How to get the right MBA internship at a startup?

I had three ambitious goals when I started my MBA-

  1. To try out different roles through semester internships including at least one VC role
  2. To do a PAID, meaningful summer internship at a startup
  3. Join/build a startup fulltime either after graduating or in between (drop out if necessary) – identify the right opportunity whenever it comes along

Why do I say ambitious? – because startups do not usually want an MBA intern (or non-developer) unless you are from HBS or they have [too] much funding (read Groupon, GroupMe, Foursquare, LivingSocial) or both. My only hope was to apply patiently and persistently, often annoyingly and not to give up.

I wouldn’t want to give advice but I learned few things along the path that might be helpful to someone in similar boat-

  1. Apply selectively and meticulously – Do not dilute your efforts by applying to tons of positions. Select few that you are sincerely interested in and concentrate your efforts there. Among 10 or so applications I sent out, I created a full write up (dont want to call this cover letter as it was more in-depth) customized fully to the individual company and position. As is relevant to startups, I typically mentioned feedback on existing application, recommendations to make it better and what role can I play in that. I sent this 2-4 page document to startups I applied to and mostly heard back for a follow up interview. I would disagree that recruitment is a volume function in the end – why should it be? As much as the company is recruiting you, you are also recruiting a suitable employer. But yes, to the extent that there is a dearth of MBA positions at startups, you should go out a little beyond than your immediate target employers to not miss out on some great opportunities.
  2. Do meaningful networking – MBAs are infamous for over-networking. While sensible network can help immensely, networking for the sake of it mostly leads to much time spent without real fruits. If you are meeting 10 people every week and not reconnecting with them later on (and there should be a reason to reconnect), then those 10 people might eventually land in your LinkedIn contacts but they will not be the ones you can get any professional help from. I am saying this because I’ve been there and now I realize how draining and time consuming it can be and in the end, futile. As opposed to it, try having meaningful conversation with just 2-3 people and connect with them more substantially over time.
    • I’ll tell a story here – I participated in PairUpNYC where you are supposed to mention what you are looking for in a business partner and they suggest 3-4 people that match what you are looking for. I talked to these people and felt my wavelength matched with one developer in particular. I followed up with him and had enough ideas to offer to get him interested as well. We then met few times discussing our business interests and decided to help each other informally in our quests. He started a startup and even almost made it to Techstars NYC. Although at this point, I knew he is busy enough with his venture and may not be able to help much in my idea, I sent him notes whenever I find something that might be useful for his idea. This has built a better trust between us and I can rely on him to give me sound advice and any other help. The math is simple – networking is effective when you have something valuable to offer in return as well. Unfortunately many people just waste time making connections and throwing names without having any real offering.
  3. Think long term, help out if you can – Just because you don’t see an immediate benefit or purpose, do not turn down something. Whenever you genuinely help without expecting favors in return, it comes back with much larger returns.
    • A friend introduced me to a Stern alumni startup sometime back and I eventually formed a great bonding with the founders. Neither them nor I were thinking of any tangible benefits when we started keeping in touch. While I introduced them to the VC fund I was working for, they introduced me to other startup, one where I finally landed for summer!
    • I (in a team) was advising Holstee at InSITE this Spring. I helped them with whatever resources I could gather and did not hesitate going out of my way to do so. In return, the founder, Fabian, put a phenomenal feedback for me in InSITE and offered to provide such great recommendations for my internship applications that I could not have got from anyone by just asking.
    • There are at least 2-3 other people I have helped informally; in fact, I hardly turn down meeting/opportunity to chatting with anyone who talked honestly and humbly. If nothing else, you earn genuine goodwill. An independent client I provided some technical help with before school showed up to my EEX conference just to say ‘Hi’ – and that means more to me than selling 10 more tickets (which I did not have to as the conference was sold out within few days).
  4. Don’t lose focus – I can never overstate this but B school is a place to get lost if you are not firm minded. With friends sharing great sounding anecdotes from variety of careers and places, one may end up questioning their own goals. To this, I can only say that this is why it is so important to have done a thorough introspection into what you really want before starting MBA. As it happened, I got my final offer for summer only on April 28th, 15 days before the semester was getting over! Now when I think about it, it seems a bit scary but never did I doubt what I wanted to do and never for once, I would have compromised on my dreams. Its not only about focus, many students apply to back ups in case they don’t get the right startup/VC internship but in 99% of cases, they end up going to those back ups because they cant wait till the end when the startup/VCs actually start recruiting for summer. It’s a game of nerves that can only be won with passion.
  5. Work smart and be resourceful – I was interning at Veronis Ventures in Spring and knew that they won’t be taking paid summer interns. I understood their constraints and kept them in the loop as I started applying elsewhere. When I humbly requested recommendations for my internship applications, they agreed right away. My last recommendation came from Paul Tumpowsky, InSITE’s chairman and great promoter of startups in NY.

And, now the story of how I got my summer internship and checked off that elusive second bullet on my wish list-

First things first, I did not hedge. I did not apply to a single bank or consulting firm – not because I was too confident but because I did not want to give myself an option. The only traditional role I applied to was the Google Product Manager role, which after 3 phone interviews in end of April, looked impossible to go on.  I applied to select startups (related to my interests in location, small business) –

  1. Foursquare – For some reason, I was too keen on Foursquare since first semester. I prepared a write up of my ideas, sent out to the contact at Foursquare for a business development position in Oct 2010. The guy liked my ideas, asked for a timeline and mentioned a 30 hour-in-office fulltime internship opportunity. Whatever I would have tried, that just meant killing myself in first semester in a Business school. I had to let that pass and the guy asked me to touch base again for summer later. After no response for many months, I got another conversation going on in Mar 2011 (thanks to Mr Fred Wilson, see http://nisthaonweb.com/blog/2011/03/01/how-to-get-into-fred-wilsons-inbox/) but after a satisfactory phone conversation, I was again denied and given the reason that timing is not working out i.e. ‘we need someone immediately’.
  2. Yelp (some might argue it is not a startup) – I applied for a product manager internship and after taking their own sweet time, they offered a phone screening. On completing that, I was asked to submit a UI design for a Yelp feature (cant divulge the details). I hadn’t realized that their PM position is very close to front end designing itself (which is badly needed on www.yelp.com I must say). I still gave it my best shot (and it was quite fun) but I am not a designer in the end.
  3. Yipit – This is the most fascinating recruiting experience I had. Needless to say, I have great respect for Vin Vacanti, who I heard few times on panels. He is frankly one of the sharpest startup persons I’ve had the privilege of talking to in NY (and I have met more than few by now) – so to be able to work with him and Jim was nothing less than a dream opportunity. I had again prepared a write up about my ideas and sent it over for a business development position. And I had sent references (mentioned above). My background had nothing BDish about it and I got a respectful denial from Jim. I replied reiterating my interest and expressing motivation to offer whatever it takes. Jim was most humble and asked me to meet Vin next morning. I went in, the interview started. As Vin started giving me scenarios on how to sell Yipit API, I realized that while I had good ideas, I wasn’t prepared for ‘selling’. I am not a natural salesperson and although it can be learned, I wasn’t prepared for it at that time. Here, I would mention how 15 mins of that conversation with Vin gave me more insights than hours of seminars or networking – I mean it. He said one thing that registered deeply in my mind – “If we are not the right partner for a client, I believe in telling them so because that earns you their trust, which is the hardest thing to acquire”. And he mentioned one instance where Yipit had told a client that they should instead open their own deal generation section rather than partnering with Yipit. By now, I was hooked. Anyways, this is where Vin switched gears.
  4.  

    “You’re a developer, right?” – “Yes”

    “Why don’t you join as an engineer” – I thought for 5 seconds about how much I could learn by working with this team and said “Yes, if you are willing to accept my learning curve since Python is all new to me”. “Don’t worry, I am sure you will pick it up. How much time do you have right now?” I told him I had 45 minutes more. “Perfect, you should meet my development team” and he left.

    I met 3 Yipit developers in next 45 minutes and Jim came to meet in the end. I told him, “I had really applied to only few startups that I was interested in”. He nodded “Of course, you couldn’t have if you put that much effort in one application. Everyone liked you, we want you to meet our CTO and then we’ll see”

    I met their CTO the following week and submitted a sample Python code on the weekend of my finals. Despite everything looking nice, I got a mail saying that Yipit is getting applications from many talented developers and unfortunately, I cant be offered the internship. It was tough and dejecting but I truly loved the people I met. It was a worthwhile experience.

    Some people might consider this as going backwards and wondering whats the point of doing MBA if you go back to a developer role. I did not see it so (after some thoughts), for me, the MBA is understanding things about business that I did not. Even a tech internship at Yipit would have given me the insider exposure to running a startup – which is what I wanted from my internship anyways.Plus, development role is and will remain the key in tech startups and I would never hesitate in remaining associated with active software development (I am currently doing rails sample application on my own to keep myself informed and up to date). This is also what I mean by saying one should identify the opportunity when it crosses your path and have faith in your ability to make it more worthwhile.

  5. Foodspotting – I met Soraya Darabi in between my finals in the second week of May. By this time, I had one offer that I’ll mention later. This was another business development internship but unpaid (I did not know at the time of applying). Apparently, Soraya liked me because her previous intern had recommended me highly and she offered me the opportunity. However, given that I had a paid offer and Foodspotting could not pay me, she was gracious to suggest that I take on the paid internship. And that’s what I did. However, even after knowing that I am not going to work there, I passed along the notes I had prepared (but did not get a chance to discuss in the interview) back to Soraya.
  6. Fundspire – And now for the final one! This financial tech startup was slightly at the back of my radar since I had just come from Citigroup and hated Wall St. Although, I think fintech startups are a great idea, I preferred Internet, consumer startups for summer. I interviewed for a sales and bizdev internship at Fundspire in mid April since it was an interesting, revenue generating company, team was small and the position was paid – I figured I can customize the experience and get to learn new skills like B2B sales. How right I was! This is where I am interning currently and have learned more in 2 weeks than in months at Citi. I am helping the CEO raise money currently and will start sales process soon (a detailed post on the subject is due).

(I also applied to Groupon, GroupMe but did not hear back)

Let me wrap up my rambling. Finding the perfect internship was a quest that needed patience and determination. I had those. I’ll admit that I had pretty high failure rate but as Chris Dixon says, “if you are not failing enough, you are probably not trying harder”. I was also unfortunate in many applications but the end turned out such a blessing that I feel everything happens for a purpose. It was not without sweating and hustling. Along the way, I got advice from Charlie O’Donnell too whose seminars like ‘How to get a job at a startup’ try to address such issues and who was gracious to reply to my emails often (they do if you ask the right question).

One more thing – I sound like a greedy dog when I emphasize on paid internships but its not about ‘how much is the pay’ as it is about ‘yes, its paid because your work is worth something to us’. I am getting paid probably half as much as my fellow Sternies are making but I don’t mind because it is enough for me. I also understand that many genuine startups cant afford to pay but I would like to feel that I am adding some value through my work that warrants compensation – it is a matter of principle I suppose.

In the end, as I have always said, this was possible because I was in New York. Made in NYC (http://nytm.org/made/) brand is growing.

P.S. Pardon the clumsy writing; I am running short of time and this may never see daylight if I keep revising.

 

MBA Internships

One step at a time - Flickr

Summer internships can be critical for programs such as MBA that are inherently practical and hands-on in nature. The fact that more than 70% MBA students are career switchers, trying to get an entry position in an extremely tough market makes it inevitable in today’s world.

One thing I like about NYU Stern is the accessibility to real employers. Continue reading MBA Internships