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From an internship to a full-time role in a remote startup

Table of Contents
I.Pros & Cons of a remote internship
1. 1.Pros
1. 2.Cons
II.How to find an internship at a remote startup
III.How to become a great candidate for an internship
IV.What did my internship role entail and how I moved from an intern to a full-time employee?
V.Working for a company while studying
VI.Making the most out of your internship
VII.Turning your internship into a full-time role
VIII.My advice for companies hiring interns
I just completed my first week as a full-time Podcast Production Manager at SafetyWing - working specifically on improving the Building Remotely resource. Taking a month off to travel around Europe after finishing my Bachelor's in Creative Business gave me some time to reflect on this new role I'll be taking, and everything I've done during my studies that led to it.
It started with an internship - which is not uncommon. Across industries, 66% of interns in 2019 received a job offer (a number that might be higher or lower for remote startups).
But is finding an internship at a remote startup the right call for you? Remote work has great advantages, but it's certainly not for everyone's first experience with working in a team. Here's a breakdown to help you decide:

Pros & Cons of a remote internship

Pros

  • High level of authority and decision-making. I had the feeling that everything is possible – even as an intern. My ideas and feedback were actually listened to, were taken seriously and often implemented in the final solutions. Thanks to this, I was able to develop my skills as a professional and gain confidence in my abilities.
  • Things move fast. The first version of one of our projects, Borderless was created and launched in a week. The team saw a need and immediately jumped into creating a solution for it. This is incredibly motivating, exciting and makes your work continually relevant.
  • Teams are usually smaller than in traditional office environments. This means more opportunities to contribute and learn directly from the company leaders. I have had regular discussions with SafetyWing’s Head of Growth and CEO, which I probably wouldn't even get to meet in a more traditionally structured company.
  • The range and impact of projects. I was not given simple tasks just to occupy my time. In a small team, everybody can contribute and be directly involved in the realization of company goals on a high level.
  • Future prospectives. Even though the internship eventually resulted in a full-time position, it also increased my network and set me up for a great start to my career.
  • No commute! I noticed that many students spend a significant amount of their internship salary on commuting - not to mention the time spent in a car, bus or train. Being a part of a remote company gives you enough time for your responsibilities in school, as well as your internship. It also allows you to travel while working, visit your hometown for a couple of weeks, and spend time with friends.

Cons

  • There are no clear working hours. This is generally a good thing, but a word of caution: if you feel pressured to perform well, you might end up overworking and quickly burning out. 65% of remote workers report working more hours than before they worked remotely, which only got worse during the pandemic. When you set your own hours, make sure to stick to them.
  • Working with people in different time zones. With a distributed team, you'll have to accommodate different time zones for certain meetings and projects. This makes it difficult to have a consistent schedule and means that your workday doesn't necessarily end at 5pm.
  • You have to be proactive and independent. The freedom to create my own schedule and work process was amazing. However, when you are coming from a school system in which basically everything you do is supervised and graded, it takes a while to get used to this way of working.
  • Things don´t always turn out as planned. The beauty of this flexible environment is also its curse. Things can shift very quickly and it can feel chaotic at times, but you'll learn to adapt to it.
In conclusion, if you prefer a strict schedule, direct social interaction with your colleagues and like to follow clear guidelines: remote work might not be the best choice for you. On the other hand, if you are an ambitious, independent and adventurous person, you'll probably fit great in an environment like this.
That being said, all companies operate differently. You can find out a lot about the company's management style and team culture through the interview process, so trust your intuition and don't be afraid to ask questions.
Securing a great internship (remotely) is not easy and can be even more competitive than a direct full-time position. While the competition around summer internships can be enormous, it is a lot easier to stand out through your character and interests (even if you don't have 2+ years of working experience). Try to be authentic and share what actually motivates and interests you.

How to find an internship at a remote startup

Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity” - Roman philosopher Seneca
I was actively looking for an internship role during my studies in the city of Tartu, Estonia, which hosts some of the biggest startup events in the Baltics. After researching the speaker lists of a few events I was interested in, I got in touch with Enelin Paas (SafetyWing's Head of Business Development). I invited her as a guest on my podcast and afterwards brought up the courage to ask about potential internship opportunities. Even though they weren't looking for an intern at the time, she loved the idea and soon, the rest of the team agreed to offer me a position!
You don't have full control over the opportunities life gives you, but those opportunities will come. Try to influence what you do have control over: preparation.

How to become a great candidate for an internship

  1. Network: Get in touch with people that are in the roles you're aspiring to. Networking is a great way to find an internship or a full-time role. Clearly communicating that you are motivated, eager to learn and develop your skills is the best self-promotion. To this date, nobody at SafetyWing ever asked me for my CV. They learned everything they needed to know about me through my interests, projects I was already working on and personal goals.
  2. Personal Branding: Applying for an internship gives you a unique opportunity to stand out through your personal brand. Most startups try to hire a good “culture-fit”. Keep your personal website updated or maintain an online presence through Twitter or Linkedin. 
    My personal blog and podcast were the perfect way to show them I'm interested in learning more about startups, entrepreneurs and growing an online business. Know what you want and what you are searching for. Make it easy for employers to find you by authentically being yourself online.
  3. Experience: Don't let the lack of work experience stop you from looking for internship opportunities. When talking to Enelin about my potential role as an intern, I couldn't say I had experience in growing a podcast channel for a company, but I had experience with producing, editing and publishing my own personal podcast. You can mention any side projects you worked on, volunteer work, a skill you've been learning, etc. Anything that can show who you are (and potentially who you want to be) is relevant. Don’t underestimate your skills and experiences by thinking they are normal - there is a good chance others find them extraordinary. 
  4. Writing: Being active in online spaces and communities (by "active" I mean producing and not only consuming content) will greatly help build your unique writing style. When working remotely, writing is a skill of disproportionate importance - you use it to communicate with your team, you use it to conceptualize, edit and publish your ideas, everything goes through the written word first (even if you have regular video chats).
    In a world that is consuming, selling and buying mainly through text, writing is the most important skill to have - so I would recommend building it early. 

What did my internship role entail and how I moved from an intern to a full-time employee?

The main tasks during my internship were producing content for and launching Building Remotely. I was responsible for producing, planning and editing the first episodes of our podcast, getting everyone on the same page about the project and eventually launching and promoting the first content on the platform. 
Apart from that, I was involved in various marketing activities, practiced copywriting and keyword research for Building Remotely. As my list of responsibilities grew and the team started actively relying on me as they would on any other team member, my internship grew into a position of a Podcast Production Manager.

Working for a company while studying

For almost a year, I kept working half-time while finishing my Bachelor's degree. If you have the same opportunity, I would encourage you to take it. Not only is it a great way to have an income and build experience as a student, it also increases your chances of joining the company full-time once you finish your degree.
Most startups are flexible and can work around your schedule at school. I made sure to clearly communicate when I needed more time for studying, so my work wouldn't impact my studies and vice-versa.

Making the most out of your internship

Before diving into how you can move from an internship to full-time, here is how I made sure my internship is a success:
  1. Ask for feedback: Ask what you could improve on. This is especially important in a remote setting where it's easy to get stuck in a tunnel - and potentially work in the wrong direction. Asking for feedback shows that you care about your work and want to improve.
  2. Overcommunicate: Communicate too much rather than too little in order to avoid misunderstandings. 
  3. Take responsibility: Everyone makes mistakes. Learn from them rather than trying to shift blame.
  4. Believe in yourself: Don’t be scared to make mistakes or say something wrong. Startups value proactiveness and innovation over safety, so try to adopt this mindset. Startups are looking for people with bold and unconventional ideas. Saying something stupid is often better than saying nothing at all (disclaimer: I don’t take responsibility if you try to test the limits of this statement). 
  5. Learn how to manage your time and tasks: If you show that you can take responsibility for your own work and keep your colleagues updated without them asking for it, then you automatically avoid getting micromanaged and (more importantly) save your co-workers a lot of time. 

Turning your internship into a full-time role

As my graduation was approaching, I asked several colleagues for their advice on starting my career and what would be the best path for me after I finish school. This also helped me understand how they envision my role going forward if I stayed in the company. I realized that having a more involved role at SafetyWing is completely aligned with my personal goals and skills I wanted to master.
I thought of several strategies on how to approach this and eventually came up with a very straightforward plan: I simply asked to become a full-time employee.
Even though it was stressful and heavily triggered my imposter syndrome, taking this step was worth it regardless of what their answer was. It was silly of me to think I'm not allowed to ask for opportunities from a company I had already worked for more than a year at the time. Be confident in your abilities and yourself. If you got hired for an internship and performed well, there is a very good chance your employer is more than happy to take you on. It is not easy to find great companies to work for, but it is also not easy to find great employees.  
For me, it helped to talk with my direct colleagues about this step first, before officially asking for a meeting with our CEO and my manager. Just keep in mind that startups have a different timeline than Fortune 500 Companies. They can’t give guarantees for events happening 3+ months in the future, and you have to accept a level of uncertainty.

My advice for companies hiring interns

I've heard wildly different experiences with internship roles from students in my school. While some of us had a great opportunity to grow and learn, there's a significant amount of students that complain about poor management skills within the company that resulted in them not gaining much experience or opportunities to learn from their colleagues.
As interns, we join companies that already have their intricate ecosystem set up. There is a lot of context and explanation that needs to be provided once we join in order to understand how communication, execution and knowledge sharing works within the company. While I understand this requires time and effort from the entire team, it can't be used as an excuse for not giving the intern the experience they are hoping for.
When I joined, the SafetyWing team had around 15 core team members. It was a small team handling a lot of work. While there was a learning curve in how we set up my role, I never felt like my talents and skills were wasted. You don't need a big team to make it work.
I will continue working on Building Remotely, and making it the best resource for remote companies and leaders as it can be. While writing this, I realized there are no comprehensive guidelines or resources for remote internships online, so this will be my next project - stay tuned and reach out to jakob@safetywing.com if you're a student looking for a remote internship or a startup hoping to hire one!

About the author

Jakob Bodendieck

Podcast Production Manager
Jakob is a startup-oriented nomad, recently completed his BA in Creative Business in the Netherlands. He joined SafetyWing as a Podcast Production Manager and helped create and grow the Building Remotely podcast. As the host of his own podcast, The Self Employed Student, he is offering a valuable resource for other young people with an entrepreneurial mindset.