Lilly - one of our amazing interns

Some people have great experiences with interns in their business, and others don’t. I am happy to say I have had lots of great experiences. Over the years, we have had between 2-7 interns per year come through our doors, year on year.

More than 30 interns have been through TLD over 10 year period, and 6 of those became full-time employees with us.
You can actually read several of the blog posts we’ve asked our various interns to write.

Where do you get these interns from?

We’ve never advertised for an intern, as our industry (graphic design, marketing, and web design) tends to attract them. It also helps that we have an office in a central location in London.

We’ve had them come directly from universities under specific programmes where they have to have had some real-life work experience at a company in order to graduate. One of the best places we’ve arranged interns from is the Academic Internship Council and our wonderful contact/friend Sam Cooper. Happy to introduce you if you like!

Others have come because they were the son or daughter of one of our clients/contacts. I thought a class at a university and one of the students came for an internship with us – and then we hired her full time. And because we’ve had so many and we include their stories on our blog, more have come to us from referral.
There are some national and international programmes you can look up for your area, and you can also ask at local universities via their career counselors.

Fundamental Rules

You shouldn’t see this as just a way to get someone to do free work for you. I mention this because I have seen it happen a lot. It has to be a win-win. They are there to get experience and learn. You can try a new potential employee and hopefully, they will be able to help you with the work you have. But boundaries have to be set.

They need someone to review their work and feedback to them. It does take up time, but it’s unfair to expect them to come in and do a bunch of work without any feedback. It’s this feedback that is most valuable – telling them what they did well, how they can change things to make it right.

Generally, they will take longer to do tasks: They have chosen an internship as it gives them work experience – so you need to give them tasks where you can be lenient about deadlines. It’s still good to give deadlines for each task as it gives them structure and parameters, but I wouldn’t be giving them work that, if not delivered on time or to a certain standard, might jeopardise a client relationship.

Quality varies: However wonderful a setup you have and how high your hopes are when you first meet someone, you will still get some people who pass through and end up taking up a lot of time with very little useful benefit to you. This happen’s and you just have to make the best of it.
Ok so we’ve got those basic expectations out of the way, lets move onto my practical tips! Over the years I have developed certain tools that make things a lot easier to give interns a good experience where they learn a lot in a short space of time, and where it doesn’t take up too much of my time. My tools give interns structure and clear instructions which means they can focus on the work at hand rather than feeling anxious or bored.

Pre-qualify: Create a prequalifying one-page sheet to send to prospective interns, outlining the type of tasks and the soft skills and attitudes expected from people who come for an internship.

How much to pay them? For us the easiest scenario is if they are part of a programme which is part of their university degree and the internship is mandatory for them. They don’t need to be paid but they do want a company that can give them real work experience – not data entry or photo copying! This makes it an easier decision on whether to take on the intern, and if we’re not paying them, there is a much lower barrier to entry. If someone comes along who has skills we need for a project, would cover their lunch and travel expenses and pay the amount required by law.

What type of work? Include a comprehensive list of the types of work tasks you can have your interns do which shows them they will be doing real work that they can practice and learn from. At my company this includes things like entering text into WordPress, picture sourcing, resizing images, organising photos, writing captions and blog posts, drafting instructions for our coders, word count documents, how to guides, research for social media – anything that can be done behind the scenes and then checked by us.

Trello: This tool has been invaluable for me to pre-draft and assign tasks, store useful reference information, give feedback and track progress. I do this even if someone is coming for just one week. Setting up a new Trello board for the intern takes just a few minutes. It’s intuitive and they are usually very impressed and keep using Trello after they finish their time with us. I setup the card lists under the headings: To Do, Doing, For Team to Check, Done and References, and I put a few “day one” and “week one” tasks into the “To Do” list.

Day one tasks: On their first day, have a few tasks already pre-written so they can see there is plenty to do. The worst thing for them is for them to site bored

Add some tea: I always include “making tea for the team” in my pre-qualifying sheet and the “your first day” one pager. We’re a small company so this will never be a huge tasks, but If the intern on a regular basis offers tea, it forces them to speak to others. It may only takes a few mins of their time in a day, but it creates a positive response and means they have a chance to do something nice and appreciated for others.

Feedback process: Create a working process for them to have their work reviewed. For us, Trello is invaluable. Once a task is ready to be checked, they can move it to the “For Team to Check” list and tag whoever assigned them with an update and questions. They can then move to the next task – ideally you will have 3-4 pre-loaded so you know they wont get bored if they finish something and you don’t have time right away to check it. As they learn how to use Trello on day one, by pre-loading a few simple tasks. The first tasks are usually things like “go through Trello and add a picture to each card” and “fill out your intake form” and “Tag me when you are done with this task”

Adapt your tasks:

When you have people who come for internships and work experience, it’s a chance for you and for them to “try before you buy”. As a business owner, it’s a low risk way to have someone learn how things are within your business and see how well they do, how quickly they learn, how soon they can be genuinely useful – and at some point, if you’re lucky, how soon will they be someone who you’d hire. I have had around 9 of my interns become full time paid staff in my organisation over the years, but many more haven’t made the cut.
Below I will outline what to do in the worst-case scenario – where you feel “now that was a waste of everyone’s time” and the best case scenario – where all you’re thinking is “let’s hire them now before someone else gets them”.

Below I will outline what to do in the worst-case scenario – where you feel “now that was a waste of everyone’s time” and the best case scenario – where all you’re thinking is “let’s hire them now before someone else gets them”.

Worst case: Just popping in:

The ones you know will just be passing through. In some cases there will be interns who come through your doors and who you know are just not the right fit – for whatever reason. In these cases I make sure to still give them tasks to do, and give them some feedback, but use tasks that I know wont make a difference one way or another – they are just for practice. As it’s coming to the end of their (hopefully short) time with you, be positive and friendly and send them on their way wishing them the best.

Best case: Those who impress:

There have been interns who have come through who were so advanced I prepared some tasks they would be able to work on with clients. We’d offer certain people in our network a “supervised intern” service where they would get help and assistance and the intern would get a real client to work with. It would have to be a win-win – for a client who wanted to work with us but with minimal financial investment. They knew to be more patient and would agree to give constructive feedback – and would keep in mind that the intern was learning – with us helping behind the scenes.

3 possible outcomes

There comes a time, anything from 2 weeks to 6 moths and depending on their situation and the agreement you have, that you need to either let your intern go, or possibly bring them closer.
If they’ve really impressed you: With those who are head and shoulders above the rest be sure to let them know you are very happy with their work and see if after the internship is over, you may be able to get them to continue doing some freelance work for you until you actually can hire them full time (if you feel it’s right!)
If they were fine but didn’t blow you away: Hopefully towards the end of their time with you, you had them help out with a task you needed to get done, and you found the experience rewarding and so did they. They may likely ask you for a reference, and in these cases I just try and focus on the most positive things – no need to be overly critical and shatter their dreams, even if you wouldn’t enthusiastically hire them.
Complete waste of time: It happens. Sometimes however well someone does in an interview, or seems when they first come along, their skills and attitude can be completely off the mark. I have had 2 occasions where I had to cut internships short because of these things. But it hasn’t meant I shut myself off to the interns who come along – for the most part it’s been a good experience.

With these things in place you will be sure to attract and inspire amazing interns, who could become future employees, advocates, supporters, and even friends. Your future amazing interns could in one or more of these ways make a lasting and positive impact on your business.

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