Before You Start a Business, Do an Internship

I'm a business major, and my ultimate goal is to own and operate a paper and stationery products business. I've researched the four largest companies in the sector. Should I intern at one of them? If so, how do I arrange it? —P.R., Chicago

It's a terrific idea for aspiring entrepreneurs to work in the industry they're targeting, whether they are college business majors or 50-year-old refugees from corporate careers.

"You will learn about the industry supply chain, the key industry financial metrics, why customers buy certain products, and the competition's products," says Edward D. Hess, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. "You will learn about the plumbing of a business: The infrastructure of quality, financial, HR, and customer management processes, controls, and information systems. All of this will make your transition to entrepreneurship easier. Work hard and learn everything you can," he says.

But do you try for a spot with one of the industry's largest corporate players, or could you learn more working with a smaller firm? You're probably more likely to pick up valuable industry information in a small or midsize company, because you'll be physically closer to the decision-makers and have more chance to interact with them regularly.

Ideally, of course, it would be great if you could spend several months as an insider at each end of the size spectrum. If you have time before you graduate, you might try that, suggests Therese Prentice, a certified small-business and marketing coach in New York. "Real world experience can shorten your learning curve when starting your own small business," she adds.

If you can't do two internships, you might try interning with a larger company and getting a part-time job at a smaller firm, or vice versa. But in this job market, finding a position will be tricky—so don't narrow your search too much, says Hajj E. Flemings, a brand strategist based in Detroit. "Broaden your scope to include small and large companies, both of which have pros and cons. The goal ultimately is to get meaningful experience and to make connections with key decision makers that you can leverage in the future," he says. "I would also consider industries that are closely aligned. Learning how to manage a business can still be accomplished working with different products in a different industry."

Contact the chief executives and senior managers of the companies you select and let them know about your background and aspirations. Include recommendations from your professors or previous supervisors and attach a one-page rÉsumÉ. "Wait three days, and then call and speak to their administrative assistants and ask if you can schedule a five-minute phone call. Tell them clearly, concisely, and compellingly why you want to work for them. Make it easy for them to hire you by working for as little as you can afford," Hess says.

Other ways to meet executives in your chosen industry include: Attending trade shows for that industry, joining industry trade associations (they often have student memberships, Prentice says), and connecting through business networking groups online.

Do some research to identify what types of issues your targeted companies want to solve and demonstrate that you're familiar with their challenges and able to assist. "The philosophy of these times is service. Strive to be a 'go-giver' by articulating what you can give, instead of what you can get," says Zayd Abdul-Karim, a business coach and motivational speaker based in Washington, D.C.

You may benefit from the fact that companies that have downsized need extra help right now. If you can demonstrate that you're a quick study who will indeed be a help to the company's efforts—and not a hindrance—your chances for success will increase.

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