’til you make it. Sorry to let the cat out of the bag. You’re going to be learning way more–in both depth and breadth–than you probably originally anticipated. Buckle up. Confronted by the specter of having to take on a project in which you have absolutely no idea of where to begin? Don’t let that slow you down.

Another wise nugget that I’ve picked up from one of my coworkers during my employment is the idea that  you’re “never ready.” This is an idea that has resonated with me because a large portion of our lives is dedicated to preparing ourselves for what we see as the “big moments,” the “big benchmarks” of life, ie: leaving for college, our first job interviews, applying to graduate school, etc. While preparation is obviously integral to success, this obsession with preparation often permeates other aspects of our lives, encouraging the inhibitive mindset that we can’t begin endeavors until we’ve reached an imaginary level of preparedness, a preconceived construct of ourselves that is, in reality, nothing more than our mind’s way of avoiding unfamiliar tasks.

Instead, by embracing the idea that we can never be as ready as we desire, we can free ourselves from these self imposed inhibitions and unlock the door to growth, learning, and productivity of an unprecedented magnitude.

Bring your ‘A’ game every day. Under-promise and Over-deliver.

Act like every day is your first day of employment. Why? On the first day you’re trying the best you can to prove that you belong. Trying to prove that you’re an impact player, not an apathetic email whiz that has somehow conned his way into this position. Never let yourself get comfortable with where you’re at because that line of thought leads to contentment which ultimately devolves into slothful behavior. Under promise on tasks you’re assigned. Then complete them as quickly as possible to the best of your ability. Everybody likes a pleasant surprise.

Ask Questions until your employer’s ears fall off.

One of the most valuable assets that you can now utilize is the experience and knowledge of your new coworkers. Exploit accordingly. You may possibly never have another opportunity to be around people with their specific skill sets and backgrounds. Therefore it’s up to you to soak up as much information as you humanly can. People love to talk about themselves so your employers will undoubtedly be delighted to share their journey. Ask them questions about anything, from their back story and how they got to where they are today to what kinds of things they like to do with their free time on the weekends. Chances are they are in the place that you would like to be four or five years down the road, and asking them how they got there is one of the best ways to chart out a path for yourself.

Even if they’re not, their perspective will aid greatly in broadening your own. Also don’t forget that there’s no such thing as a ‘dumb question.’ No matter how basic your inquiry seems, ask. Cast aside your fear of looking dumb in front of your employer, because you will look even dumber down the road if you don’t ask and your pride leads to a much bigger mistake. Contrary to the image of weakness that many seem to think stems from asking ‘dumb’ questions, people in the workplace will respect you for acknowledging your weaknesses and working towards eliminating them.

Ask for Feedback.

This is the single best way you can improve. One of man’s biggest follies is thinking that he somehow knows, within himself, what he needs to do to improve his standing in life. This is absolutely untrue. The ones who know what you can do to get to where you want to be are the ones who have already paved the path and are aware of the obstacles and challenges that lie ahead of you. What’s more, these are the people who observe you on a daily basis.

Don’t be too stubborn or ignorant to accept a vast pool of information that can accelerate your growth curve exponentially. Asking for feedback also further demonstrates your proactive attitude and shows that you are always looking to improve your performance in the work space, which your employer is sure to be grateful for. Ultimately you benefit from the guidance, and your employer reaps the rewards of your improved performance. Mutualism rules the day.


These tips should have you well on your way to having an awesome intern experience, with happy employers and new professional connections to boot. Just remember, even though this is probably one of your first forays into the working world, that you need to have fun. Many people associate the idea of working with suffering and misery and completely miss the concept that work doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Keep an optimistic mindset, follow my advice, and prepare for a great journey. Want proof that what I’m saying works?

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Tim (my boss) hasn’t looked back. What do you think of the tips that I’ve provided? Are there any additional pieces of advice that you would recommend I add? Let me know your thoughts in the comment below!


  • John Neil

    “Ask Questions until your employer’s ears fall off.”

    As someone who employs 4+ interns I love this. Getting to explain my reasoning can sometimes lead to it being changed (in a good way).

    • teamtint

      Love the quote!

  • InternMatch

    Great post! This definitely captures the expectations of a startup environment and has a ton of actionable advice. Well done.