To the Future Intern: Starting at a Startup

Guest blog from ELP Student Bryant Vergara
Junior | Computer Science (LS&A)

Hello aspiring startup intern!

My name is Bryant Vergara. I am writing to hopefully give you a taste of what working at a startup is like. This is a personal letter to you, because working at a startup is awesome. I want you to have a feeling for what you should be looking for in your search for the right fit.

The morning of my first day

8:00 AM, first day, you’d think I would be up earlier considering I didn’t sleep much the night before. I wish I could say that the birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and it was like the entire world stopped, waiting for me to start my first ever full-time job. But no, it was May 2nd, gloomy, cold, with the sun nowhere in sight. I did the usual morning routine: stayed in bed 30 minutes longer than I should have, showered, got dressed and headed out the door, hope in my sleep deprived eyes.

I started my morning as much as an adult as possible, with a bagel and some coffee. Continuing my walk over to SPARK, I was nervous, unsure of how to feel. Was I excited? Of course. Scared? Most definitely. Most of all though, I was anxious. Then it all started.

What is it like?

I get a lot of questions about what is it like to work at a tech startup. Most questions often revolve around the coding that I do, the product, or what the office is like. Working at a startup is so much more than just working 9-5 days for a cool new toy that is hitting the market. I’m going to break it down:

1. The Team, the Team, the Team

The heart and soul of a startup is in the team. Yes, everyone talks about how important it is to have a good team when starting a company. That part is obvious. As someone coming into an early stage company, finding a team that is willing to help you grow and nurture you is what I find to be most important. I cannot put into words how great the team is at SpellBound. First off, there are only really five full-time employees. The CEO and four summer interns. That in and of itself is strange enough. There is no intern program for you to mess around in, on a useless project that will never see the light of day. There aren’t any nets to fall into if you mess up. There sure as heck is no catered lunch every day for the startup. There are just the five of us, CEO and four interns, that’s it.

Now it might sound like I’m disappointed with how small the team is. Or, how tough it can be to handle the pressure that everything you do is probably going to make or break the company. It’s really not that at all. The four people that I work with have individually changed the way I see work. Christina, the CEO, has brought a lightness and charisma that permeates through our small desk space at SPARK. Jake, has been a mentor to me in the business realm, and is the introverted balance to my extroverted chaos of a personality. Noah and Henry have taught me the value of having other minds working on a coding project, different lenses through which one should take into account when developing something that has never been done before.

If a student, or anyone, is thinking about working at a startup, I would encourage you to: find people who will challenge you, encourage you, and most of all, believe that you matter.

2. Your work matters 

If you are considering working at a startup I’m assuming you are:

a) desperate for a job and thinking, “Oh, I’ll work at a startup — they’re usually easier to get hired at.”

or thinking…

b) “I’ll work at a startup this year, and then use that experience to get hired at a bigger company next year.”

…or saying to yourself,

c) “I want my work to matter somewhere and I’m not really digging the whole big company thing.”

Let’s start off with you a) folk. Let me tell you from experience, it is most definitely harder to work at a startup than at a big company. Yes, it may be easier to get hired at a startup because most small companies are looking for help. They could be desperate enough to hire you right off the spot because they need someone with expertise right now and can’t wait through a long hiring process. That being said, you probably won’t be doing what you signed up for most of the time at a startup. For example, I transitioned into a more business development role instead of being a software engineer about 3 weeks in at my company. I never have done anything business-y before, and within a couple days I was developing the financial model for pricing our printed products. After that I took on a graphic design role as well, never having used photoshop or anything like that before. You are going to have to be flexible, ready to change your job title on the fly and learn some random stuff, (e.g. how to create a 5 ft. poster and attach it to a piece of wood for a trade show at a museum).

Next, you busy b)’s trying to get a leg up on the competition for next year’s job cycle. This is where I was for quite a bit of my sophomore year. Let me clear the air by saying there’s nothing wrong with wanting to gain experience and work at an established company, to then move on to another established company. My advice: do not think too far into the future when you’re working at this company right now. You as an “intern.” I use quotations because you most likely won’t really be seen as an intern at a startup. You are going to be doing work that will directly affect the life of the company. If you just go on, doing half-hearted work just to boost your resume for Facebook, you will probably not thrive. Instead, soak up as much as you can in technical skills. Learn the life of a scrappy entrepreneur as well. Have the mindset of taking each day as it is. Look forward to new challenges. Have an open mind to learn new skills and tricks.

And finally, the c)’s. This is the place for you! Ding Ding Ding Ding! A startup is a place where you can visibly see your work flourish, or fail. If it is the latter, don’t worry, everyone is going to fail. That is the Startup Motto. You are going to fail and that’s ok. It’s how you deal with that failure and realize you have this amazing support system around you. Then you will thrive! There’s not really much else to say to you c) types, because I think you’ve already been sold to the idea of working with a small team. You’re probably frothing at the mouth, getting ready to work at a startup.

Personal rant over. I hope I was of some help. I hope you have a better sense about finding fit with a startup. I encourage you to be headstrong. I encourage you to tackle each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. Choosing to be an intern at a startup means that you will not be “just” an intern.

All the best and good luck,
Bryant Vergara