Lessons Learned from Managing a Dozen Interns

08/20/2010 11:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was easy to hire them. It was summer time, and there were plenty of kids looking for unpaid, part-time internships. They could work a few hours a day, a few times a week, and even get school credit. The rest of the time, they could hang out with friends, go to the beach, stay at home and relax, or get another job just for some spending money.

During the summer of 2009, and into the fall, I saw at least two hundred resumes, and Blank Label ended up hiring upwards to a dozen interns to help us build our men's dress shirt venture.

It was a genius idea. We wouldn't have to pay them (exploitative? yes, but we gave school credit), only manage them, and the theory was, they would work 10-12 hours a week, with 3-4 hours of management, so on the low end, they would be contributing to 6 extra hours of work, 9 extra hours on the high end, and we could scale this by hiring more interns to fulfill more tasks each week so we wouldn't have to cough up equity or cash for more support.

But the cruel reality was, 10-12 hours really meant 8-10. Also, my time managing them meant I wasn't being productive, so if I managed them for 4 hours a week, on the low end, they would only have 4 hours of work to contribute, but those 4 hours are negligible because those are the 4 hours I lost on my end managing them, so the numbers clearly didn't work out to our benefit. In most cases, more time and energy was spent managing the interns than we had output from them.

We were young and foolish. We thought that this was the smarter thing to do.

Our interns didn't work out for several reasons:
1) They were unmotivated. Without equity or pay, they couldn't really be sold on the business and they weren't engaged enough to help us make big things happen.
2) They were selfish. Perhaps this is a strong word, but they just wanted to pick our brains about running a business and learn from us when all we wanted was for them to fulfill a role.
3) We were selfish. We didn't really want to train them. Of course, we wanted a fair exchange and what we thought was fair was us providing resources and means to execute great ideas and big projects for a real-world business, without us having to micro-manage them, but they needed more guidance, more support, which we weren't available to offer because we had a lot on our plates already.
4) They were busy. Part-time interns should have all the time in the world, right? Wrong. When they know they are only committed for a few hours each week, they tend to watch the clock and save work-related matters for when they are working. There was no extra time to manage big projects, no extra time to really learn a lot and be able to contribute a lot. They were preoccupied with their personal and social lives. In the fall, the interns were too busy with school and hanging out with friends to be bothered with more work from us.
5) They couldn't execute. While they had great ideas which they generously shared, we brought on interns with the intention that they would be responsible for themselves, so when they had a great idea, we allocated the proper resources to them to make something happen, but they weren't able to properly execute. The ability to execute is one of the most important skills in anyone you hire, especially in startups. Ideas mean nothing if you can't execute them, so we ended up with this really nice list of ideas, which was just added to our even longer list of things-to-do.

I've done internships before. I've known people who have done internships too. To be honest, I don't know how most companies can justify hosting interns when hosting interns is taxing on the mental energy and the time of the intern managers. Paid internships are an anomaly to me because, from my experiences, interns cost companies a good amount of money and those companies rarely see a positive return.

After managing about a dozen interns, we've realized that we were not too successful in recruiting great candidates for part-time roles. Instead, we have decided to really only recruit A+ players who can make a decent time commitment to our business, and would be paid salary, stock options or a combination of both. This way, we only get people who are invested in us, rather than us just being invested in them because we crossed our fingers hoping our interns would work out, when we really needed them and they didn't quite need us. When it comes to hiring, it's important for both parties to have vested interest in each other, because an imbalance of interest can put the relationship in an awkward position.

While it was fun to manage a dozen interns and it was a great learning experience to do so, we won't be hiring interns for a while, although we occasionally entertain the thought.

Danny Wong is the co-founder of Blank Label, a co-creation startup specializing in dress shirts for men. Blank Label makes DIY dress shirts, slim fit dress shirts and fitted dress shirts.