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How to Recruit for Startup Internships

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Finding and landing an internship is no easy task. It’s hard to know as a university student what you want to do with your life, let alone how to get a job at a company you’re excited to work at.
The good news is internships allow you to test multiple different career paths you are excited about in a relatively short period of time. As a current computer science major in my final year at Duke, I’ve tested working in big tech at Google, venture at Atomic, both early and growth stage startups at Infinitus Systems and Glowforge, and across diverse roles including software engineering, data science, product management, and investing. All of these experiences helped me narrow down what type of company and role I want to be in moving forward in my career.
But deciding whether to recruit for big tech or startups and then landing your ideal role isn’t easy. I’ve broken down my method for identifying and landing your next internship.

Identifying Your Recruiting Goals

Start your search by identifying your internship goals. I’ve found that being clear about what you want helps you eliminate distractions and prepare yourself for the opportunities you really care about. To achieve this clarity, I like to use the MSSR Framework, which stands for Mission, Sector, Stage, and Role.
Mission: What problems do you want to work on?
Think about your past projects, classes, and conversations, and see if there are any recurring problems that you felt incredibly excited to research and learn about. In my case, I found I wanted to help people discover actionable insights from unstructured data.
Sector: What industries and technologies excite you?
You might find yourself excited by certain industries — like fintech, consumer social media or music production. For my technical friends, you might find yourself drawn to technologies like blockchain, machine learning or distributed systems. (It’s okay if you don’t know much about the industry or technology already.) Isolate the few that you would invest time learning more about to determine whether it’s actually as exciting to you as it sounds.
Stage: What company size do I want to work at?
You get radically different experiences working at differently sized tech companies, which range from early stage (less than 300 employees) to public companies (sometimes more than 200,000 employees). Early startups generally move faster and give you more ownership, while larger companies may move slower and prioritize more thorough design.
Role: What do I want to do day to day?
At different points in college, I saw myself doing product, engineering, data science and investing. The best way to figure out which role is for you is to work in each role and understand the problems you think about day to day, how you improve in each role, and what most of your day is spent doing. Some other roles to consider include business development, marketing, growth, and community.
After defining your MSSR, rank the four areas based on how important each one is to you or how much uncertainty you have within the area. This will help highlight what goals you need to prioritize in your next internship role.

Sourcing and Vetting Startups

Now that you have some clarity on what you want in your next role, let’s talk about how to find companies to join. You likely already know the names of relevant big tech companies, but what about startups?
A great place to start looking for startups that match your MSSR is to look at the portfolios of top venture funds, like those of Contrary, Sequoia, Greylock and General Catalyst. Many venture funds will offer job boards for their portfolios. For example, Sequoia, Greylock and Kleiner Perkins all do. Contrary offers a jobs board via Startup Search, which covers both its portfolio companies as well as roles in the broader startup world.
If you know what industry you want to pursue, you can check out industry-focused venture funds. Here are some examples: Crypto (Polychain, Paradigm), hard tech/deep tech (Lux Capital, Playground, Amplify) or consumer (Forerunner, Letter Hippeau, Maveron).
Some VC firms even have fellowships which will help match you with startups, like the following: Kleiner Perkins Fellowship, True Ventures Fellowship, 8VC Fellowship, and Bessemer Fellowship.
Ultimately, you’ll want to make a list of about 20 target companies. Then you can begin narrowing that list down by doing more research into the companies themselves, and reaching out to evaluate their interest in taking on interns.
One thing to look into is if the founder’s experience make sense for the company’s product and vision. For example, Julianna Lamb—cofounder and CTO at Stytch, an authentication platform—was previously an engineering manager at a security company and software engineer working on authentication at Plaid. It makes sense that Julianna would be a great leader of a company like Stytch.
Funding is also important for evaluating startups. I’d recommend searching your startup on platforms like Crunchbase + Dealroom for funding and team information. Has the company raised money recently? How much have they raised? What VCs back them? These are indicators that the company’s health and ability to hire.

Reaching Out

Reaching out to companies and getting an interview may feel like the most intimidating step of the process. However, there are ways to improve your response rate depending on the stage of the company you’re targeting.
When reaching out to an early stage company, there are two ways you can connect with the team: warm outreach and cold outreach. Warm means asking someone you know for an introduction to someone on the team you’re trying to join. This person may feel incentivized to get you hired due to a potential hiring bonus and recognition. Because startups are small, team members generally feel a greater responsibility to help with hiring.
Cold outreach is when you reach out to the founder or a manager on the team via email or LinkedIn and ask for an interview. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and that’s okay! Here is an example of the cold LinkedIn message I sent to the Infinitus founder for my sophomore summer internship:
Hi Ankit, hope you are doing well! I'm a current Duke CS student and KP fellow finalist. I'm super excited about Infinitus and would love to be a SWE intern this summer. I have a competing offer due in 2 weeks and am hoping to interview in the next week or so. Would love to see if this is possible!
The best way to land an interview at a later-stage company is through a referral from an existing employee. They’ll likely have online applications and university recruiters, so rather than pursuing cold outreach to the founder, you’ll want to reach out to someone on the recruiting and talent team instead.
Im summary, you should clarify your goals for your next internship and reach out to companies that fit those goals with the best strategy for the company stage. Both these steps will help you determine what you want to learn about yourself and help you communicate to your interviewer why they should invest in you.
Ultimately, this will put you in the best position to understand what work most excites you and set you up for success when the time comes to land your full-time job after graduation.