May 26, 2019
How to Work with No Money by Mentoring Interns
When my co-founder and I started a web design company in Chicago in 2000, we had very little money, even though he wanted to go pitch every Silicon Valley investor on what he thought was the next big thing – local events. We even developed a really crappy pitch deck to present to investors. I was deeply against the idea of bringing in funding, both of us having just worked at Lycos when it actually was something. (Does anyone really remember Lycos anymore? What about Tripod, Angelfire, Salon… They’re all still around, but does anyone even visit them anymore? I digress.)
He had a bit of money on hand since he cashed in his Lycos stock (as an employee in the first set of digits, he had a significant score). Plus he’d sold them just prior to the stock market downturn so we were selling at $75 a share. That gave us some running time, but everything costs money. You have CAPEX. Brand. Office selection. Web site. I’d never built my own site before but now that was going to be my job. Still, he wanted to focus on local events. Start in Chicago and expand to New York, L.A., San Fransisco and beyond.
We planned on hiring a CTO to handle the tech stuff which would require funding. We were working out of a space not being used by a local traditional newspaper – enough for two desks, no more. I asked my cofounder about business models and over a large jug of cheap white wine, we discovered the architecture that would change our entire business model. For example, in events, you want to pick a category, like LBGT, family friendly, nightclubs, concerts, business networking, etc., then have a list of links to events to choose from. You click on an event to get the details of the event. It could then link you to sites, signup options, etc. Sounded good, but then I spun it around his head. “Why stop at events? This works for everything. You can put up directories, press releases, jobs… it’s all the same architecture: a category page, list and detail, plus the same back end…
We changed out business model then to componentize options for web sites (We were way before SaaS and all) and provide features that the customers could update on their own. We were all about starting with one feature and adding more as they needed them and we hadn’t thought of renting them like SaaS, but we did want to offer a monthly maintenance fee, so it sounded pretty sweet.
Back in 2000, web sites cost people a lot more money than they do now. CRM back ends cost companies several thousand dollars and few people in those companies knew how to use them, so they paid for training as well. Our components were small, intuitive, easy to use and were simple for us to install. But it took us a while to figure out how to do this with no money. We had no CTO or technical staff. It was just me and my co-founder who knew a little bit about coding but needed to be working on sales, finances, and other stuff. That’s when we decided to hire unpaid interns, in local graduate programs, to work on building the components. Once we had one ready, robust and quality checked, it would be easy to replicate the rest.
Attracting unpaid interns requires that you sell the experience they get. As a tiny startup, each one of them would be working on client projects which they could list on their resumes. We would supply them all with references and letters of recommendations, as well as make introductions on their behalf to our own set of contacts. Some worked full-time, most part-time, some worked weekends. They were responsible for creating the first version of our events component after a few months (we were also developing other, standard web sites for clients in order to pay the bills while we worked on this side project) and QA’d the hell out of it. When we started offering it, people liked it.
We had a lot of lawyers as clients and they needed directories, so we had to add an upload feature for photos. We had that done and started selling the events and directory components as part of our sales pitch and the directory was doing quite well. We decided it was time to continue building out our suite of BuzzWare. By the time we were done we had a number of offerings:
We didn’t have an experienced marketing team, but we had two interns, one who’d run her own PR company prior to starting her MBA, and the other a former dotcom marketer going for hers. They created a marketing plan with nearly no budget, but we came up with some very interesting ads that created a lot of interest:
We were way ahead of the times. Today, these components would be simple plugins for WordPress sites, most likely featuring premium, paid features, but that’s why timing is the most important and uncontrollable attribute that can guarantee success.
We gave our interns incredible experiences and they learned a lot. They had to wear a lot of hats and volunteer for things they’d never tried before. They were given free reign to come up with new ideas and solve challenges in client software as a team. They went out on sales calls. They reviewed logs to see what was driving traffic (there was no Google Analytics back than; we used WebTrends), and analyzed what industries were more receptive. We crafted presentations for the CEO. He networked everywhere. Our interns got to be part of everything.
Whenever I hear from one of our interns from back then, it is so gratifying to see where they are now and what they are doing. Some are now people whose name and businesses you would recognize that are located in Seattle and Silicon Valley or Alley. Others have their own smaller firms and others hold high level positions in companies on the cutting edge of fintech and nanotechnology and I am very proud of them. I’m glad that we gave them a good start and that they loved the experience, especially when we weren’t able to pay them. They felt the experience was worth every penny we didn’t pay them. 🙂