An ode to interns – the unsung heroes of the startup world

Jay Patani 2013-01-02 14

In a the second part of his exploration of internships in Berlin’s startup scene, Jay Patani – a half-jaded, half-starry-eyed newbie on the startup scene – meets a couple of his fellow compatriots in Berlin to hear an account of their experiences and to extract a few tips for all those interested…

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Internships get bad press. To many, interns are the sorry victims of a capitalist tragedy or some sort of pseudo-proletariat in Marx’ theory of exploitation. Others regard them as a necessary hurdle into the job market – an employer’s equivalent of a frat house initiation ceremony.

Too little gain for too much pain?

Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, is woefully critical of internships and observes the souring face of today’s workplaces and society’s changing attitude towards work. Perlin actually contends that in many cases, internships are illegal in the USA according to the Fair Labor and Standards Act. The same is also true of other countries that impose a minimum wage but casually turn a blind eye to paltry intern wages.

Many Berlin startups run on the assumption that they themselves are cash-strapped and therefore can only resort to offering negligible remuneration. The Pharaohs presumably also had thrift in mind when forcing their slaves to work on the pyramids. Perhaps they even convinced themselves that the slaves could learn vital transferable skills in construction.

OK, perhaps slavery in Egypt is an analogy gone too far. But the moral of the story is that some employers need to look in the mirror and decide whether they want to offer employees a suitable reward for work or whether they want to carry on supporting the inequitable institution of the “unpaid internship”.

The payoff for a foot in the startup door?

The big picture appears gloomy and it often seems that the positive experiences of interns are drowned out in the heated debate. Without further ado it’s finally time to hear from a couple of interns in Berlin who have ditched the monotony of a 9-5 job in favour of Berlin’s exciting startup scene. The following two interns represent the unsung heroes of the startup world: sometimes overworked, definitely underpaid yet nonetheless passionate about their work.

Intern #1: Ejiro Oviri, Business Development Intern,
Paymentwall

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Paymentwall is a San Fransisco-based online payments platform, which tactically selected Berlin as its European headquarters. The company’s USP lies in the “All-in-One Monetization Suite” that it offers to the likes of social sites, gaming sites, dating sites and web services.

A whole article could be dedicated to how beautiful Paymentwall’s Berlin office is from its modern design (a woolly lampshade resembling a slowly morphing cloud particularly caught my eye) to its breathtaking views of the city from its prime location on Unter den Linden. It is no surprise that Ejiro Oviri, a Law graduate from Oxford University, looks so at home in her workplace.

Whey Berlin? Why startups? Why Paymentwall?

The all-important “can do” attitude was evident from the moment Ejiro uttered her first sentence: “I came to Berlin in 2008. I just did a week trip with my friend. There was something about being in Berlin. I liked the vibe of the city. I just felt it fitted me perfectly. My girlfriend was coming here for six months and in June, I just packed up and came here – leaving everything behind.”

With a knack and unquenchable thirst for picking up new skills Ejiro relished at the prospect of learning a new language: “I did an intensive German language course for three weeks and quickly learned the basics. After that I went to evening classes.”

Next on Ejiro’s to-do list was figuring out just exactly what she wanted to do in the startup arena: “After going to a few startup events and speaking to people I was able to narrow down what I was exactly interested in,” she says.

“I figured out that even the big players like Facebook are trying to monetise. There are loads of people bootstrapping and it gets to the point when startups need to monetise. All these people have great ideas and we help to further these ideas with our global payment solutions.”

In it for the long haul

Ejiro’s role involves attracting developers to sign up to the payment platform.“We don’t focus on cold calling,” Ejiro says. “We go to events. We reach out to people who we’ve chatted to at these events. It’s not always about hammering people on the phone. Ultimately, we need to find out how we can help add value to companies and this involves understanding them thoroughly.”

“After the first few weeks, I didn’t even feel like an intern.” she replies as I try and probe her for some dirt on life as an intern. “They encouraged me to take on my own projects. The only reason I feel like an intern is because I’m learning so much about the industry.”

“It’s up to me to reach out to companies independently. There’s room for me to take on my own projects. They were looking for someone to grow with the company for the long term – not just a constant stream of interns going in and out. I made it clear that I was in it for the long haul.”

“I wouldn’t have taken any internship. I actually turned some down”, Ejiro confidently declares. Even in this tough job market, if you have what it takes, it doesn’t harm to be picky to land your dream job.

Ejiro’s Top 3 tips for internship success

Follow through with your ideas “You shouldn’t be scared to implement something you believe in. Startups are built on ideas. They look for people who have their own ideas and the will to make them a reality.”
Don’t be afraid to reveal your personality “You aren’t in a stuffy corporate environment. There are hundreds of applications for each role. There is no point of blending into the background in both the interview or the actual job.”
Use everything within your resources “Try to incorporate ideas from everything you’ve ever done in terms of work or university into your work. Even the seemingly most insignificant things may become useful.”

Intern #2: Lucia Fischer, Community Management Intern, Moviepilot.com

luciaA woman of the world, Lucia is the enviable type who has no immediate answer to the casual question: “So where do you come from?” Having lived in America, the Middle East, Asia and Europe in her 21 years, she ended up graduating in a degree in Communication Arts at Ateneo de Manila University in the Phillippines this year.

The prospect of a family reunion drew her to Germany where she landed an internship with Moviepilot.com, an online community for film lovers to catch up with or discover the latest goings on in the film world – from behind the scenes to on the big screen.

Giving the company personality

For those, and I am sure there are many, who are unfamiliar with the daily grind of Community Management, Lucia kindly enlightens us: “My job involves mostly giving the company a personality. I give 1-on-1’s with anyone who wants to spark up a conversation with us. So far we are concentrating on Google+ and Twitter but in 2013 we are branching out to more social networks.”

Lucia’s Top 3 tips for internship success

Don’t give up “Keep pushing for a desired internship. Even if a job doesn’t say it has a job opening, you never know. The only way to get hired is to put yourself out there.”
Don’t be spoilt “There are so many kids that think they are entitled to so much. They come in here and expect that everything will be easy. They expect it to be like college – getting away with doing very little. In order to make it anywhere it depends on how much effort you put in.”
• Network “Even if your internship doesn’t turn into a job, one of the people that you meet could probably lead you to your next opening.”

To intern or not to intern?

To intern or not to intern? Alas, that is not the question in the startup world, where interning is more of a necessity rather than a choice for entry-level applicants. Both Ojira and Lucia acknowledge the pressures of their internship roles.

If you’ve opted for the startup world, being proactive is much more rewarding than a half-hearted, “I’m-going-to-come-into-work-whenever-I-want” approach. There is actually a lot of truth in the hackneyed phrase “you only get out what you put in”.

But be alert – don’t accept any old internship offer. There will always be a minority of companies who rely on a steady stream of cheap intern labour to stay afloat. Stay away from those barrel-scrapers unless you enjoy being the subject of mild exploitation. Just in case you need confirmation, you’re an intern – not a doormat.

Most importantly, only do what you love and set your mind on securing a full-time position. And finally – enjoy yourself!

For related articles, check out:

Screw the karma, give me cash!” Why free labour is the unfair fuel of the startup scene
“Karma first, cash will follow”… Why, when and who should work for for free

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Hero – flickr user jdhancock

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