High-potential tech startups provide the best environment to learn fundamental business skills from today's most talented minds.
All right, I’ll come clean. My ‘Head of Business Development’ title is missing a small but important word… ‘intern.’ I’m really a student at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and I had the opportunity to spend my summer helping lead sales, marketing and business development for Google Ventures-backed startup DataFox. My audacious title gave me respect and credibility to the outside world, but, more importantly, it also provided me with a tremendous learning opportunity and the ability to make a real impact.
I recently completed my internship at DataFox, and I wanted to highlight five reasons I believe every business-oriented student should at some point intern at a technology startup.
1) Learn How To Sell
The ability to sell is among the most important skills we can learn as aspiring business leaders. Why? Effective business leaders are constantly selling. They must sell customers on the value proposition of the product. They must sell investors on their entrepreneurial prowess and the merits of the proposed business idea. They must sell employees on the company’s purpose, vision and culture. By definition, a ‘leader’ must have a unique ability to convince others to follow his lead.
Startups offer a unique opportunity to practice effective sales. Most young companies are desperately selling on all three of the aforementioned fronts and interns will inevitably find themselves aiding the leadership team with critical sales tasks.
At DataFox, I led sales calls with Fortune 500 prospects, developed and executed outbound marketing campaigns, worked on partnerships, assisted with the creation of a mission statement, represented the company at conferences, and created structure around the sales funnel. These experiences taught me a great deal about how to most effectively and efficiently sell a product, a vision, and my expertise. Regardless of where my business career leads, these skills will be tremendously useful as I seek to persuade selective institutions and people.
2) Make An Impact
Broadly speaking, I’ve encountered two types of business internships. In the first and probably most common, I’m asked to conduct some kind of research and deliver a detailed report. I become an expert on the topic and may have the opportunity to present my findings to the executive team. I get an “aha” or two, a pat on the back and sometimes a full-time offer. The report gets filed away and rarely revisited.
In the second type of internship, I’m given a project to tackle with goals, deliverables and deadlines. These projects are often core to the business and drive tangible value-add. I develop a strategy, propose a game plan, get a budget, and execute.
Most startups don’t have the time or need for theoretical reports. Entrepreneurs are putting out fires on multiple fronts, and they would rather have interns tackle other important tasks that have fallen through the cracks than create high-level strategy documents.
One of my first projects this summer was to segment our market, choose a customer group to target, develop a strategy, and execute. The exercise taught us a great deal about our target market, the needs of our customers and how we can iterate on the product roadmap to better address these needs. I brought users to our platform and created an email marketing playbook that will be used repeatedly for future marketing campaigns.
3) Work With Talent
When I was an undergraduate intern at Lehman Brothers in the summer of 2007, I was thrilled to work with some of the brightest minds in our country. The top business students from the top schools flocked to Wall Street in search of high-paying jobs, robust learning opportunities and an accelerated career trajectory.
Today, the tide seems to have shifted. A flood of wealth and opportunity – combined with a more appealing lifestyle – are luring our country’s young talent to Silicon Valley and the technology industry. I feel blessed to have spent my summer learning from software engineers, data scientists, design gurus, and MBAs who are operating on the leading-edge of the new economy. I have no doubt that several of my summer colleagues will go on to make an enormously positive impact on our world.
4) Take A Risk
A summer internship is a risk-free opportunity to explore a high-risk career. I thought about the risk-reward of joining a startup as follows. In a worst-case scenario, the business fails and I return to school. If nothing else, I will have learned something and can speak to the mistakes that were made. We often learn more from failure than we do from success. On the other hand, I could get lucky and join a rocket ship on its way to becoming the next unicorn. My impactful work experience will be a highly saleable and the relationships I build will pay dividends for years to come. In a best-case scenario, my selection and timing are impeccable and I’m given the opportunity to take a ride on the next Facebook, Whatsapp or GoPro. I’m given outsized responsibility for my age, I’m challenged but able to grow with the company, and I can retire before the ripe age of 40.
Sure the most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle, but where else can I give myself that upside with very little cost? I can assure you that the expected return on the average summer internship is much, much lower.
5) Seek Transferable Skills
Internships provide an ideal learning environment and startups offer numerous opportunities to gather hands-on, transferable skills. While I would have been unlikely to land a full-time career in sales given my lack of prior experience, I was able to convince DataFox to give me the sales reins because (i) I was an inexpensive, short-term resource, (ii) I showed that I was responsible and could learn quickly, and (iii) the team was understaffed in the area. The experience provided me with practical knowledge of sales and how to use persuasive communication to achieve a desired outcome.
Regardless of whether my path sees me rejoining DataFox full-time, returning to my prior career in private equity, starting my own business, or taking a managerial role at a Fortune 500, I know the hands-on skills I have learned this summer will be immediately transferable to my future role. Unit economics, customer metrics, effective communication, and thoughtful marketing strategies are used and analyzed by business people in all fields. I believe a granular understanding of these value drivers will make us all better business leaders, entrepreneurs, investors and advisors.
Behold the utility of youth – now is the best time in life to take a calculated risk with your career. With limited responsibilities and the safety net of another year of school, you are ideally positioned to join a high-potential startup. Get out there and build something!