What to Know When Looking for a Startup Job or Internship in College


“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

That’s not just a quote from Steve Jobs—it’s also true! You’ll never achieve greatness if you’re half-hearted about your work. Passion is an absolute necessity.

Of course, the only problem with this advice is that you need to figure out how to get a job doing what you love.

A great place for many people to begin figuring this out is at a startup. The technical definition of a startup is a company in its first stages of operation, created by an entrepreneur to develop a product for which they believe there is demand. Because they have limited revenue, they look for capital from a variety of sources—including venture capitalists. A large number of startups are in the tech industry, so there’s some overlap between the two.

At a startup, you can often contribute in ways that are not possible at larger organizations and feel more connected to your work. Because they’re young by definition, startups also tend to lack the formal hierarchies of large corporations. They’re usually more open to new ways of doing things. “Innovation” isn’t just a buzzword for successful startups—it’s a guiding principle.

For many people, this can make for an incredibly fulfilling, exciting work environment where they can find their passion and make a difference.

So how do you land a job or internship with a startup or tech company, and how do you make the most of the opportunity when you get there.

Getting an Internship

An internship with a startup is a great opportunity to set your entire career up for success.

Money is always a concern, since many internships are still unpaid. If you have financial support from another source, it’s often a good idea to take a hit on the income front for the experience and the addition to your resume. This may not be possible depending on your situation, of course, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The other thing to think about is brand. As you are looking for a position, think about startups or more established companies that already have a major presence, such as Google. Google is definitely not a startup, but its brand is so strong that an internship there can open doors for you later.

At the same time, you don’t need a company with Google’s brand power. If you don’t recognize a startup’s name, look at the funders backing the company. (Pitchbook and Crunchbase are great for this.) With financial investors like Sequoia, Founders Fund, or other big names in venture capital, there could be excellent opportunities for networking.

Always aim for the best company willing to take you on. Brand is important when you’re interning or in your early career, because the experience is a networking opportunity. If you make the effort, you can meet and make a good impression on people who can help you later. For example, your internship or first job might put you in contact with the person who will give you an interview for your next job, act as your mentor, or even introduce you to the venture capitalist who will fund your company 10 years down the line.

Planning Your Internships

Be strategic about internships. Your strategy for your internship will differ depending on where you are in your college career. Generally, during your freshman year, your main focus should be making a good impression with your attitude and work ethic. As you advance toward your degree, you’ll naturally become more able to take on more interesting and consequential projects.

Freshman: Don’t be surprised if you are asked to do menial tasks like making photocopies. At this point, you are a negative return on investment for the company and the best way to make an impression is to hustle and work hard.

Sophomore: Think about how you might tie your classwork and academic projects to the industry you want to work in. At your internship, work hard and focus on networking and making connections in the industry that interests you the most.

Junior: Once you are a junior or beyond, the work you do at startups really starts to matter. At this point, you can pull on your coursework to make meaningful contributions in your internship. You might also begin working on your own product or venture, perhaps with a few classmates, and use the connections from your internship to get feedback. Think about the sort of work that will make an impression in the industry you’re targeting after graduation.

The Importance of Culture

Whether you’re in an internship or your first job, fitting into the culture is just as important as performing well in your position. Each company has a slightly different culture, so it is important to investigate this as you begin looking for positions and figure out how you can contribute to it.

Demonstrating a strong understanding of a company’s culture is a great way to make an excellent impression during an interview. Keep in mind that the best startups often share a culture of innovation built on the following values. Look for organizations that embody many of these ideals.

Constant improvement – “Good enough” doesn’t exist. There are always ways to innovate and improve a product, service, or process.

Teamwork – Take ownership of your part in the process, and hold each other accountable. Mutual respect is key.

Diversity – The best companies recognize that being inclusive and promoting diversity isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also good for business.

Will to Win – Keep the main objective in sight, and always give your best.

Transparency – People feel comfortable sharing good and bad news.

Integrity – Don’t cut corners or make excuses.

Work Hard. Be Nice. – The end does not justify the means. Winning is important, but so is treating people with integrity.

Does Location Matter?

The other point to consider when looking for a job or internship at a startup is location. Many people initially think of the large tech hubs in the country, such as Silicon Valley, New York, Austin, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.

While great opportunities exist in these places, networking is much more of a job here. Competition is high and everyone wants to make a good impression and get their foot in the door. You can certainly do great and make incredible connections, but you will need to be regimented in how you approach the situation.

If you opt for one of these larger hubs, there are also sector focuses you should be aware of. For example, Boston is great for health tech, as is the Research Triangle. New York is focused largely on fintech and Los Angeles is a media town. All sectors are well represented in Silicon Valley and Austin.

Keep in mind that Silicon Valley is still the largest tech hub in the U.S. In 2019, startups there captured $35 billion in venture capital funding. New York, the second-largest hub in terms of dollars invested, captured $14.19 billion.

If you don’t live anywhere near any of these hubs, don’t worry. For example, in the Southeast, the regional tech industry is growing. Greenville, Charleston, Atlanta, and Charlotte all offer great opportunities.

How to Find Opportunities and Who to Contact

If you want to connect to a larger tech company, reach out to junior people who are only a few years out of school. Ideally, you’d tie this back to a relevant project about their company that you completed on your own initiative, or as part of a class project.  

Again, you do not need to move to the large tech hubs to have a great experience. Research what is happening in your hometown or the areas around where you go to school. Talk to family, friends, and even alumni about opportunities they know of to figure out what is possible—don’t be shy. Even a simple Google search can reveal some great opportunities; Crunchbase and Pitchbook are also helpful here too.

When you go for an interview, be sure to do your research first and understand the local startup scene to make the best impression possible.

Dealing with Different Managerial Styles

After you’ve landed that internship or first job, your manager’s style will have a big impact on your experience in the position. You need to know how to deal with different types of managers.

Some managers have a hands-off approach—they’ll lead you to your desk and you won’t see them again until the end of your internship or your next performance review.

In this scenario, it is your responsibility to seek out peers to ask questions and get ideas. Also, you will need to be proactive in setting meetings with your manager and creating your goals. Some people like this freedom, but others feel anxious without structure.

Many people prefer managers with a more collaborative approach who accept input. They’ll share company goals and take your ideas into account when helping you create goals, so that your work is aligned with the company’s goals. If this is the situation you find yourself in, count yourself lucky! All you have to do is ensure your goals are attainable and get to work. 

Whatever type of manager you have, note what you like and dislike about their style. An internship or first job is an opportunity to learn the kind of work environment you do best in. If you realize you didn’t enjoy working with a hands-off manager, actively look for a different experience in your next job.

The Key to Success Right Now

We’ve heard for the past year that we are living in unprecedented times, and that’s true. Thanks to the pandemic, remote work is now a reality for many companies and there’s every indication this will continue past 2021.  

The most effective way of making a good impression in a virtual workspace is to overcommunicate. Take care to be clear and precise in your emails, chats, and written communications, and make the effort to check in often via Zoom or whatever video conference platform your company uses.  

Other Important On-the-Job Tips for Success

Be prepared to work—a lot! One of the great things about working for a startup is that you’ll likely explore many roles. You’ll wear many hats (or maybe all of them.) Build a reputation for yourself as a team player who’s willing to take on different projects.

It’s important to complete all the work you’re given, but you should also demonstrate initiative—ask for and/or create projects outside of those handed to you. This will send the message that you’re not only hardworking, but also creative and action-oriented.

As noted previously, be sure to take the opportunity to network, not just with your boss and colleagues, but people in other departments, other managers, peers, and even executives. Be curious and talk to people. Find out the jobs you like the most and connect to the people doing them to make it easier to find more work down the road.

Finally, don’t despair if your first job isn’t all you hoped it would be. Remember: even if you end up hating it, you can always move to something else. In the past, it was common for people to spend decades at one company—not anymore. Remember that you can go where you find the best opportunities and the work you’re most passionate about.