How to carve an awesome virtual internship program for your Startup
Interns are valuable. Especially to startups who cannot afford full time employees. But managing interns has been one of the hardest things I have had to do so far.
Every time an Intern leaves, it breaks my heart.
We've built Exambazaar from the ground up on the back of excellent work by our exemplary interns. Which is why we consider them a part of the EB Family and internship-ends are heart-clenching affairs.
We’ve hired over 80 interns in a variety of domains, be it Business Analytics, Marketing, Digital Curation, Content Writing or Graphic Designing. And in the process, we’ve learned the nuts and bolts of running a successful Virtual Internship program. Our goal is to provide meaningful professional experience to our Interns alongside the primary objective of getting work done!
It is our pleasure to share our wisdom with fellow Startups and companies looking to benefit from the versatility and flexibility of robust internship programs. These nitty-gritties are based on our own experience and real feedback from our interns. And since we value your time, we’ll try to keep it short and sweet.
There are 3 block steps to an Internship program and we’ll look at all of them separately. They are 1) Hiring, 2) Productive Retention, and 3) Feedback
HIRING (THE 3P INTERNS)
The critical facet of hiring interns as opposed to full-time employees is that ‘Enthusiasm Trumps Qualification’.
All our efforts are focused around identifying interns with the 3Ps - the Potential to learn, Passion to work and aptitude to Produce.
We call it the 3Ps of champion interns - Potential, Passion and Productivity. Here are things we do to weed out unwanted candidates.
Provide a Descriptive Internship Profile
Adding a description of the work involved, an approximate number of hours and allotted stipend crystallizes the expectation from a potential intern right at the outset. This helps an intern decide whether this internship is right for them, rather than wasting the time of both parties by applying to the wrong kinds of internships. This write-up will also be immensely helpful in case there are future productivity issues.
Add Company Specific Questions
Many a times students and recent graduates mass-apply to internships without an intention to actually follow through. You can separate out the wheat from the chaff straight away by adding company-specific questions that require them to spend some time researching about the internship and company before applying blindly. For eg., We typically add a question like “Mention 2 things you like or dislike about the Exambazaar Blog” which forces them to understand the purpose of Exambazaar and if the internship makes sense for them.
Use a Secondary Screening Method
As a second level filter, we also ask applicants to perform a short sample task before we even begin reviewing applications. This can be through email, or easier still, through a Google Form. This serves as a great way to further narrow down the pool to only really Passionate candidates. Screening through these forms then becomes a worthy exercise to gauge Potential and Productivity.
Productive Retention means cultivating a team of happy interns who nail the 3Ps. While Potential is an inherent quality that we are unlikely to impact in the relatively short duration of the internship, we employ the best techniques to maximize Passion and Productivity. Virtual Internship is different from a traditional internship in one key aspect that arises from ‘remoteness’ – DISCIPLINE. And all our strategies take that into account.
Regular mentoring in the first few days
The first week is absolutely crucial to establish parameters. What you sow in terms of work ethic, zeal, responsiveness, quality is what you reap for the rest of the internship period. Hence, make sure to attend to your interns with almost obsessive attention at the start.
Anumeha, Graphic Designer (Architecture Student):“The things that helped me learn new design strategies and other aspects of this internship were 1) Communication with the design team and seniors at every stage of designing, right from Day 1, 2) Effective team work - Not only do the interns work but the whole team works on the design, 3) Help with any trouble I faced, 4) Appreciation of new and interesting ideas and motivation for work, and 5) Understanding of circumstances, if work isn’t delivered on time.”
Setting Structure (Weekly Assignment of tasks) and Inculcating Accountability
As most interns are college students or recent graduates, their schedule may not allow for availability at your working times. Hence, we make sure to understand their availability through an Availability grid before they start. Accordingly, we assign them to work weekly (with daily goalposts) which helps them manage work in their own time and also generates an accountability for completion by the end of the week.
Aditi Singh, Business Analyst (Recent Graduate): “Working with EB, I got an insight into the working and responsibilities of a startup. I learned a lot about how entrepreneurs work. I also learned time management as the work must be completed within a stipulated time period. Hence, a virtual internship proved to be not just a great learning experience but also, a fun way of doing work and learning new things.”
Constant Communication (on Slack)
Communication is KEY to maintaining discipline. We use Slack as the primary mode of work communication and expect our interns to be responsive on Slack even if they’re busy otherwise. It helps us keep track of their progress, establish realistic timelines and assess work quality in conjunction with time spent.
Kamalika Some, Content Writer (BA Economics, MBA): “EB follows a transparent organisational structure, where the founders, I call them mentors, are always live on Slack to guide and answer any questions. Work culture follows professionalism where editable job sheets are assigned at the beginning of the week, work completed is reviewed and comments are given on Slack. The mentors and editors are just a call away for any queries. What more? They give the freedom to write on any topic I feel is important and needs to be shared.”
Assigning Responsibility and Diversity of tasks
To ensure a steep learning curve, we believe in assigning more responsibility to the interns across a variety of tasks as the internship progresses.
Gaurav Dwivedi, Exambazaar’s first Intern (CAT Aspirant): “The entire process was very flexible allowing me to work from the confines of my home and saving time and expenses of commuting. With no hierarchical barriers, it was possible to work effectively and experiment in different domains of the organisation which made me more versatile and productive than I could perhaps be in any traditional one. We all are strongly connected to a team and the very fact that I am helping a budding startup in its growth is a fulfilling experience in itself.”
Every intern’s circumstances, working style, availability, and strengths are different. By keeping an open channel of communication, we establish an easy mechanism for all parties to adjust the workload per convenience. Besides the regular adaptation loop, we also encourage formal feedback from our interns.
Feedback sessions (Fortnightly)
Ideally, we’d like to do feedback sessions every fortnight, but we’re not perfect. We do however have a 2-way feedback conversation every month. This involves us providing valuable feedback on the holistic growth of the intern and in turn encourage suggestions on how the internship experience can be improved. For eg., This is feedback that we received from an intern 2 weeks into the internship. It helped us understand the importance of flexibility of virtual internships and we modified our work schedule accordingly.
Renuka Dixit, Content Writer (Bachelor of Mass Media Student): “This virtual internship works the best for me, because of the excellent communication channel. There is transparency between the employer and the employee and a healthy work environment which makes me feel at ease while working. Any issue or concern can easily be communicated and the employer is extremely understanding. However, it is slightly difficult for me to specify what time I will be available every day owing to my classes. It would be better if I am assigned a week’s worth of work which I can finish as and when possible ”
Taking Criticism in the stride
Not everything is rosy. We’ve also come across several instances of surprising feedback from interns. From stipend being too low, to work being too difficult or monotonous, to general criticism about the inefficacy in the hiring process, we’ve faced our share of challenges. But the important learning for us has been to not take it to heart, improve the process for valid concerns and learn to work past it.
End of Internship Feedback
As a policy, we provide and invite feedback about the overall internship experience, broken down by parameters like productivity, quality, initiative and the like.
We hope that our learnings help you make virtual internships a worthwhile experience for both interns and yourself. But do remember, no matter how good your program or how much learning an internship can add to an intern’s resume, virtual interns leave. Reasons vary from not being able to manage an internship and coursework simultaneously with inadequate performance to external factors to pure inaction. We’ve learned not to be deterred by it and account for it in the hiring process itself. So should you.
Again, a shout-out to our rockstar team for helping us build an amazing product. Happy building!
Saloni Khandelwal is the Co-founder of Exambazaar (www.exambazaar.com). Exambazaar is revolutionising the Coaching Institute Discovery and Application Space, and is the complete guide for Competitive Exam Preparation in India. Saloni graduated from Computer Science, IIT Delhi in 2011 and thereafter worked in Investment Banking in Deutsche Bank, London for 5 years.