Juggling an Internship with Startup Aspirations
Blog Post by ELP Student Raul Dutta (Computer Science | Class of 2021)
More than any profession, entrepreneurship has the most variable workload. This is especially true of an aspiring entrepreneur. One week you may be struggling to come up with projects to work on, while the next week you may have an overabundance of ideas.
Committing to a full time internship has always left me with some fears that it will impede my entrepreneurial aspirations. Will I be too burnt out to work on my personal projects? Will I become too comfortable with someone else setting my goals and milestones? Making time-commitments that I cannot uphold would mean that I would end up sacrificing something unplanned.
Without a doubt, these are issues that will certainly persist until I am able to create a self-sustaining company which may not be until several years in the future. In the past, a recurring question in my mind was: should I do an internship or take a summer off to work on myself as an entrepreneur?
Through my internship last year, mentorship, and other experiences, I was able to reflect on various reasons, some of which are more obvious than others. I realized that, for me, the answer was to choose an internship. I hope some of my reasons are helpful for your thought process as well.
Your brand is a mixture of who you are and the other entities you associate with. This means that your resume, including your past work experience, is a large part of your personal brand. You can leverage this credibility in a lot of different ways. For example, working at a startup in your industry of interest may lend a lot of credibility when it comes to investors. On the other hand, if you are building a b2c company, a household brand may lend a lot of credibility to your customers. Think about those startup headlines. “Ex-Google engineer founded Company” is eye-catching. Whether you are talking to a Venture Capitalist or even a customer, they are more likely to listen and take you seriously if you have worked at a relevant company in the past. Even a small internship at a startup can help bring credibility in the form of expertise. Venture Capitalists will trust that you have some idea of the inner workings of a startup.
One of my favorite classes at Michigan was E-Commerce Entrepreneurship (ENTR 390). Rishi Narayan taught me that unlike Hollywood would like you to think, entrepreneurs are very much risk averse. Entrepreneurship isn’t about hitting the lottery, it’s about mitigating risk. Without a doubt, there is risk involved in entrepreneurship, but these risks should be calculated and well thought out. If you don’t have a specific idea or company that you thoroughly validated through customer discovery or analysis, passing up an internship means giving up one well defined opportunity for a not so well defined opportunity. Stay adventurous, but stay safe.
Ideas come from experiences. The more experience you have, the more niche pain points you will find. Asana was founded when the founders noticed communication issues in their team at Facebook. By having more diverse internships, I hope to validate pain points I find along the way. You can further enable your entrepreneurial goals by holding yourself accountable to finding a certain number of pain points at work everyday. This will make you a better entrepreneur, but also a better and more observant employee.
After graduating in the spring, I realized that a lot of my classroom knowledge wasn’t directly applicable to real life. I never learned how to build a project from scratch at school. I also never learned how to add to an existing large code repository. These skill sets are ones I’ve learned working at my internship and personal projects. The technical mentorship as well as the projects assigned help me gain hands-on technical experience that you can directly apply to your startup.
Some management skills are best learned through observation. Reading and applying are two very different things. Not all theories apply. At my internship last year, I had an amazing boss who I am still friends with today. He knew how to foster diversity, and create an atmosphere where everyone felt comfortable sharing their opinions. He did this by listening more and speaking less. He also encouraged others to speak up by directly addressing them in a casual manner. He would also lighten the atmosphere with jokes so that the team didn’t feel anxious about speaking their mind. I also learned technical skills such as using a kanban board. These are skills I couldn’t have learned in the classroom, and I may have missed had I tried to directly create a startup.
Naturally, internships help expand your network in the industry. From my internship, I learned that people are more likely to say yes than no. Especially within a company, even people high up the ladder are likely to respond to you. I was able to have multiple virtual coffee chats to learn more about product management and the skill sets that it employs. Furthermore, if you have a good company fit, you’ll be surrounded by like minded peers that may become your co-founders. Many companies have started from friendships between coworkers at big tech companies.
When you are still ideating, entrepreneurship can be difficult to work on because of its lack of structure. This can make it easy to lose motivation. An internship gives you structure to practice your work ethic. From a technical standpoint, there may be a lot of similarities between your schedule as an intern and your entrepreneurial projects. Keeping up that work ethic will ensure you’re ready to go into overdrive as soon as you come upon that entrepreneurial opportunity.
All these reasons are why I decided to stick with my internship last summer. This internship isn’t putting off my entrepreneurial goals, but it is rather enabling it. I still push myself to ideate and work on myself on a daily basis. I hope you take away some ideas on how to balance your entrepreneurial goals and internship.