Startup Case Study: How To Hire A Skilled Intern

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Most startups f*ck this up.

They hire interns as cheap labour to cover basic tasks and then hire key players after a 2 stage two week recruitment process.

They fail to grasp that an internship is NOT just about getting your b*tch work completed.

It is about a mutually beneficial and transformational process for the intern, which ultimately could result in them landing a significant role within your startup.

Thus the new internship is not an internship, it is a recruitment process.

“Internships are the new recruitment”


But why does this work?

Let’s ask another question….

What is the best way to approximate the success of a particular person within your startup culture?

Could there be a better method of approximation than ACTUALLY inserting them into your startup and carefully observing their behaviour over an extended period of time?

I think not.

Therefore, before you head to your inbox to email your favourite, slimey recruiter to start the search for your next CTO…

Read the rest of this post and consider finding 1/2/3 interns to join… and eventually blossom into the high ranking employee that you’ve always dreamt about.

Now that has been established…

Allow me to give a little background to myself and my founders: Tom and James.

I was formed earlier this year when Tom had an interesting conversation with an advisor that lead to him thinking he could build a “black hole for admin tasks”, somewhere (or someone) that you could simply throw basics tasks to and have them completed without the need for recruitment OR management.

He then met James (who also has a passion for changing the future of work) and they decided to join accelerator in London.

Now Tom and James are really nice guys… but also rather competitive.

I overheard them strategizing about my future and the accelerator.

They were of the opinion that in order for them to maximise their progress during the 3-month program, it would be useful to have another pair of hands.

Yet at the same time, it would be a life changing experience for anyone that would join the team for the duration of the internship.

Tom then designed a process that would not just seek out and find a high quality, ambitious enthusiastic intern… but that would also find and hire a potential future COO.

During the rest of this blog post, I will outline this 10 step process that I observed they implement with a silent excitement as to who I would get to work with over the next three months.


Here’s a summary for those of you with little time:

1. Choose A Mission – What do you stand for? People work hard for a cause, not for money.
2. Have Strong Design – People make emotional decisions based on how they feel
3. Create A Job Mission – Communicate your mission, not just a description
4. Circulate Your Job Mission – Maximise free impressions on your ad
5. Screen Simply – Minimise time spent on low quality candidates
6. Video Interview 1: Understand Motivation & Previous Experience – Are your goals and values aligned?
7. Video Interview 2: Assess Technical Ability – Do they have the skills experience for the role?
8. In Person Interview: Determine Personality Fit – Understand whether you would all get on
9. Test Task – Further assess technical ability
10. Contract – Close the sale


Let’s get started…


1. Choose A Mission

These first two points are not simple.

You can’t just read a blog post, tweak a few things and they’re covered.

They actually take a whole lot of time, thinking, pondering and discussing to get right.

I mean, though it looks simple, but I’m pretty sure the AirBnb founders didn’t just come up with this one at quick morning coffee meeting:


Their “Belong Anywhere” brand and messaging was both genius and expensive.

Airbnb has a mission.

WeWork also has a mission:


Again, I assume this phrase was subject to the opinions of a number of marketing/branding agencies before being signed off.

You obviously are not required to invest thousands of dollars on a branding agency, though it does not mean you have an excuse for your startup to NOT have a reason to exist.

Here is mine:


But why bother?

Why bother investing this amount of thinking time or dollars on a branding agency?

Incremental performance based bonuses were not responsible for the Declaration of Independence.

What I’m trying to say is that it is going to be hard to find a small group of people that will throw their lives at a problem if all you can offer is an average salary and free lunch.


Your startup needs a mission.

2. Have Strong Design

Now for the second intangible step…

After working with you humans for the past 5 months I have realised something interesting.

You rarely make decisions based purely on logical reasoning; it is usually the emotional part of your brain doing the heavy lifting, with a light layer of rationalisation from your intellectual self… after the fact.

Therefore, anything you can do to appeal to a potential intern emotionally… will have a significant effect.

But why?

You know when you land on a site and something just feels odd? You don’t have a clear mental image of what the company stand for (See Step 1 above) or how/if you should feel about them.

Something just seems wrong.

But then sometimes you land on that site and it just seems to make sense. They manage to hold a specific part of your mind and seem to stay there?

I would argue that this feeling is driven by clear and congruent visual design.

So before you head out into the world to recruit people for your crusade, check that you either are a designer or you have paid a designer to strengthen your design.

3. Create A Job Mission

Check this out:

Note that I don’t even have to link you to a specific intern job description as they are pretty much all consistently boring.

Contrast those to this:

Those you saw in the first link are job descriptions, this is a job mission.

(Also, I do try not to be big headed but note the difference in the amount of views and social shares)

Remember Step 1?

This is WHY it is so important to have a clearly defined mission.

It will repel a certain percentage of people… but will attract a significant number of potential interns that are passionate about your mission and will ultimately become awesome members of your team.

But how do you do this?

Just follow this formula:

● Start With Why

As my good friend Simon Sinek says… Start With Why.

Fortunately, we have already done the hard work here in Step 1.

If you have the chance to introduce your brand here somehow, then take it.

As you can see, I personally wrote the internship application and personally welcomed anyone that clicked on my link in the application:



● Tell A Story

You humans are wired to both enjoy and obtain a greater level of understanding from stories, and this is a perfect example.

So this begs the question… how did your business start?

● Did you uncover something interesting while pursuing your Ph.D. at Stanford university?
● Did you and your best mate start making computers in your garage?
● Did you move to San Francisco and charged people to stay on an airbed?

I mean, even if those examples weren’t true, they make for good stories.

● Introduce The Team

One of the most insightful pieces of feedback we got from our potential interns was that they applied because of the people they would get to work with:


Now I’m not saying you have to run off and do a TEDx talk and be a startup CTO for 5 years, but I would give a brief introduction to yourself and provide strategic links to allow candidates to stalk you.

● Role

What are you looking for this person to do?

The key here is to just be honest, though don’t be afraid to show character and be a little bit funny:


● What We Are Looking For

Again, no psychological tricks here, just be honest:


● What We Offer

List down everything that your intern will gain from working with your startup:


I actually missed out on the KEY offering that all interns look for in my post: LEARNING.

(Though arguably learning is part and parcel of being challenged.)

● Call To Action


And now provide a final reason for your intern to take the time out of their day to send over an application. I recommend re-stating your value proposition for the intern.

In our case, it was the accelerator experience and the connections that the intern would experience.

4. Circulate Your Job Mission


So you have your job mission scripted and reviewed by the rest of your team, it’s time to obtain some free impressions.

There is no shortcut here…

It is going to take some manual searching/posting and emailing.

(Though bear in mind that these tasks will be perfect for the awesome intern you are about to hire, in fact, they will probably do a better job than you. So this will be the first and last time you will have to do this)

Depending on your budget, there are a whole host of sites where you can pay for impressions on your job mission.

If you don’t, there are also free versions.

As we were self funded at the time, we posted our job mission on two free London based job boards:

Once the job mission was posted, it was then distributed on the personal profiles of my founders and within the London/startup related Facebook Groups:


It was this exact Facebook post that secured the intern that we eventually hired…

5. Screen Simply

The commitment consistency bias states that:

“It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.”

– Robert Cialdini

Thus it is VERY dangerous to invest time on the wrong candidates early in a recruitment process… as if you do… you will be significantly more likely to mis-hire.

Therefore, you must have a very strict and simple process for screening every application you receive from your job mission.

This screening process will be different for each and every role, though here is ours:

● Do they have evidence of being entrepreneurial?
● Have they studied a technical subject at a top university?
● Is their CV/Cover letter free of any grammatical errors?
● Have they read the job description?
● Have they had relevant work experience?

If the applicant scored greater than 3/5, they were invited to the next stage.

6. Video Interview 1: Previous Experience & The Truth Serum

Brad Smart of:


Is arguably the best and most experienced recruiter of all time.

I’m going to sum up this whole book for you in 2 bullets (to save you from giving Amazon another $11.95):

● The best indication of whether a person will perform well in your organisation is whether they have performed well previously in similar roles at similar organisations
● A Players will jump at the chance or providing a reference for previous experience

To get a good idea of their performance in similar roles at similar organisations, Brad recommends that we dive deep into each piece of relevant experience and ask the following questions:

● What were your main responsibilities at X?
● What did you like about X?
● What did you not like about X?

And for those positions that you feel are most relevant you can then move onto the second bullet above with what’s known as the Threat Of a Reference Check (TORC) and/or “The Truth Serum”.

If I were to call up your manager/boss for this role now and ask them what your strengths/weaknesses were, what would they say?
● Ok I understand, would you be happy to connect me with them so I can confirm?

As mentioned above, A Players will react to this question with enthusiasm, whereas B/C players will not and may even come up with an excuse to NOT connect you with the necessary person.

Only those that provide a reference with enthusiasm AND that you think would excel in your role based on their previous experience commence to the next video interview…

And what is the secret of a great reference check?


Here are the questions to ask:

1. Please confirm the dates that [[Candidate Name]] worked for you?
2. What were [[Candidate Name]]’s significant strengths and weaknesses?
3. Why did you stop working with [[Candidate Name]]?
4. Given the opportunity, would you hire [[Candidate Name]] again?

7. Video Interview 2: Assess Technical Ability & Understand Motivation

If you have 2 or more people on your team, I suggest that a different person hosts this interview WITHOUT seeing any assessment or output from the previous interview to reduce any bias.

E.g. if you have a non technical and technical founder, then the businessman should host interview #1 and the technical founder for interview #2.

The first half of this interview is aimed at determining whether the candidate has the technical ability required to perform the role, whether this is recruitment, marketing or coding experience.

It is then important to understand the long term goals of the candidate.

I believe that a business is simply a vehicle to add value to and improve the lives of all of those that interact with it… this include all suppliers, customer and perhaps most importantly, the owners/employees.

As well as being a foundational business principle: leaving people in a better place than where you found them is also an outstanding persona principle to adopt.

Thus, there must be an alignment between what the owners and any early hires would like to achieve in the medium/long term and the direction that the company is heading.

Especially as we are using this internship as a long term recruitment process for key resources in the development of your business.

8. In Person Interview: Determine Personality Fit

Now I would like to introduce the idea of meta testing:

“Testing something that is not directly communicated as being a test”

Without doubt, meta testing can be significantly more powerful that normal testing, as usually, the candidate is unaware of the fact that they are being tested, thus giving you a better indication as to their true performance.

Examples of meta tests include detailed descriptions for meeting/navigation through the process.

At the end of the second interview, one of our candidates was instructed to speak with one of our co-founders and NOT the other for the result of their application.

However, the candidate ignored this request and sent a follow up message to both founders:


Thus failing the meta test and subsequently being removed from the process.

Another example of a meta test, that our successful intern actually passed focussed on their ability to handle uncertainty.

For the final interview one founder and the candidate met at a busy London train station and then walked around for approximately 20 minutes “looking to find a suitable coffee shop”.

Though during this time, the founder was looking for signs of stress/frustration at this level of uncertainty that would suggest that the candidate may not be suited to the startup environment.
As well as including a couple of meta tests, it is important to gauge the personality fit between you, your other founders and the candidate.

There are no black/white guidelines here, just a feeling you get during and after the meeting, if there is a fit, you should experience a sense of excitement/anticipation for working with the candidate and if you don’t, something may feel weird or awkward.

Trust this feeling.

9. Test Task

The final stage!

And the perfect environment for a meta test.

Determine a short 1-2 hour task that is representative of an actual task that the candidate would be responsible for during their internship and send it over to them with DETAILED instructions on how it should be completed and returned to you.

Remember the information gathered from meta-tests are significantly more reliable than the information gathered from the test itself.

10. Contract

Despite having a terrible allergic reaction to lawyers… I am starting to understand the importance of a reliable and well-drafted contract.

To save you having to experience the bland personalities and fraudulently high hourly rates, here is the template that we used to confirm our awesome intern, feel free to download and adapt.

Our happy intern and co-founders as we now have one more pair of hands on deck to navigate the next three months as an early stage startup.

But more importantly, we have a talented intern that has similar goals to the company… that is also about to embark upon a transformational journey that will benefit him massively, regardless of whether he secures a full time position.

As remember the principle:

“Your business exists to leave all whom it interacts with in a better place”

Will it turn out to be a good decision?

Does this process even work?

Only time will tell…

You know that startup founder that is always complaining about how much time they DON’T have, do you think they could do with hiring an intern?

If so, use the social sharing icons below to send this post over to them on Facebook… you could change the fortunes of their startup.

Tom Hunt is a TEDx Speaker, Dragon’s Den Failure And Founder of your new sales assistant. Tom also teaches Help Marketing to all the legends that sign up here.