Why interning at a startup would be a bad idea for B-school grads

Just read this (Why Interning with startups should be made compulsory at B-schools) at NextBigWhat.com where the author, Bhavya Sahani, tries to make a case for the idea of b-school…

Just read this (Why Interning with startups should be made compulsory at B-schools) at NextBigWhat.com where the author, Bhavya Sahani, tries to make a case for the idea of b-school grads interning at startups.

clip_image001The author basically says that interning at a startup would help a relatively inexperienced student discover his/her core strength instead of going for the popular choice. He of the opinion that the more experienced students at a bschool (and most Indian bschools have relatively inexperienced students. I myself have no work experience) would have a better idea of their strengths and tend to not follow the herd when making career decisions while the inexperienced ones never get to figure out their core competency. While I agree that experienced students do show more maturity in making career decisions, it is not uncommon for an IT guy ending up with a job in a pure marketing role at an FMCG firm. It is also possible that the experienced students are so accustomed to their prior field that they there is an inertia against trying something new (though admittedly I haven’t seen that happening with students in my batch).

MBA (more so General Management which is what is offered by the IIMs), is one of those occasions in one’s career where one can make a drastic move, and rediscover one’s core competencies. Just because you joined an IT or energy firm right after engineering, where choices are limited, does not mean you have to necessarily stick with it. Besides, even after 3-4 years of work ex after undergrad one hardly gets to experience a broad spectrum of roles to be able to make a proper choice about one’s core competencies. One works within a relatively rigid set of parameters on a very specific role, hardly gets to interact with client much less drive client engagement. But the first year of MBA helps one discover what they like – I thought I could not like anything other than Operations but my favourite subjects have been those in Economics and Marketing while others who thought they would not be able to stand anything other than Finance were happy to take up Consulting or General Management(well to be frank the lack luster hiring by I-banks do have a role to play here).

So why can’t a startup internship help one figure out their core competency? Simply put, an 2 month internship just wont be enough. Startups are too chaotic and unstructured for one to figure things out fast. While I did not intern at a startup I was part of two projects with startups and the unstructuredness of a startup can be daunting. Not to mention, most startups don’t really know how to use an MBA. Startups have a problem figuring out the scope of work that is possible within a given time frame and neither do they realize what a MBA guy can or can’t do. One day you would be expected to figure out go-to market strategy for a product and the next day you would be asked to figure out what features the product should have (not just on a high level but at a granular level) and then another day you will be asked to do pricing and the next you will be asked to talk to clients or lead users. The scope of your work keeps on steadily increasing and often goes beyond anything your MBA prepares you for. Most startups really have no clue what they expect the MBA to work upon and simply ask you to contribute in every possible way which isn’t saying a lot. In one of my projects with a startup, till the last day of work my team could not figure out what they wanted from us. While that kind of unstructuredness may be easy to sort out for the more experienced ones, a fresher would easily find himself/herself in a hopeless situation, fighting fires at all ends. Sure a few may emerge out toughened and polished but most, otherwise smart and promising ones, who would have done well in a structured and well scoped environment, would perish. Therefore, an internship at a more established firm with well defined processes would help one to understand how things work before trying to change those things.

That being said, most startups can do well by hiring a few MBAs. Why? Startups barely understand STP (and if you ask some of our marketing profs, neither do we) and try and market their product to just about anyone. They also don’t seem to care what the user wants or how the user might use their products and remain encapsulated in their own ‘reality distortion field’ where they dream of earning millions (if not billions) from their products, pricing and competition be damned. MBAs can help startups gain a perspective and get out of the reality distortion field for a while (agreed startups do need a reality distortion field to maintain focus) and get a reality check. MBAs can help startups figure out what their target market is; most startups usually go plainly by lucrativeness of the target market (size and growth) without a single thought if their product can at all address that market and what it would take to address that market. Also most startups end up making me-too products and enter crowded market without a clearly differentiated value proposition and soon find the going very tough. Understanding key stakeholder and high level end-user requirements and the ways in which the user would use the product are standard practice for an MBA but startups very often don’t care; it’s like driving a car at 200 mph in a desert without a speedometer or a navigation system, you sure may reach where you want to but if you are too way off the mark you would never have enough fuel to do a massive course correction.

Startups that want fruitful contributions from an MBA intern would do well to clearly scope out the work, identify deliverables and increase or decrease the scope of the deliverable over the course of the internship. At the end of the day, the interns are looking to put down three or four concrete points in theirs CV about the contribution they made to the startup and clear deliverables go a long way in ensuring that. Also working with the MBA intern to define a road map for the deliverables with milestones would be good idea. Defining milestones, roadmaps and deliverables does not take a lot of time and goes a long way in ensuring a successful engagement. Also while an MBA may be expected to perform roles across multiple areas, from sales to HR to operations and even product development, providing the MBA intern with a clear idea of his/her role for each deliverable is essential. Do you want the intern to bring in sales or does his responsibility ends with simply identifying potential clients? Would you want the MBA to enter the nitty gritty of product development or does his jobs end with conducting user studies and competitor analysis? Of course you might say that the MBA is free to contribute as much as he wants but surely a minimum level of expectation should be spelled out. Lastly, most MBAs are afflicted by student syndrome and therefore squeezing timelines and providing only the bare minimum amount of time necessary to complete a deliverable can also be a good idea.

So what’s the conclusion? Well it depends. For the more adventurous MBA, a startup may be a cool idea but there is a 50-50 (or worse) chance that you might not learn anything at all. It’s like one of those episodes of “I shouldn’t be alive” where you are put in a drastic situation and you have to survive through it. If you survive you emerge a different man(or woman) but death is more likely, which is why many MBA prefer to gain some experience at a more mature organization and then join a smaller organization. There is no doubt that the impact of your efforts would be far higher in a startup and the rewards potentially greater. But it is also possible that you won’t be able to make any tangible contributions in a short period of 2 months. Nevertheless, getting a job at a startup right out of MBA is always a good option if you are no so keen in seeing big brand names in your CV. Working at a startup would surely be exciting because there are none of the trapping of a big company, you kill your own food and no brand, however big, can give that feeling.

[About the author: Sandip Dev is a final year student at IIM Ahmedabad, plan to start his own company someday. He is still very much in love with technology and programming is still not quite sure how he ended up in a MBA program. More @ www.about.me/sandipdev and www.blog.sandipdev.me]

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