Guest Columnist

Column: Resources lost as interns depart

Guest columnistAugust 5, 2013 

Starting next week, Automated Insights, the Durham automated content services startup where I work, will begin to shed its army of seven summer interns.

They’ll go back to less important things, like their educations, and we’ll continue to crank out products for some of the world’s largest companies.

But suddenly, we will be down almost 20 percent of our workforce.

The company is losing valuable resources as those interns – our best class ever-walk out the door. This summer, we continued our trend of handing over ever-increasing responsibilities to these kids, and they handled it well.

I worked exactly one summer internship in my college career, and was mortified to discover I would essentially be staying out of everyone’s way. Within a week, I started a research project, and three weeks later I delivered a report with 17 ways that company could run leaner and grow faster.

In return, I was patted on the back and given a few condescending smiles.

The next summer, I started my own company.

At a startup, an internship is rarely about fetching office supplies and answering phones. Interns get real-world experience, mostly because, well, startups need all-hands-on-deck and more to survive.

Our group of interns were coding new features and working on product development. And when we had long workdays, which were mandatory because there is more work than people, those kids were there, bleary-eyed and probably wishing they had taken that lifeguarding gig at the local pool.

And we weren’t the only startups driving our interns hard.

Rob Cotter, founder of Organic Transict, the Durham maker of the human-powered transport ELF vehicle, said his company’s eight interns were doing real work, too.

“They’re very anxious to cover a range of issues and are excited about actually producing a product,” he said. “Most are doing something electrical, several are working on wiring harnesses, one is testing solar panel output, one is working on assembling the brain of the vehicle.”

That definitely beats wearing a tie and producing Powerpoint presentations.

Not everyone is on board with collegiate labor, however.

“I have a slightly negative viewpoint on interns for startups,” said Shannon Bauman, a product entrepreneur who started his career at Google and now helms local Triangle Startup Factory graduate Taggs. “I think for very early startups, this ends up hurting more than helping. For the three or so months that they are there, they are arguably a net loss – taking up more energy from mentors than they are able to provide back through their own output.”

Bauman has a point. To alleviate that, we spend almost as much time vetting and interviewing interns as we do full-time hires. But that’s getting easier, too.

It’s becoming obvious which students are dying to be part of something tangible, and which ones should stick to summers at the pool.

Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jproco or joeprocopio.com

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