Interning At An Incubator
Last January, while contemplating what I wanted to do with my summer, I decided that I wanted a hands-on business experience. 50 cold-emails to various incubators later, I received a response from the managing director of Dreamit Ventures.
Dreamit Ventures NYC is a seed accelerator that accepts up to 15 startup companies every cycle. These startups work in the Dreamit offices for three months, under the mentorship of DreamIt Ventures and partner organizations. Each company chosen for the accelerator receives $25,000 and is paired with industry-specific individuals and companies, and the program culminates with a Demo Day, where companies pitch their product or service to investors and venture capitalists.
Working in the Dreamit incubator was like being in the eye of a hurricane—the energy in the office was palpable, a constant, never-ceasing buzz of innovation. Harried founders, investors, various expert speakers, rushed back and forth through the office, which seemed—like the city it was in—to never stop moving. The engineers conversed in rapid whispers, fingers flying over the keyboard. Marketing gurus alternated between their iPhones and Macbooks, tossing out questions every once in a while–“ProductHunt meetup next week at the Spotify headquarters, are we in?” “Investor coming in an hour, who’s pitching today?”
The first week, I was relegated to typical intern duties for a social media app that adopted me onto their team. I drafted blog posts for the app’s social media and watched timidly from the corner while teams of entrepreneurs whirled around, bubbling with ideas for how to make that million-dollar startup. As the youngest person in the incubator, I was somewhat intimidated at first—how could I, a high school student with little to no business experience/coding ability, be of any use to a talented team in a competitive startup environment? After a few days of observation, however, I discovered that there were a few key ways I could contribute to the team machine (aside from fueling it with Starbucks).
Finding my place
A constant factor in entrepreneurship is failure—every other hour, an investor will tell you they don’t like your product, or the partners will tell you to change your game plan, or a beta-user will inform you of another bug they’ve found with your app. These problems were especially dangerous to young, untested teams like mine, since every member dealt with failure differently. The two engineers would return to coding in stony silence, our business developer aimlessly surfed the Internet for general advice from successful entrepreneurs (hello, Quora), and the high-strung head of marketing yelled shrilly until someone responded to his panicked inquiries. The team would frequently come out of partner meetings looking disgruntled, discouraged, and all around dysfunctional.
Despite my lack of expertise in either business or technology, I felt that teamwork was an area I could help my team in. I might not have known how to code or strategize, but I could mediate, so I began to attempt to bridge the gap between the engineers and the businessmen. The engineers needed concrete feedback from the beta testers on what they needed to improve, and the businessmen needed input from the engineers on what stage of creation the product was at and how they could market it accordingly.
To help sort out these tasks, I created a “Board of Goals”—a whiteboard listing every team member’s goal for the day, the week, and the duration of the incubator program. After every pitfall, I’d call team meetings to review the Board, refocus on what our long-term goals were, and analyze where the team could direct their efforts to most efficiently achieve goals. I took over the more basic business-oriented tasks, such as compiling lists of potential angel investors and creating pitch decks, and pushed the business team to focus on their short-term marketing events and long-term expansion strategy. Our business developer realized that he didn’t necessarily have to attend every networking event, our engineers began communicating with the team more to prioritize their bug fixes, and the head of marketing took up yoga. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it greatly reduced our ‘panic time’ and increased recovery rate/productivity after each small failure.
Luckily for me, for every minute contribution I made to the team’s progress, I was rewarded tenfold with valuable startup and life advice. For example, Fred Wilson, a managing director of Union Square Ventures, stopped by one day to talk about how important it was to set milestones and be realistic and cognizant of how much investor funding would be needed to hit those milestones. “Underpromise and overdeliver,” he quoted, on how to maintain good relationships with your investors. Rameet Chawla, the CEO of Fueled, emphasized the cruciality of simplicity; since there was very little theoretical overlap between consumers, the product would have to be exceedingly simple to appeal to a mass market. I learned how much of a difference focused questions could make—try “What’s one thing that you would change about the app, if you could?” instead of “Do you like our app?”. I learned to get straight to the point—time was valuable, the time of all the intelligent people we needed help from even more so, so I learned to say what I wanted to say in thirty seconds and three-sentence emails.
Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful to have had the experience of working with a real startup. I think the hands-on experience taught me to handle the unexpected aspects of business, the problems encountered that one would never expect while studying business in a classroom. If my opinion counts for anything, I would definitely recommend interning with a startup—especially in an incubator where resources abound; it’s an eye-opening experience.