How I’m Building My Whole Team With Interns

Yeh, you read that right. I only hire interns. Am I crazy?

It started out like this because a) I wanted to test our platform and b) I couldn’t afford more senior-level staff. Now, I’m so stoked with what we’ve been able to achieve that I’ve crafted a 5-year strategy on how to scale this business with the same approach (another blog on this soon).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not cycling interns in and out like a human-trafficking operation. Not at all. I’m hiring all my talent on the ground floor with the genuine intention of taking them to the penthouse with me. Every hire I make is with the aim to retain, and the process I use to hire interns is the same as if I were hiring a senior-level exec.

It wasn’t on purpose, but we really have become a ‘by the interns, for the interns’ business and I love it.

So, how do I justify my perceived craziness and what’s my process? I’m happy to share some of our secret sauce.

Finding them

I’m fortunate enough to have access to a talent pool of over 22 000 ambitious young individuals across South Africa. This is a pretty solid talent pool to select from and I’ve found some true gems in the past 18 months.

Once I’ve identified a role that we need to fill, I write up a detailed advert (not a job spec). Who wants to read a ‘job spec’? Not me. Not millennials. Not interns.

It’s an advert because we want top talent but we’re a bootstrapped start-up who can’t pay top dollar. We need to sell ourselves.

The general format of the advert is:

  • We tell our story – who are we, what is our purpose and why do we do what we do.
  • We identify the gap – where are we falling short in the business and how do we believe this gap can be filled?
  • We open up – how will filling this gap contributes to our greater purpose and mission, and what will the intern gain by joining our team to help us do this?
  • We paint a picture of the future – remember, we hire everyone with the intention to retain, so we show them the path of growth upfront. 

I’m definitely skewed by bias, but our data doesn’t lie and every time we advertise a Trusted Interns role, we get loads more applicants than any other job on the platform. Similarly, every time an employer takes my advice and writes up a similar job spec, their application rates soar.

Filtering them

This is literally how we identified that shortlisting was a vital component of the Trusted Interns business model. I didn’t want to look through 300 CVs and I’m pretty sure that no one else does either. So, we take them through a rigid screening, shortlisting and interview process.

First up, the screening form. We build a robust screening form that is sent to everyone that applies. The two primary factors that I look to assess in this round are values and competency.

Values: We have a set of 10 values in Trusted Interns that guide everything we do. Every decision, every meeting, every client, every strategy – it’s all weighed up against our values. It’s a perfect round 1 filter. I’ll write another blog about how to include values-based questions in a screening form otherwise I’m definitely going to prematurely hit my word limit.

This generally takes 300 applicants down to 50.

Competency: Can they do the job that they are applying for? Granted, these are very low-level competency tests (i.e. write an email, respond to a tweet, etc), but it’s a low-enough hurdle for them to complete before meeting me and a strong enough indicator that I can assess their ability.

This generally takes 50 down to 15. 

The two-way first-round interview. All candidates are interviewed and ranked against the exact same set questions to remove unconscious bias. I’ll write another blog on my first-round interview, but it’s a way for me to assess my connection with them, push buttons on their own values to test for alignment and to further understand their reasoning for wanting to join our team and where they see themselves growing. They are also given the opportunity to interview me to give them the confidence that we are the right fit for them.

This takes 15 to 7. 

The proper competency test. We need to assess whether they can actually do what they say they can do. Customer Success Interns have to make client calls and send follow up emails (I brief the client they’re calling first and get feedback from them). Content Interns need to create drip-campaigns. Candidate Success Interns get to create a set of community management responses.

This takes 7 to 3. 

The culture fit. By the time a candidate gets to this round, we’ve ticked the box that they align with our values and that they’re competent so technically, if it was just me in the business, I would likely hire them. But it’s not just me in the business and I need buy-in from the rest of the team who’ll work with this person on a daily basis. So, we do a culture fit interview.

This is a group interview that’s led by the rest of the team. We book out a boardroom and pretty much our whole team sits in on it (we’re small so we can). There’s a box of questions that gets passed around and each person can pick one and ask it. They’re standard questions that we ask every time.


  • What is your spirit animal and why?
  • What is the coolest thing you’ve done in the past month?
  • How do you like your eggs in the morning and why?
  • Cats or dogs? Coffee or tea?
  • If you had to drink one thing for the rest of your life, besides water, what would it be?
  • What is your guilty pleasure?

Again, the candidate is given the opportunity to interview the whole team so they can make sure that I didn’t sell them down the river.

After this, each member of our team fills in a scorecard based on their impression of the candidates. We then collate these and sit down to make a team decision.

This takes 3 down to 1.

And just like that, we found our diamond in the rough. It’s hard work to dig, filter, test and polish but it’s so worth it.

Onboarding them

Great. You’ve found a rock-solid intern. Now what?

Give them a proper onboarding.

The first day of your first job is huge. Don’t expect them to arrive and automatically know what to do. Don’t expect them to be thrilled with a standard onboarding that you might give another employee who has experience getting adjusted to the workplace. Make it special.

We tailor our onboarding for every intern that joins the team, but generally, it includes the following:

Before they even arrive, they’re sent a Welcome Pack with everything they need to know. This includes an intro to everyone else in the team, their login credentials for any systems we use (including a system that has all our processes documented so they can self-learn), a list of everything we’ll teach them in the first few days and an itinerary that maps out their first week to the minute.

They’re also greeted by a welcome note on their desk, their own quirky mug, notepads, stationery, etc. We also have a welcome lunch at some point during week 1 so they can get to know the team in a chilled environment.

It’s small details like this that speak to giving them a great experience so that they’ll give their everything and deliver great value.

Growing them

If we’re going to build our entire team by hiring interns, we need to upskill them. There is only so much we can outsource to consultants/contractors and that’s not a cost-efficient way to build a business.

When an intern joins the team, they generally join into a specific role or discipline. But, due to us being an ‘all hands on deck’ team, it’s likely that they’ll get stuck into things that are outside their realm of competence or original desire.

This is good.

It gives them perspective about what’s happening in the rest of the business, helps us help each other, but most importantly, helps them work out where they might want to stretch themselves.

I also make an effort to ask them in the interview process what they want to learn, how they want to grow, and where they see themselves adding value.

I’ve realised that I can’t do this by myself, so I’m working to build a peer-to-peer mentor network where I can match my interns with those with more experience to help them grow faster.

Retaining them

What’s the point in finding the best, putting the time into growing them but then they leave? Well, there’s still lots of value in that, but as a business, we need to be the best and keeping that value in our team so we can compound it and grow our talent, abilities and impact exponentially.

How do I do this? Honestly, I’m still figuring it out but I do have a few things in place and some ideas on how to be better. My main focus is based on a Ted Talk that I watched by Dan Pink titled: “The Puzzle of Motivation.”

Essentially, I strive to deliver three things to everyone in our teamAutonomy, Mastery and Purpose. 

If I can enable them to direct their own lives (autonomy), become better and better in something that matters (mastery), and to do work in the service of something greater than themselves (purpose), then I think we’re on the right track to retaining our brilliant talent.

I’ll definitely write more about this topic, just not promising what or when 🙂 If you’d like to continue the conversation or find out how you can also build a team of interns, then feel free to book a meeting with me and let’s chat!

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