10 Best Personal Attributes to Thrive in a Start-up Internship

One of the best features of internships is that no two are alike.

That’s among the reasons it pays to begin taking on internships early in your college career – you can build a wider variety of skills. And you’ll get exposure to different company cultures as well, because internships at smaller companies, for example, will be very different than those you’ll find at Fortune 500 companies.

And that last point could provide you with a very big advantage.

By their nature, small organizations like start-ups have little hierarchy. Free from the corporate ladder, all team members are expected to contribute in a wide variety of roles. Everyone on the team must be productive because each team member contributes a larger percentage to the whole.

Internships at start-ups and smaller-scale non-profits provide several advantages to interns:

  • Real world, hands-on experience you don’t often get at a larger company
  • Direct interaction with C-level executives and the Founder team
  • Instantly becoming an integral part of a focused team
  • Mentorship from dynamic leaders

Far different than an “I’ll just put in my time” attitude often found at a mega-corporation, you’re accepting a major challenge by choosing an internship at a start-up, entrepreneurial small business or change-oriented non-profit. You’ll learn a lot, sometimes through mistakes. And, you’ll be “exposed” – in both a good and bad way. Good: you’ll work much closer with dynamic leaders, and be exposed to their networks and influencers. Bad: this is on-the-job training in front of a captive audience; you (and your co-workers) will quickly know what you don’t know.

So what are the personal attributes of someone who thrives in this environment? Consider this “Top 10” – and see if these points apply to you.

1. Passionate

You will be working with a small team of people who are extremely passionate about what they’re building. Success as an intern in this environment requires that you be equally passionate about the company mission – and the value of the products.

2. Enthusiastic

An emerging-growth organization can’t be shy about its mission or how it goes about succeeding; same for the individuals who work there. Often, small team organizations are short on revenue. To make up for the lack of financial resources, they thrive on energy and enthusiasm – no one is exempt, from interns all the way to the CEO.

3. Entrepreneurial

This almost goes without saying – but we’re saying it anyway. If you’re ambitious – the proverbial “go-getter”, and see yourself leading your own business or not-for-profit someday… where better to learn than with like-minded people already running a challenging small team? You’ll learn more here as an emerging entrepreneur than you ever did in college, guaranteed.

4. Resourceful

Your internship in a small team will come with considerable responsibility; a successful intern must be incredibly resourceful in completing assignments. Often in startups there is no roadmap, no “how to” manual. You’ll work on tasks that have never been done at this company. You’ll set precedents as you learn – and in the process, prove just how resourceful you are.

5. Self-Disciplined

With no road map and little hand-holding, an entrepreneurial intern must be disciplined enough to complete assignments and meet project deadlines – and sometimes even determine their own work schedule. This is especially true in a virtual assignment, but even an in-office internship will require self-imposed focus and determination.

6. Independent

Working independently in small teams, especially at start-ups, is the norm. You must be adept at working without direct supervision – and making decisions without the help of others – to complete the projects and initiatives assigned to you.

7. Leader

Depending on your role and unique skills set or personal network, you may be asked to lead entire initiatives. Taking on a leadership role in a growing company is a natural fit for most people interested in serving as an intern with a small team – and a great opportunity to be noticed early in your career.

8. Resilient

Emerging companies are constantly trying new approaches to achieve goals. Survival often means quickly discarding ineffective initiatives and trying something different. Interns working in this dynamic environment must not get discouraged if their work is replaced with a new approach, or are suddenly asked to change directions.

9. Versatile

Emerging organizations usually have more work than they do available resources. Everyone – again, from the CEO to interns – must wear many hats and must be flexible enough to handle various assignments. Those who excel in this area often find the work both exhilarating, and exhausting.

10. Coachable

Small team environments typically do not allow for elongated learning curves. Feedback is often spontaneous, direct and brutally honest. While in the long-term this form of coaching is highly effective, short-term it can cause some anxiety for those with thinner skins and temperamental egos.

As you’re reading though this list of characteristics, and perhaps wondering if you’re right for a start-up internship, keep this in mind:

Not even the CEOs and Directors of the organizations you may work for have ALL of these character traits; some may only have a few. The fact is that small teams are typically looking for those who complement their existing talent – and not necessarily for the “ideal” candidate.

Even if you’ve only shown a few of these attributes in your career to date, you may be the perfect fit – and should consider a small team internship.

About the Author: A passionate supporter of Gen Y talent, CEO and Founder of YouTern Mark Babbitt is a serial entrepreneur and mentor. Mark has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Mashable, Forbes and Under30CEO regarding internships, higher education’s role in preparing emerging talent for the workforce and career development. Recently, Mark was honored to be named to GenJuice’s list of “Top 100 Most Desirable Mentors”. You can contact Mark via email or on Twitter: @YouTernMark.

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