Interning at a Startup: 5 Lessons I Learned

By Carolyn Westphal.

Every summer, thousands of college students move to different parts of the world to begin their summer internships.  Whether paid or unpaid, the point of summer internships for most people is to gain insight into the post-graduation working world and decide which career paths interest them the most.

This summer, I traveled to San Francisco to intern in operations at Frankly Inc., a tech startup.  If someone told me this is where I was going to be a year ago, I never would have believed them.  In fact, I didn’t even know what it was like to work at a startup or what exactly a startup business entailed.  I knew that a startup was, well, started up recently, and I knew that they were typically small in size since they were new, but that was it.

I attend college in Providence, Rhode Island, where the winters can be brutal.  This past winter was especially challenging given the amount of snowfall throughout the winter and into spring, so I made the decision to escape the East Coast and live in California for the summer.

I knew it would be warm on the East Coast over the summer, but I wanted to travel and explore the West Coast, and my aversion to the snow at that point fueled my search for summer internships in California.

When I began searching, I found a position for a software engineer internship at Frankly Inc., a startup in San Francisco.  I knew nothing about software engineering or startups, but I reached out to Frankly in the hopes that they would have other internship roles within their company. Since they were located in San Francisco, where I wanted to be, and they seemed like a cool, quickly growing company, I decided to pursue them.

One thing led to another, and an Operations Internship position opened up for me. A few phone interviews and email exchanges later, I signed my letter of intent and was on my way to San Francisco, California, not knowing what to expect.

Here I am with only one week left of my 12 week internship, reflecting on how quickly these 3 months have gone by.  I have gained a wide variety of knowledge and confidence in my ability to work at a startup in such a short period of time, and I am thankful to have had this incredible, unique opportunity. I also wanted to use this experience to speak on the highlights of what I learned this summer while working at a startup company.

Here are the top 5 lessons I learned from interning in the startup world:

1. Maintain the mindset of a regular employee, even as an intern

I think one of the major differences in work ethic between an intern and regular employee is that most times interns are focused on the present and what needs to be done that day or over the course of the summer.  Employees, on the other hand, are more focused on where the company will be in the long-term and how to get there.  Even though I knew I would only be at my internship for three months, I learned it’s very important, especially at a startup, to have the same mentality as everyone else because they need as much help reaching long term goals as possible.

Successful, rapidly growing startups need all hands on deck and that is where interns step up and help. Because I maintained this mentality, I thought about how projects and tasks I was assigned would impact the company in the future and how I could tailor the projects to fit the company’s image and mentality.  I knew I wasn’t completing assignments only to please my supervisor but to also have a lasting impact on the company which, in turn, made me work harder.  My supervisor and co-workers had confidence that I would be able to successfully complete each project just like a full-time, permanent employee.

2. Embrace the fact that you will wear multiple hats.

I came into my internship as a People Operations Intern but quickly realized that since all aspects of the company were changing and growing so rapidly, it was important to be flexible and open-minded about the jobs I was assigned.

I played the role of producer while creating a company film, and through that, I learned how important the image of a new company is, especially during the early stages when trying to appeal to as many investors and clients as possible.

I played the role of Accounts Payable manager as I kept track of Accounts Payable on a weekly basis.  Through that position, I learned that even the the most redundant tasks such as paying bills on time are extremely valuable to maintaining a company’s path towards success.

I helped with projects in marketing and learned that advertising your brand on social media is very calculated, and again super important in shaping the image of your company.

I assisted with the mid-year performance review and learned the importance of keeping everyone on the same page with regards to company values and KPIs so that employees know they are all working toward a common goal. Working in People Operations and on the performance reviews also taught me how critical employee well-being is, and that the happiest of companies are ultimately the most successful.

This is because they have a higher retention rate and are able to recruit highly qualified people easily since they appear more fun and attractive.  (Cue nerf gun battles and happy hours)


3. If you want to learn more about other career paths within the company, reach out to people currently on that path.

If you want to know what other careers are like, it’s important to reach out to people in that career to schedule a brief meeting and, if you’re lucky, gain some hands on experience.  What is great about startups is that everyone is super busy, so it is easy to reach out and ask folks in different departments to assign you projects so that not only are you helping them, but you are also learning about that field.
For someone like me who doesn’t have a definitive idea of what I want to do post-graduation, it was nice to have this option, so I could explore different aspects of the business like Finance, Business Development, and Marketing.  My co-workers were very willing to assign me tasks or chat with me about what their roles entailed.

4. As an intern at a startup, reach out to co-workers about postgraduate advice in general.

Chances are, a majority of the people working at a startup are not that much older than you, so they have a fresh perspective on postgraduate life.  As I continued to get to know my co-workers better, I asked them for advice regarding careers, grad school, and post-undergrad life in general.

Their advice was helpful and insightful because they were actually interested in what I had to say and wanted to help.  I made decisions this summer about grad school and post-graduation plans I never would have made if I didn’t have the input from my Frankly family.

5. Embrace the awesome culture and let it fuel your work.

I know it’s cliché to say that startup culture is fantastic and that there is nothing like it, but it is completely true.  We dress whichever way works for us individually and keeps us comfortable in the office.

At the startup where I worked, we were provided standing desks and ergonomically correct chairs because people typically worked long hours and needed to be comfortable in order to get their work done and not dread some of the longer days.  Free, healthy meals were provided.  My company ordered fresh smoothies for breakfast every Tuesday and delicious, healthy lunches throughout the week.


We had everything from gourmet pizzas and eclectic ethnic dishes to healthy salads at our disposal.  Our walls were painted with whiteboard paint so employees could write or draw their ideas virtually anywhere in the office.  This enhanced creative, flowing thoughts, and made it easier to put random thoughts into words since the whole office was a drawing board.

We had nerf gun battles so that employees could take a break from their work and enjoy themselves before tackling a project again.  Lastly, we had an office dog, our very own mascot!  What more can I say?  As long as we completed our work and maintained a positive attitude, that is all that mattered, and that was especially easy to do when an energetic and fun culture was fueling our work.

I am fortunate to have had this experience at a startup because it took all aspects I would have experienced working at a larger company and scaled them down to a smaller, more personal level.  I learned more about the business world and myself while working here than I think I would have been able to at a large corporation, and I clearly saw the impact I was making on the company!

I highly encourage everyone to intern at a startup, especially those of you who, like myself, are not quite sure what you want to do after graduation.  I can guarantee it will make you feel more comfortable and excited about the future and have a lasting impact on yourself.