Choosing a small business intern

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Interns working in your small business can be a win-win situation. Your business gains a boost to creativity as well as the bottom line, and the intern gains experience and builds a resume. But as a small-business owner, you want to make sure you use interns for maximum benefit.

“If you’re looking for someone to take out the trash, pick up your laundry or buy gifts for your spouse or significant other, don’t hire an intern,” says David Politis of Politis Communications near Salt Lake City. “Hire a personal assistant. Serious intern candidates are looking for several outcomes from their time spent with your firm — the most important of which is real-world experience.”

Here are some tips for hiring and getting the best out of a working relationship with an intern.

Widen your search

Now that you’ve decided to work with interns, don’t restrict your search to the closest high school or college, or even only to schools. Melissa Kenney Ngaruri, legal assistant at Patrick Hoover Law Offices in Rockville, Md., spoke to teachers at several high schools who run internship programs. She passed on the school just down the road in favor of two other schools with programs that better met her needs. At her favorite program, the interns send their own resumes instead of expecting the supervising teacher to do it. “We noticed a big difference between those students who were proactive and those who weren’t,” Ngaruri says.

A conversation with Dilbert creator
Dilbert creator Scott Adams answers questions about Asok, possibly the world’s best-known intern:
What could Asok accomplish, given the chance?  Asok is an engineer, and like all engineers he longs to invent the product that will forever change the world. Failing in that, he would like to one day earn enough money so he can stop making his own underpants out of sandwich bags.What’s the worst thing that’s happened to Asok?  The Pointy-Haired Boss asked Asok to crawl into the ventilation system and find whatever died in there.What’s the best reader storyline suggestion based on real work life that you’ve received related to Asok?  Most of the suggestions for Asok revolve around the ridiculous “make-work” projects that interns famously get.Is Asok getting anything at all he could use on a resume?  All he’s getting is a chance to steal some company resources to print his resume at work.

Choose your interns as if you were hiring them full time. Run background checks just as you would for any new hire. Don’t forget to check social networking sites for red flags.

In the interview, be clear about your expectations. Specify the hours, if the position is paid and type of work involved “almost to the point of pushing them away,” advises David J.P. Fisher of RockStar Consulting in Evanston, Ill. “Interns are there to help me, not cause me more headaches.”

Look for drive — not just good grades. We’ve taken kids with lower GPAs who were super hot in terms of rolling up their sleeves and getting involved,” Ngaruri says. “I’ll take someone who is average to below average intelligence who is dedicated any day.”

Realize there is a risk

No matter what you do, you may experience horror stories. An intern may flake out and just stop showing up, Ngaruri says, or worse. One intern at Tavalon Tea in Brooklyn, N.Y., actually was scoping out the company. “He was here six months to extract our know-how and business concept to start up a competing tea company of his own,” says Tavalon Tea founder and CEO John-Paul Lee.

But Lee, who still uses interns, notes that was just one intern out of more than 100 in the past three years. Overall, Lee says,” We have gotten some amazing talent. Most of our unpaid interns ended up working harder than our paid staff. Employing competent interns with strong ambitions can be crucial to startups with small budgets, and we are living proof.”

To pay or not to pay

Some business owners argue strongly in favor of an hourly wage or at least a daily stipend. Others have interns lining up to work for free. If you don’t pay, make sure your interns don’t walk out empty-handed when their internship is over.

“Let the interns leave your company with a portfolio of their work,” says Tara Goodwin Frier, president and CEO of The Goodwin Group Inc. in Sharon, Mass. “It shows you view your interns as professionals and want to help them further their careers by working with you.”

Go beyond your own skill set

Don’t limit yourself only to interns who plan to pursue a career in your field. Interns from outside your field may offer expertise you don’t have. “We had two aspiring graphic designers,” legal assistant Ngaruri says. “They designed our fliers. They did some work on our Web site.”

Don’t skimp on training

Lay out each project and task in great detail. Remember, your intern is still learning the ropes. Basic knowledge you take for granted may be all new to your newbie.

Use any failure as a teaching tool, Frier says. One of Frier’s interns was terrified at the prospect of calling “The Today Show.” “We wrote a script for her and explained the different layers she would have to go through to get the information,” she says. “Not only did she get the right producer on her second try, but her confidence was boosted and we couldn’t keep her off the phone.”

Schedule regular appointments to check progress and ask questions. “You may discover the intern missed a step,” says Linda LaSala, cofounder and editor of in Norwalk, Conn. Or, on the flip side, “Some of our interns were so shy or intimidated by the office that they never told us they were finished with the task, and just sat there waiting for us to ask them,” LaSala says.

Give big-picture projects, not just tasks

A set of tasks can become a project, depending on how you frame it. For example, instead of asking an intern to give you the names of the 10 best-selling baskets from online sites, give your intern the big picture with your plans to create gift baskets using your products and then break that project into tasks, says Julie Braun, co-founder of Super Interns in New Haven, Conn.

Start interns with nonessential projects before giving them mission-critical work, Fisher says. “Once I’ve built some confidence in them, I’ll let them work on more important projects,” he says.

Don’t dismiss their ideas without careful consideration. Give your intern a chance to prove a project can work. You may be amazed at what an intern can accomplish beyond saving your business money. The first intern youth pastor at Fairview Missionary Baptist Church wanted to take 10 teenagers on a short-term mission trip to the Caribbean at a cost of about $10,000 — a bold move for a church with average attendance of 100, says Timothy Palla, pastor of the church in rural Ohio.

“He did his research, made a presentation to the church, taught the teens how to raise the funds on their own, made contacts with appropriate organizations, recruited chaperones and ended up making a huge impression on a lot of people,” Palla says. “Today we are keeping more of our young people than we did five to 10 years ago. The whole program made a life-changing impact on our church.”