The needs of a new subscription business change rapidly, especially early on.

Before organizations invest in technology infrastructure, they often serve subscribers in a more labor-intensive way. This is a good strategy for businesses to take as they work to refine product market fit and race to launch that first offering (minimum viable product) into the market.

Having an intern, or a contract (short-term) employee can be a cost-effective and flexible resource. And because of the global pandemic, there is a lot of talent available. Many talented people have been laid off and want to get into something new and growing. Students taking all their classes online have extra time available that would have gone to extracurriculars, sports and socializing. And many students are taking time off from college.

Even though the market for interns and contractors is huge and highly active, many executives seem unclear about how to optimize roles that work for both the organization and the individual workers.

I know this is a little bit of a departure from my usual newsletter content. But I hope many of you find it useful as you get creative in building out the talent for your team. And I also hope it is helpful for students and jobseekers who are open to roles that are less structured than the standard full-time employment.

As a mom of three young adults, as someone who has done her fair share of hiring for all kinds of roles, and as an advisor to many scrappy teams looking to grow as quickly and efficiently as possible, I wanted to lay out some frameworks for scoping untraditional roles.

Intern vs Contractor

Many students and career switchers might be open to paid or unpaid employment when they are talking to a potential employer. However, expectations for an internship are different than the expectations of paid contract work or a full time paid role.

A paid employee is expected to stay around for a while, and contribute quickly and importantly. In some cases, there may be an expected learning curve but the contribution made by the employee is expected to be commensurate with the financial payment. In other words, taking on a full-time role implies commitment on both sides.

A paid contractor is expected to contribute immediately and can be let go at anytime. They are paid more per hour than an employee for a few reasons:

  • they require little, if any, training, and hit the ground running
  • there is no expectation of long-term commitment
  • they don’t get benefits, which can increase the effective compensation by 30-50%

An intern is generally working for free or for less money than an employee or contractor because they’re being compensated in other ways. This is important. They’re not free labor. They might expect (and deserve) some or all of the following:

  • Training
  • Ability to observe and participate in interesting experiences
  • A reference letter
  • A path to paid employment

One intern I hired had never had a job. I asked her what she wanted—intern or contractor. She didn’t know how to do the “full job” I wanted, and wanted the ability to pick and choose from the tasks I needed done, and was very clear about wanting me to be a reference. We have had many conversations about various marketing jobs and the pros and cons of different roles, as well as the career path that might make sense for her. In this case, I brought her on as an unpaid intern.

Another person who came to me, also without any work experience, had skills that could immediately be applied and was also willing to do general admin work as it came up. In other words, even though she didn’t have experience, she could provide a lot of value and didn’t want mentoring or access to sit in on meetings. She wanted money. And that was fine.

It’s really important to understand what a short-term hire wants, and what you need as an employer.

Interns are often getting paid in your time. In other words, they want to spend time with you, and learn from you and get mentored. They might also be slower or less skilled than a paid contractor—that’s not their fault—that’s the point!

Payment Options

Regardless of whether you pay your short term hires or not, it’s important to be really clear on your rationale.

Are you going to pay them by input—that is, the hour, the day, the month?

Or are you going to pay by output—the number of calls, clients, illustrations?

Is the payment an honorarium—a small gift to acknowledge that they are contributing? Or is it meant to be market rate for market work?

And beyond the work itself, are you willing to pay a premium or get a discount for other components of the job structure?

For example, I had a job early on where my boss wanted me to be available at all times—even though the work was pretty basic, she paid a premium for the ability to call anytime. Some workers might take a pay cut to be able to to work remotely, or to have a very focused set of responsibilities, while others might be willing to take whatever you throw at them.

One intern I know might be editing a high level brief one day and cleaning his boss’ office the next—he’s providing value by being flexible and ‘making the problems go away’ for his boss. This kind of flexibility is valuable for the employer, although it might limit the intern’s ability to learn the things he signed up for.

A Negotiation is Communication 

Many students and job-switchers see negotiating as adversarial and unfriendly. They worry if they don’t accept the initial offer, they will be seen as “ungrateful” or “not a team player”.

That’s not true. Maybe it’s helpful to reframe that negotiation as communication. Your future employer/mentor/client should be framing it that way already, but if they’re not, don’t be shy.

You can start by asking if they’re looking for an intern or a paid contractor, and how they see the two being different. Try to ascertain what the role might offer you besides financial compensation:

  • Training (transferable skills)
  • Exposure to educational experiences (high level meetings, surgeries, sales calls)
  • Financial remuneration
  • Mentoring
  • Focus
  • Flexibility
  • Control (of hours, scope of work, location)
  • Networking
  • Recommendation Letters and Introductions
  • Professional development
  • Experience for resume

What you’re willing to do might change depending on what you’re getting—whether you’re the manager or the worker. So be clear on what you value. By tapping into the flexibility of this role, you can create something really special, and hopefully build a special kind of “forever transaction” as colleagues.