Ultimate Guide to Hiring Interns for Startups

12 min read
Startup Intern

For many startup founders, agility and resourcefulness are key. You hustle, you pivot, you dream big, and you know that every team member counts. But there’s a secret weapon many technology companies overlook: interns.

This isn’t your dad’s coffee-fetching internship. Today’s interns are brimming with fresh ideas, raw talent, and a hunger to learn and contribute. They’re your chance to inject new energy, fill talent gaps, and discover your next rockstar employee. Research shows that 87% of businesses report increased productivity after hiring interns. 

In this guide, we’ll Our ultimate guide equips you with the knowledge and strategies to hire rockstar interns, fuel your growth, and build a thriving company culture

However, the process of hiring interns for startups requires careful consideration and a well-crafted strategy. From defining your internship program’s objectives to identifying the right candidates and providing meaningful experiences, this Ultimate Guide is your roadmap to successfully navigating the world of intern recruitment. Whether you’re a budding entrepreneur or an established startup looking to optimize your internship initiatives, join us as we explore the crucial steps and best practices to ensure you attract, select, and retain top-tier interns who will contribute to the growth and innovation of your startup.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Interns At A Startup

But, like any venture, hiring interns for startups presents both golden opportunities and unique challenges. Understanding both sides is crucial to creating a win-win situation for your growing company.


First, let’s explore the potential advantages:

  • Fresh perspectives: Interns bring a new lens to your problems, sparking creative solutions you might have missed.
  • Cost-effective talent: Get skilled individuals on board during busy periods without breaking the bank.
  • Talent pipeline: Nurture future full-time employees, building loyalty and a strong company culture.
  • Employer branding: Attract top talent by offering attractive startup internship programs and showcasing your commitment to development.


However, it’s important to consider the potential disadvantages inherent to the startup environment:

  • Time investment: Training and managing interns require time and resources that could be focused elsewhere.
  • Productivity curve: It takes time for interns to ramp up and become fully productive.
  • Legal compliance: Navigating intern regulations can be complex, requiring careful attention to employment laws.
  • High turnover: Internship durations can be short, leading to frequent onboarding and offboarding.

When Should Startups Hire Interns?

Hiring interns for your startup isn’t just about filling immediate needs; it’s about strategic timing and maximizing the benefits for everyone involved. So, when should you strike? Here are some key moments to consider:

  1. Growth Stage: When your workload is exploding and you need extra hands, interns can be a cost-effective way to scale up quickly. Think website updates during a product launch, market research for a new campaign, or content creation for social media blitzes. Interns bring fresh perspectives and energy, helping you meet those growing demands without derailing your core team.
  2. Product Launch: Launching a new product is a crucial but resource-intensive phase. Interns can be invaluable for beta testing, gathering user feedback, and assisting with marketing and PR efforts. Their youthful tech savviness and outside-the-box thinking can help refine your product and ensure a successful launch.
  3. Talent Acquisition: Looking for your next superstar employee? Internships can be your secret talent pipeline. By offering meaningful projects and mentorship, you can identify promising individuals, assess their cultural fit, and build long-term relationships that could lead to full-time roles down the line. It’s a win-win: you get to evaluate potential hires, and interns gain valuable experience and connections.
  4. Resource Scarcity: Maybe you’re facing a temporary budget crunch or a key team member is on leave. Interns can fill temporary gaps without breaking the bank or disrupting your team structure. They can handle administrative tasks, manage basic customer support, or even take on smaller-scale projects that free up your core team for strategic initiatives.

Remember, timing is everything. By strategically aligning your startup internship program with key moments in your startup’s growth, you can unlock the full potential of this dynamic resource.

How to Hire Interns for Your Startup

Finding the right intern isn’t just about filling a slot; it’s about creating a win-win situation for your startup, your employees, and the intern themselves. Here’s how to attract the best talent and set everyone up for success:

1. Pre-Interview Materials

Send candidates preparatory materials, like case studies or sample tasks, to assess their skills and potential fit. This saves valuable interview time and helps you identify interns who can hit the ground running.

2. Challenge-Based Interviews

Go beyond the resume! Design practical challenges that simulate real-world tasks interns might encounter. This gives you a firsthand look at their problem-solving skills, work ethic, and ability to handle pressure, revealing talents beyond their resumes.

3. Real Work, Real Impact

Don’t relegate interns to menial tasks. Assign them impactful projects that contribute to your goals. This not only keeps them engaged and motivated but also allows them to develop valuable skills and contribute meaningfully to your success.

4. Future-Proofing Talent

Look for interns with transferable skills and potential for growth. Consider their long-term career aspirations and provide opportunities to learn new things and expand their skillset. Remember, happy interns often turn into loyal employees.

5. Transparency and Communication

Clearly explain the startup internship program, expectations, and compensation structure upfront. Provide regular feedback, mentorship, and guidance to ensure interns feel valued and supported throughout their experience.

Building a successful internship program goes beyond finding the right candidates. By investing in the process and creating a positive experience for everyone involved, you can cultivate a powerful resource that fuels your startup’s growth and builds a pipeline of future talent.

In the next section, we’ll explore the different types of startup internship arrangements and how to compensate startup interns, helping you choose the perfect fit for your startup’s needs and ensure legal compliance.

4 Types of Internship Arrangements Your Startup Can Offer

Now that you know the ideal timing for bringing interns on board, let’s dive into the practicalities of choosing the right type of internship arrangement for your startup. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so consider your resources, needs, and legal compliance.

Hiring Interns As An Independent Contractor

This option might seem tempting – no employee hassles, just project-based work. However, tread carefully. Most intern relationships don’t fit the independent contractor model (think HR consultants with their own tools and clients). Interns often lack the legal standing and work autonomy of true independent contractors. Misclassification can lead to legal and financial repercussions, so consult with an attorney before proceeding.

Hiring Unpaid Interns

These can be legal under specific conditions, but they come with several ethical and practical considerations. The work must be educational for the intern, not a benefit for your company. You can’t displace regular employees or treat them like regular workers. Remember, unpaid internship can damage your employer brand and attract scrutiny, so weigh the benefits carefully.

Hiring Interns As Employees

This is the safest and most common option for technology companies. Hiring interns as part-time employees comes with more obligations (payroll, taxes, etc.) but provides clear legal footing and ensures interns are adequately compensated and protected. Remember, even part-time employees may have limited access to benefits, so factor that into your decision.


Interns As An Independent Contractor

Unpaid Interns

Interns As Part-time Employees

Interns As Full-time Employees


Withholdings and employment taxes


Workers Comp


Company benefits (health benefits, vacation, sick time, paid holidays, unemployment compensation)







Training effort




How to Find the Best Internship Candidate for Your Startup

Now that you have your internship arrangement lined up, it’s time to attract the best and brightest. Here are some tips:

  • Target the right talent pool: Utilize university partnerships, online platforms like InternMatch and WayUp, and leverage your network for referrals.
  • Showcase your company culture: Highlight your mission, values, and opportunities for learning and growth in your internship position description.
  • Go beyond resumes: Conduct skills assessments and focus on cultural fit and passion for your mission.
  • Offer a competitive compensation package: Consider a combination of salary, benefits, and learning opportunities.
  • Engage them early on: Respond promptly to applications, provide clear interview timelines, and give candidates a glimpse into your work environment.

Want to learn how to manage and mentor those rockstar interns? Check out our article featuring insights from Nathan Parcells: https://foundersnetwork.com/blog/fnmentoring-how-to-hire-and-manage-rockstar-interns-with-nathan-parcells/. It’s packed with insights on maximizing the potential of your startup internship program.

Creating Internships that Make a Lasting Difference

Remember, a successful internship program isn’t just about finding the right fit – it’s about creating a mutually beneficial and impactful experience. Here are some best practices:

  • Assign meaningful projects: Give interns ownership and responsibility for real-world tasks that contribute to your goals.
  • Provide mentorship and guidance: Regular feedback, support, and learning opportunities are key to keeping interns engaged and motivated.
  • Foster a collaborative environment: Integrate interns into the team and encourage open communication.
  • Track progress and celebrate achievements: Show interns that their work matters and recognize their contributions.
  • Connect them with your network: Introduce interns to other professionals in your field, broaden their horizons, and help them build their professional connections.

By investing in your internship program and creating a positive experience for everyone involved, you can unlock the power of interns as a strategic resource for growth, build a pipeline of future talent, and even contribute to a more diverse and inclusive tech ecosystem.

FAQs About Hiring Interns for Startups


How do I find local interns?

There are several great ways to connect with talented local interns for your startup:

  • Partner with universities and colleges: Many institutions have career fairs, internship programs, and alumni networks you can tap into. Reach out to their career centers or specific departments relevant to your field.
  • Utilize online platforms: Websites like InternMatch, Handshake, and WayUp let you post internship opportunities and filter candidates based on location, skills, and educational background.
  • Leverage your local network: Tap into your own professional network, including fellow startup founders, advisors, and mentors, to see if they know any promising interns in your area.
  • Get involved in the community: Participate in local tech meetups, events, and workshops to connect with potential interns face-to-face.

Are interns considered new hires?

The answer depends on the type of internship position.

  • Part-time employees: If your interns are on your payroll and regularly work more than 35 hours per week, they’ll be considered new hires and subject to all usual employment regulations.
  • Independent contractors: True independent contractors are not considered employees, but the classification can be tricky. Consult with an attorney to ensure proper legal compliance.
  • Unpaid intern: Unpaid internships that meet specific legal criteria (educational benefit for intern, no displacement of regular employees, etc.) are not considered new hires. However, these arrangements can raise ethical concerns and attract scrutiny.

What can my startup gain from having interns?

Having interns can offer your startup a wealth of benefits:

  • Fresh perspectives and innovation: Interns bring a new lens to your problems, sparking creative solutions and injecting fresh energy into your team.
  • Cost-effective talent: You can get skilled individuals on board for specific projects or during busy periods without breaking the bank.
  • Talent pipeline: Build relationships with promising young talent and identify potential future full-time employees.
  • Employer branding: Showcase your commitment to development and attract top talent through a dynamic internship model.
  • Increased productivity: Interns can help with administrative tasks, research, and project support, freeing up your core team for strategic work.

For even more details on the benefits of hiring interns, check out our article: https://foundersnetwork.com/blog/startup-hiring-interns/

Is hiring interns a good idea for a startup?

Absolutely! In the right circumstances, hiring interns can be a strategic and beneficial move for your startup. Here are some ideal situations:

  • Growth phase: When your workload is increasing and you need extra hands for specific projects.
  • Product launch: Interns can be invaluable for beta testing, gathering user feedback, and assisting with marketing and PR efforts.
  • Talent acquisition: Use internships to identify and cultivate potential future employees.
  • Resource scarcity: Fill temporary gaps and handle smaller tasks without disrupting your core team.

Remember, timing is key. Consider these factors and explore the different types of internship programs discussed in our guide to find the perfect fit for your needs.

What are the rules for hiring unpaid interns and paid interns for a startup operating in the US?

Navigating intern compensation can be complex. Here’s a breakdown of the rules in the US:

Unpaid internships: These must meet specific criteria to be legal, including:

  • The training must be similar to vocational school
  • The training benefits the intern, not the company
  • No displacement of regular employees
  • No immediate benefit to the company
  • Interns not entitled to a job at completion
  • Clear understanding that interns are not entitled to wages (a stipend may be permitted)

California adds these additional requirements:

  • Training as part of an educational curriculum
  • No treatment as employees for benefits
  • General training for any employer, not the company offering the program
  • Non-employment-focused screening process
  • Educational-focused advertising

Paid internships: Part-time employees working less than 35 hours per week are subject to most employer obligations, including payroll taxes, workers’ comp, and withholdings. They can receive limited or no benefits based on company policies.

For an in-depth guide on intern compensation, including salary ranges and legal tips, check out our resource: https://foundersnetwork.com/blog/how-to-compensate-startup-interns/.

Remember, legal compliance is crucial, so consult with an attorney if you have any doubts about your specific internship model.

Ready to unleash the rockstar power of interns in your startup?

You’ve got the knowledge, the timing, and the tools. Now, go out there and fuel your hustle with fresh perspectives, boundless energy, and a pipeline of future talent. Remember, treating your interns well isn’t just good karma – it’s an investment in your company’s future.

But the journey doesn’t end here. At Founders Network, we’re more than just an “ultimate guide.” We’re a thriving community of startup founders, experts, and resources like you, ready to share insights, support your growth, and celebrate your every win.

So, are you ready to join a network that takes startups further? See if you qualify for membership: https://foundersnetwork.com/request/

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