Monday, April 19, 2010

How to Get & Stay Hired at a Startup

This week, we couldn't help noticing that so many of our positions are based with "startups" - and by this we mean businesses that appear to be relatively young and still in high-growth mode. They might be innovators in their spaces, or they might be jumping on a trend - either way, these can be some of the most exciting but risky jobs. While you may end up at the next Google, you can also end up at the next Kozmo. (If you don't remember that one, just let it go - we're showing our age.) And these can be incredible opportunities to work directly with founding teams. If you're interested in entrepreneurship yourself one day, listen up. It makes total sense that we're seeing a bit of a resurgence in startup hiring:
  • The costs of starting and running a high tech company are relatively low. As Thomas Friedman eloquently wrote this week in the NYTimes, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking advantage of "all the tools of the flat world — teleconferencing, e-mail, the Internet and faxes — to access the best expertise and low-cost, high-quality manufacturing anywhere."
  • As we've written in the past, the economy is showing signs of life - consumer sentiment, retail demand, and manufacturing output are all up. Startups are risk-takers, and they eager to be first in front of the consumer when they start spending again.
But don't just jump into that startup job - or even into applying for that job - without heeding our tips:
  • Think like a startup entrepreneur. If you were in high growth mode, potentially operating at a near-term loss in order to grow your business, what type of person would you want working for your company? Probably one who's super responsive, scrappy, and succinct. Keep the fact that you're dealing with a really special type of interviewer - an entrepreneur - in mind when you're applying. And, know that even though you might be applying for a part-time job or internship, this role may be as important to the company as a full-time position - and has high potential to grow into a full-time position if and when they take off.
  • Be prepared for non-traditional hours. Startup companies work around the clock. That may or may not be the job you're applying for, and you should find that out before you start so that if it's not your cup of tea, you know it's not the right fit for you. But if you do commit, know that entrepreneurs tend to get inspirations at 2 am, and you may be on the receiving end of those emails. Make sure you and your boss have a mutual understanding of what hours you're expected to work, so that you don't disappoint.
  • Show undying interest and passion for your product and your industry. For a new or unproven company, there can be NO ONE more excited about its products and prospects than its employees. You've got to be its cheerleader to the world.
  • Show interest in entrepreneurship. Startups like to hire people that are looking specifically for startup experience. However, that's the operative word: experience. If you're in it for money, equity, glamour, or fame, you should reconsider your desire to work at a startup because none of those things are guaranteed! Or, at least, don't share that with your interviewers.
  • As with any job, know the company. Doing your research before applying - by checking out its product / service, perhaps testing or using it, and checking out its competitors - will impress the startup entrepreneur because these issues are what s/he lives and breathe every day. Some fresh perspective on them (even if s/he disagrees) will undoubtedly be appreciated.
  • If the proverbial shite hits the fan, stick with it! Let the founders worry about the future of their business. You focus on being as helpful as possible. Startup companies have very few bodies and need people that are energetic, positive, and are willing to deal with the ebbs and flows of the business.
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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Unpaid Internships: Free Markets Rule or Employers, Get Real

Last week, on the heels of an important article in the NY Times about unpaid internships, we wrote a blog post that tackled some of the meaty issues surrounding this trend. We talked about the importance of providing mentorship and learning opportunities for interns, encouraged employers to be realistic about their needs and hire accordingly. We received a lot of great responses and comments to the post, many from folks who though that in all instances, interns deserve to be paid.

However, after looking at this month's Trend and Insight Report and noting that the percentage of unpaid internships rose in March, we find ourselves wondering if this sentiment is really widespread when it comes to unpaid interns, or is it the perspective of a vocal minority?

Hey, we don't place judgment. We think there's huge value in both paid and unpaid positions and think that there's room in the employment universe for both. It just struck us as a notable comparison that at the same time there's buzz about unpaid positions, the stats indicate these are exactly the kind of hires employers want to make.

What does this mean? Well, it could mean a couple of things.

For one, it could indicate that employers are truly willing to provide valuable skills and training in exchange for some free labor. And given the tough economy, this bargain seems acceptable to job seekers. Taken a step further, this would indicate that the discussion around the "unfairness" of unpaid internships is almost without merit if there's a healthy quid pro quo in the relationship (extreme situations aside). If, as an employer, you don't keep an unpaid position interesting, good luck to you in retaining talent. In other words, the free market will regulate the worth of unpaid positions.

Alternatively, it could mean that employers don't have realistic expectations about what would make someone want to work for free. We know-- you're an awesome startup. You have great founders, tons of energy and can provide a real opportunity to gain hands on experience. Same is true for us, and probably most of the people reading this post. But that still doesn't mean someone is going to want to make 500 sales calls a day for free. And why should they, unless you're dedicated to teaching that intern how to be the BEST salesperson that ever lived.

So which is it-- free markets rule or employers, get real? You tell us.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The NY Times on Unpaid Internships

The NY Times wrote an interesting article this week about the growth of unpaid internships which revisited the question what qualifies as an unpaid internship in the eyes of labor and employment law.

The first thing to note is that as a business owner, hiring staff of any kind requires a basic understanding of the relevant employment rules and regulations. For example: is a worker an employee or an independent contractor? What kind of insurance are you required to carry for full-time employees? What are the tax implications of taking on new employees? These are all questions that need to be answered when building your team, and the issues surrounding interns are no different. (And as a business owner, you’ve probably already figured out that your lawyer and your accountant are your BEST friends.) The current questions are around unpaid interns, so that’s what we’ll address here.

Let’s talk about what unpaid interns are NOT. They are not free labor who can be brought in to do lots of grunt work around your office. That, typically, is an assistant, who needs to be paid. (Could be part-time, but still needs to be paid.) They are not there to replace your entire staff so that you can cut your costs. That, among other things, sounds like you need a new HR plan.

Unpaid interns can be valuable additions to your team, but there is absolutely a give and get involved. You give training, you give supervision, and you give mentorship. You get assistance, you get the opportunity to teach, and you get to know your intern and evaluate if the role can develop into something more meaty. Essentially, you get a long, substantial interview.

As the NY Times article points out, the laws on this topic are murky. There are 6 federal legal criteria on the books defining the scope of unpaid internships, but the interpretation is lacking, largely because of a lack of enforcement activity on this front. But that may change as the job market comes back.

Our advice? Yes, ask your lawyer or a trusted advisor for some input if you have questions about your particular situation. But also, take a common sense approach to what makes sense for your business. As scrappy entrepreneurs, we like to save money when we can. But we also like to save time. If you hire someone unpaid and they NEED the money, their motivation will be to find a paid position, which means you’ll be back in the market looking for someone again before you can say “intern”. Also, let’s call it what it is—money motivates. If you’re on a tight deadline, have a huge new client you need help with, or generally expect someone to work above and beyond for you, you are looking for a new employee. And last but not least, just the word intern conjures up images of teaching moments and life-changing insight. If that’s up your alley, then yes, hiring an unpaid intern can make sense. But if you’re style is more “I needed it five minutes ago,” (and again, no shame in that - we all know the entrepreneurially clock is perpetually on fast forward) than call the position what it is—a J-O-B. Setting expectations correctly will lead to greater satisfaction for everyone involved.