If you've ever held an internship as a student, or even at a time when you made a career pivot, you probably either had a drab experience or a great one. There's often very little middle ground. But think back--did you imagine totally different ways you'd run the program if you were in charge? Now might be your chance. Before you take the plunge however, know that an internship program at a company is a symbiotic relationship. You need to give just as much as you're going to get.

First, don't assume that an intern is prepared (at all) to act like an employee. He or she is not an employee, but often a student who is exploring career possibilities. This might be their first glimpse of a "real job" experience. You need to dedicate time and resources to each intern and have a solid program in place before bringing anyone on board.

Pros and Cons of Internship Programs

Many startups are quick to explore bringing in local college students for Summer internship programs. Sometimes these students gain valuable experience in the process and also make strides towards getting hired by the company. All too often though, the intern experiences just how fast-moving and under certain a startup environment can be. Many interns decide that the startup life is not for them because of this. Others feel they have found exactly what they are looking for. If you want to give your intern a great learning experience, make sure your company is ready for a program. Here are some pros and cons to setting it up.

Pro: A potential win-win situation for all. In an ideal world, you provide a great real-life experience to a student and your entire staff learns with them. You're seeing your business from fresh eyes, and this can help you pinpoint problems, learn how to address them and prepare you for growth.

Con: Interns take a lot of time. You can't hand them a packet of information and then just let them fend for themselves completely. Interns can demand a lot of direction, and that's precious time taken from you. Here are three general "don'ts" you'll want to remember when it comes to time.

  • Don't take on an intern if you yourself don't have time to spare for them.
  • Don't "force" an intern upon an employee doesn't have the time to be there for the intern.
  • Don't harm an intern by overburdening them with too much of the work that paid employees should to be doing. Too many startups back their interns into a corner, making them feel obligated to do mountains of unpaid work. Many interns in this position are only too happy to let this happen in the hope they can land a job at the company. There are potential moral and legal issues here that all business owners should learn more about.

Pro: Building relationships with the community. If you develop a partnership with a university or college, that can be a great networking opportunity for your startup. A good university can be a fantastic source of interns, and if your program is top notch the whole experience can be the start of a great relationship.

Con: You might waste money, time and resources. Not every intern is going to work out. Some of them don't want to be there but are getting credit for it and aren't passionate. Some aren't sure if your line of work is a match for them and may discover it's not what they want part of the way through. Some aren't a good match for your company culture. However, as an internship newbie, you should carry on with your program rather than calling it quits just because a few folks weren't the right fit.

Still think you're ready? Here are a few signs that you might be prepared to take that next step:

  • You've really done your homework. Maybe you've actually developed a solid internship program on paper. Maybe you brought on a consultant or worked with a program that helped you develop the program. Perhaps you've even given it a dry run. This is a clear sign you're far along the path to getting started.
  • You're strongly considering hiring, or already have, an internship manager. In the corporate world, this is often a full-time position. That's going to be a tough task for a bootstrapping startup. Regardless, you will probably need a go-to person that interns can trust and work with regularly.
  • You have good reasons for wanting a program. If it's just free labor you're after, forget it. That's no way to run a business, and it's taking advantage of people who are putting faith in your professional courtesy and hospitality.

Once you think you're in the right place, it's time to put your plan into action. There are many free online resources for starting an internship program, so there's no need to reinvent the wheel. However, getting a consultant on board who is skilled at this kind of program development can be a beneficial move. If you take the right steps, as the program gets started and kicks into high gear, you may be very proud of the work you and your new colleagues do together.