Why We're Letting College Interns Build Our Next Business

Last Updated Jun 15, 2011 2:39 PM EDT

The following is a guest post by Sean Devlin, the 29-year-old co-founder and director of product development at Front Rush, a software company for college athletic departments.
By Sean Devlin
My partner and I recently hired two interns: Dave Twamley from the Wharton School at UPenn; and Neal Cook a sports marketing major from Temple University. I start off with an introduction to the two because it's important to point out their strong academic backgrounds. Yet, we hired them initially for the same reasons that many companies hire college interns -- to do the data entry, research, and the general stuff that we don't like to do at a minimum cost. After a few days of this, we looked back at our own internship experiences and decided to give them something much more interesting. We asked them to build our next business.
Over the past few years our sales team has been using an app that we built internally. It's an online sales board that lets them keep track of their sales and at the same time motivates them through gaming mechanics (the fundamental principles behind apps like Angry Birds). Over time, we have developed it and made plans to release it as a new product. Here is where Dave and Neal come in.

We have given them the product and they are building a business around it. They are now "internpreneurs." They are handling everything from choosing the company name, the marketing strategy, the cost structure, the sales strategy, the brand, etc. If they need money, they will pitch us. If they need lots of money, they will have to get creative. Our only involvement is as advisors. If the product launches successfully, they will take pride in having their names listed as shareholders.

So why give this opportunity to some college kids?

  • Most internships suck. The internship has evolved into a resource for getting cheap labor. It's not about the education, but much more about the opportunity to leverage a student's requirement to fill summer hours. The company gets a lot of stuff done at a very low price point, sometimes free, and in exchange the college student gets a "resume builder" and hopefully some college credit. We thought that this outdated model was a waste of time for everyone, and that we could leverage our interns' talent and ambition far more creatively to the benefit of all.
  • The best MBA is not an MBA. The hands-on experience of building a company is far more valuable than the knowledge that can be grasped through a text book. This is not to discredit the interns' academic knowledge (this knowledge is why we hired them in the first place) but rather to have them get their noses bloody. Building a start-up will require them to learn how to think on their feet and make very difficult decisions as opposed to seeing how other people have done it. Ideally, they will go on to become great entrepreneurs. However, this is exactly the type of experience we are looking for in future hires, so we know exactly who to target first.
  • They don't know any better. We are getting them while they are green and the business savvy that they bring to the table is fresh. They are able to throw out big pictures ideas without prior experience getting in the way. They can swing for the fences and we can teach the game of singles and doubles. In our own company, some of our biggest accomplishments were the result of not knowing what was supposedly impossible to achieve. These interns give us the opportunity to tap back into that well of ambitious naiveté.
  • They have access to an amazing talent pool. As they build out the business, they may need to bring on more talent. Both come from strong academic universities and can attract high-caliber talent if they require more resources. With a great story to tell and a business to boot, they will also learn the hiring process. At the same time, their access to an amazing talent pool gives us better access to an amazing talent pool. From a hiring perspective, both businesses will benefit.
  • It's a win for our company. Beyond the hiring benefits, we are also building the managerial skills of our current employees. Since the interns are being thrown in the entrepreneurial fire, they are learning all facets of running a business. As a result, our current employees are training them on their respective expertise. Our design team is teaching them user experience, our sales team is teaching them marketing and sales techniques, our support team is teaching them customer relations, our development team is teaching them product. By giving our current employees the opportunity to teach, they are inherently learning how to lead. This is extremely important in our growing business.
So how are they doing so far? They have put up a "coming soon" page at onlinesalesboard.com and are working on the pricing structure as this is written. They hope to launch in the ensuing weeks. Stay tuned!

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