Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Write Way: Effective Business Writing

It’s hard to overstate the importance of effective writing to the success of a business endeavour. The words you choose to describe your idea, product, or service can make or break a prospective transaction, and attract or repel clients. Furthermore, proficiency in writing can make the difference between being perceived as a consummate professional, or an overweening amateur.

The basics always matter

In the era of spell-check, it’s easier to avoid egregious spelling errors than it was in the past. But there is a pitfall: when we rely on technology to correct our mistakes for us, we risk indulging in complacency—which can yield errors of a different kind. Nowadays, “correct” misspellings crop up frequently, like the following:


Delivery service is available in over one hundred countries, on six contents.

...a conveniently located house with an ensuite bathroom and specious kitchen.


Some misspellings/grammar mistakes are distressingly common, even among highly educated people:


The French Revolution lead to the ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte.

It is always important to chose one’s words wisely.


For more on grammatical faux pas, see this page at Copyblogger, and this (more advanced) one at Lit Reactor. Where spelling is concerned, this comic strip at The Oatmeal is both humorous and instructive.

Proofread your work, twice

As an entrepreneur, you are certainly conversant with time pressure and tight deadlines. But there is no substitute for carefully proofreading your work. Pay particular attention to your company website and social media, the foundations of your brand. Don’t underestimate the value of a disinterested second pair of eyes; ask someone you trust, with strong spelling and grammar skills, to peruse your work before you publish it. A credible reputation for attention to detail is a priceless asset in the business world—sloppy writing, on the other hand, is a red flag.

Aim for clarity and economy of words

If there is a rule of thumb for effective writing, it is that clarity and economy of words nearly always yield a superior final product. Whenever you write something, ask yourself: “Could I convey this concept more clearly, or in fewer words?” You may be surprised at how often the answer is “Yes.”

Think of yourself as a journalist who is attempting to shoehorn information into a limited word-count, highlighting the most salient details.

Show, don’t tell

Adjectives can be useful and illustrative in proper measure, but many prospective customers are wary of being “over-sold.” Accordingly, err on the side of too few adjectives rather than too many; emphasize the tangible properties and past successes of the product or service you offer. Testimonials from satisfied customers can be useful in this regard. What particular want or need does your product fill? How, exactly?

Know, and cater to, your readership

Understand the level of familiarity of your prospective clients with your product. Avoid jargon wherever feasible, and use your discretion in clarifying ideas and defining terms.

Clients will invariably ask questions, and some queries may arise repeatedly. Keep a list of those that recur, and set up a FAQ page on your website.

Read in your spare time

One of the surest ways to enhance any skill is to learn from others who excel at it. Read widely—news, press releases, literature, magazine articles. Reading will help you expand your vocabulary, learn new figures of speech, build linguistic precision, and gain general knowledge. Staying abreast of current events and the latest advancements in your industry is useful for networking purposes, too. The more you can impress people with your expertise, and your ability to articulate it, the more your prospective client base will grow.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Establishing Success in 10 Seconds

It’s an old cliché that you only get one chance to make a first impression, but unlike with the opposite sex, if practice made perfect it means that all that time spent practicing amounts to dollars left on the table just trying to get it right. You can read over the volumes of thick tomes dedicated to unraveling the mystery as to what to say to make the perfect first impression, or simply be aware of the fact that a first impression of you is made even before you open your mouth – the implications this has for business are unfathomable.


A couple of compelling theories to consider

In a study out of Harvard, published in Psychological Bulletin in 1992 by Ambady & Rosenthal, it was found that there is strong evidence supporting peoples’ ability to quickly and accurately judge others. So when people tell you that they are “excellent judges of character”, statistically they are, if unwittingly, telling the truth. What Ambady & Rosenthal concluded was that you could know someone for a few seconds, or for a year, and your impression of them would be the same.

In a much less scientifically controlled environment, Art of Charm founder Jordan Harbinger explained on the Bulletproof Executive’s podcast recently, in the context of men seeking women at a night club, that a group of women will develop an impression of a man the moment he walks into the club – or as he charmingly puts it, “the moment he appears on their radar” – and not when he musters the courage to approach them.


What do these examples mean for business?

Haven’t put it together yet?

For years, a lot of emphasis has been put on the importance of, and how much you can know about someone, from their having a firm handshake. Well the truth is just about everything in business, from networking, to the job interview, to landing a major deal relies heavily on everything you do before you even shake on anything.

It was often said that a firm handshake projected confidence and self-assuredness - traits that bosses and CEOs looked for in those they wanted working for them or wanted to make deals with - but the truth is the level of your confidence has been established by others not when you first shake, but when they first lay eyes on you. That means that a job, a contract, or a major deal is signed off on courtesy of communication that is non-verbal; communication that is not interactive, or even intentional.


Networking and unlocking the secrets of non-verbal communication

As superficial as it may seem, success anywhere happens in about 10 seconds and comes down to a few exterior traits. So no matter how lovable you may be, or how brilliant your ideas are, it’s essential to at least master a few surface qualities so that these deeper traits have a chance to see the light of day.

In much the same way that a handshake was once regarded as the way to communicate confidence and self-assuredness, people like Ambady, Rosenthal, and Harbinger are now proving that what you wear, how you enter a room, and how you walk and carry yourself have the ability to project the same thing. Neglecting these facts could be the difference between a payday and planning on not making the same mistake next time.

Ten seconds. That’s all it takes. So don’t wait to work up the courage to connect because statistics show that the longer you wait the more your opportunity to make a perfect first impression slips away. Establishing contact the moment you appear on someone’s radar is just another way to project the confidence they are looking for. So don’t waste time second-guessing your lovability, or your great ideas, because you, in fact, wear those on the outside.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Unraveling the Talent Myth

In July 2002 the New Yorker published an article called TheTalent Myth by Malcolm Gladwell. In this article Gladwell explores the shortcomings of a widely recognized management system put forward by a management-consulting firm called McKinsey & Company who advocate a three-tiered management process known as differentiation and affirmation. In this process of differentiation and affirmation employee performance is rated resulting in each employee being placed in one of three categories A, B, and C. The A’s, or talent group, are to be challenged and given generous bonuses as well as new tasks, new responsibilities, and new titles. The B’s are to be encouraged and affirmed, whereas the lowly C’s need to be let go.

The Problem… or Problems

There are a couple of flaws in this way of thinking that seem obvious. First, is that managers are encouraged to engage employees to do what the employees want and not what the employees are good at or have experience doing. Another flaw, which Gladwell points out, is that companies who are prisoner to the talent myth often move employees into new jobs with greater frequency than companies that are not tied to the same mindset, often spending less than a year at a particular job within the company. The result is that one employee’s range of responsibilities is changing so frequently that it becomes impossible to judge true performance.

Lastly, there is little correlation between a person’s IQ and job performance. The reason for this is the fact that IQ doesn’t measure a person’s competency to what Gladwell calls “tacit knowledge”. For Gladwell, it’s the difference between a school environment, where everything an individual is rated on involves working by themselves (writing an exam or an essay), versus a corporate environment where virtually everything is accomplished by coordinating many individuals around a singular goal.

Let the System Shine

It was McKinsey & Company’s belief that the best and most successful companies were those that adopted the talent mindset – the belief that the intelligence of a company was rooted in the intelligence of its employees. Successful companies were those that went out of their way to seek what they perceived as talent and that fostered that talent by molding their company to the interests of their most talented individuals.

As Gladwell points out, some of the most successful companies were those where the system, not its employees, was the star. As Gladwell writes:

“The talent myth assumes that people make organizations smart. More often than not, it’s the other way around.”

You Learn More on the First Day

My own experience has been that no amount of schooling has ever adequately prepared me, or anyone I know, for what it’s like to actually be out on the job. I’ve heard the old adage “I learned more on the first day on the job than I did in 4 years of university” so often that it’s become cliché. Coming out of college labeled as talent is a great thing and is capable of opening a lot of doors, but talent in school is only one type of talent.

The people I am constantly seeking are those that have broader, even hidden, talents. Someone who graduated from university with less than stellar marks, but did so while holding down a part-time job, or involving themselves in a bevy of extra-curricular activities, is just as impressive as an ‘A’ student. Also, with so much time spent together on the job I tend to try to surround myself with people who have complimentary talents or people that I genuinely like. Operating a business, especially a small business, becomes a shared experience and the people you work with become your family. No matter what might be on their CV, if everybody in the company is not on the same page, it will not be successful.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Part-Time Entrepreneurship

If you’re not ready to take the leap and quit your current job to run your own business full-time, you can still enjoy entrepreneurship on a part-time basis while maintaining the security of being an employee with an income. But, to do this, you need to keep the following points in mind:

Say Goodbye to Personal Time

Having a full-time job and a part-time business leaves very little time for yourself. You’ll need to make sure you can handle putting most of your time an effort into work and this will mean you’ll probably have to skip out on vacations or even spending a relaxing weekend with friends and family! But that doesn’t mean you’re cut off from the rest of the world – just plan your down time wisely. But there’s always an upside. Get your friends and family involved in the business by giving them tasks based on their skills. This gives you the benefit of “free” help for your business while spending time with those you love.

Don’t Let it Interfere With Other Responsibilities

It’s important to keep your two jobs separate and not let them overlap too much. Don’t risk losing your current job by working on your side project during work hours. Try to keep your mind on the job at hand and leave your business to off-hours. This may mean that phone calls and emails have to go unanswered until after 5. Keep yourself disciplined by scheduling blocks of time to complete your own business tasks in the off-hours to keep your mind on your job when you’re at work.

Use Technology Wisely

There are so many websites out there to make life easier for the small business owner. Whether it be setting up e-commerce on Etsy or Shopify, building a custom website through SquareSpace, or getting payment processing on Square, all of this can be done on your own for a lot less than it would cost to hire a professional. Do some research online to find software to help you manage your business. It may take a bit more time to set up, but it will save you money in the long run and will be much easier to maintain over time.

Be Patient!

Anything part-time is going to take a little longer. But be patient – it won’t always be part-time! Count yourself lucky to have a source of income as you work towards your goal of being a full-time entrepreneur and use this goal as a motivator to work hard during your spare time to achieve your goals. The harder you work in the early stages, the better the pay off will be in the end! 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Skill Building on the Commute

Last week proved to be revelatory as, for the first time in over five years, I was forced to drive to my workspace. The circumstances that made the drive necessary are inconsequential, but as I stared at the city skyline from the highway with the car idling in park, and being forced to breathe in exhaust fumes on a particularly smoggy summer day from all the congestion, I learned a few things.

Practice Gratitude – and math!
 
The first thing that occurred to me as I watched a particularly ornery man make obscene gestures and honk at a car that had changed lanes in front of him while moving at a mere 5 kilometers an hour, was that I was so thankful that this was not my life. My being on that stretch of road during rush hour was a rare inconvenience, but for so many people it is the norm. In total, I lost over 3 hours of my day in traffic. If that pattern was a daily certainty it would mean roughly 15 hours a week, 60 hours a month, and, based on a 50-week per year work cycle, 750 hours every year lost in traffic. Even if I retired early at 55, a 30-year professional career could mean as much as 22,500 hours of my life spent behind the wheel bumper-to-bumper with other cars.

This is where my mind wandered on that fateful day, wondering how different my life would be if I hadn’t developed my career in such a way as to be able to do my work from anywhere. In case anyone is doing the math, because yes, that’s the kind of time I had while in traffic, those 22,500 hours could represent and, are equal to: 937.5 days, or just over 2.5 years of your life. I wondered what my price would be to devote that much of my life to a daily commute.

Learn a Language

For a while I couldn’t get over how depressing the situation I was in was. But then I decided to look at it a little differently. Although the most important thing is to always be mindful when behind the wheel and to arrive at your intended destination safely, it’s also very possible to do something passively, and productive, while you drive. I figure most people listen to the radio just as I did, but when I heard the same song twice during just one leg of the commute I thought that the practice couldn’t be sustainable.

I’d be hard pressed to recall any of the facts from any of the courses during my four years at university, but one thing that I do recall is that lectures were always one hour and a half – much like the commute. Audio learning CDs and downloads are now available for just about any language you can think of. Bilingualism is becoming a rare skill and it’s hard to think of a better way to improve one’s marketability than by learning a foreign language. Better yet, it can be the gateway to many life altering and rewarding opportunities as languages can take you around the world.

The Learning Doesn’t Stop at Languages

Over the past decade podcasting has become an enormously popular way to share and absorb information. Anyone with an itunes account can download engaging and informative podcasts about everything from health, to history, to science and technology, sports, politics, and spirituality. There is truly no shortage of topics and ideas to stimulate your mind if you only gave them a chance. I would wager that any devoted listener to Dan Carlin’s hardcore history could easily become conversational about world history with any university tenured history professor in just a couple of months. Many podcasts are free, or cost as little as $0.99. You can even download university lectures from some of the world’s most renowned universities. You don’t get course credit, but it doesn’t set you back nearly as much as actually attending the classes.

Dictate the Next Great Novel

What an age we live in! With the right set of tools you can actually dictate all of your ideas onto a voice recorder while at the wheel and then have a computer program turn your dictation into text. A little further down the line that text can become a manuscript, and, if you play your cards right, that manuscript can become a bestseller with movie rights, and can be your ticket out of traffic forever.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Finding New Ways To Network

Finding new clients and attracting new customers doesn’t have to be all about advertising your business. Sometimes it’s about selling yourself through networking. But networking events tend to get a bad rap – most people don’t look forward to boring business events full of schmoozing and faking interest in others. But attending those awful local events isn’t the only way to network. If you cringe when you hear the mention of “networking”, why not try a new way to create business relationships?

Start a Meetup

Networking events are said to be the best way to meet new contacts and create business relationships. With so many to choose from, it can be hard to know which will be most beneficial to your needs. So why not start your own? Create your own event and send invites on social media to reach out to people you already know and ask those people to pass along the invite to others who might be interested. Make sure you find an open and comfortable space and have refreshments available to make your event feel friendly and welcoming. As the host, you’ll be responsible for making your event is successful so go out of your way to introduce yourself to as many people as possible and ask lots of questions (while networking the whole time)! Starting your own meetup allows you to create the ideal networking event – not the stuffy boring kind that everyone dreads! If you’d rather do something informal, try starting a book club or a wine tasting event. This will provide a more intimate environment for discussion and, with the right group, can turn into potential relationship building in the future.

Find a Volunteer Opportunity

Not only does volunteer work give you a feeling of great satisfaction, it’s a fantastic way to meet like-minded individuals who are looking to give back to the community. Being in a group who are passionate about volunteering can really bring people together and eventually forge close bonds. There’s a sense of trust established as people are working towards a greater good. Another way to volunteer and get your work noticed is to offer your services for free to a non-profit.

Have Your Business Card Handy


You never know when you’ll run into someone who could become a potential client, so always have your business cards ready to hand out. If a casual conversation at a pub turns to work related discussion, providing a business card with your answer to “what do you do?” can turn a chance meeting into a future business venture. The business card might get tucked away, but is a good reminder for when services might be needed later or it can be passed along to a friend. To make a larger impact, splurge on an interesting and creative design for your cards as a statement piece.

Strengthen Your Existing Connections

Sometimes it can be hard to find the time to keep in touch with co-workers, employees, or clients from the past. But reaching out every once in a while is a great way to keep your name (and business) top of mind. A simple email to catch up or even a social media message keeps the relationship even after years have passed. LinkedIn provides a great way to keep contact information of those you’ve worked with in the past, and makes it easy to find those you may have lost contact with. You’ll also have an easier time meeting new contacts simply through keeping up with your old ones. Now that’s networking!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How to Burn the Candle at Both Ends and Stay Healthy

After packing a 40-hour workweek into just three days, and with several projects still to get through in the four remaining days, I had to take a deep breath and think about how I was going to make it to the end of the week and still have my sanity. Every so often, no matter what’s on our plate, it’s important to make time to look out for number one and make sure that all those hours, and all that pressure, don’t catch up to you and knock you down. One of my favorite health podcasts recently took the opportunity to address this very question about how to stay healthy while doing shift work. While the podcast is specifically addressing people who work off hours, most of the tenets of health outlined in the podcast are universal.

It’s all about the Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that’s naturally produced by the body that regulates the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. During the day melatonin is naturally low and high at night, and is a result of millions of years of evolution of our bodies working in harmony with light and dark cycles. This rise and fall in melatonin secretion is related to our circadian rhythm and what happens when we work late into the night is we expose ourselves to artificial light which disrupts melatonin production, raising cortisol (also known as our stress hormone), and interfering with our body’s natural rhythm. The health effects of this hormone disruption are significant.

Some frightening statistics

Every cell in the body seems to be affected by this disruption and shift work is associated with a wide variety of problems including insomnia, depression, and gastrointestinal disturbances, as well as an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, decreases in fertility, increased risk for diabetes and other metabolic disorders, increased risk for cancer, and an overall increased risk of death. More specifically, rates of prostate and breast cancer in men and women who do shift work rise 40% to 70%. There’s also some evidence suggesting that one’s risk of stroke rises by 5% for every year of doing shift work.

The deeper problem

Obviously it’s not as simple as just hormone secretion. What we find is that people who do shift work, or who work late into the night, also adopt a number of poor lifestyle habits.  For example, shift workers are more likely to eat at restaurants or eat poor quality fast food instead of cooking at home. They’re also less likely to seek an adequate amount of exercise. Mixing poor lifestyle habits with hormone disruption appears to be a recipe for poor health.

What can you do?

Well the obvious answers here are to make sure you’re eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, getting enough exercise, and, when possible, obeying our body’s natural rhythms. Less obvious is a handy trick called light control. That is, first, ensuring that when you’re sleeping during the day that you’re blocking out all light sources and sleeping in total darkness. Second, while working at night it’s important to use the right kind of lighting, and when working at night you should be using very bright LED lighting at full power. The idea here is essentially to trick  your body that night is day and day is night. Chris Kresser also recommends that when leaving work in the morning when the sun is beginning to rise, that shift workers filter out blue wavelengths of light by wearing amber tinted glasses. By filtering out these blue wavelengths you are sending signals to your body that nighttime is coming, even if it’s not.

Get more information about this podcast by following this link:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lessons From the FIFA World Cup

Business owners around the world are breathing a collective sigh of relief now that the grand spectacle that is the FIFA World Cup has come to a close, signaling, at long last, that it is back to business as usual. Although soccer doesn’t have the deep roots in North America as it does in other parts of the world, the FIFA World Cup is widely regarded as the planet’s most important and widely viewed sporting event, and one reaches a truly global audience. The World Cup only takes place every four years and this year’s host nation, Brazil, is the country whose economy is most directly affected by the tournament. But the month-long tournament also has enormous economic impacts on other countries as well. Some of the numbers related to the tournament (mostly concerning the US economy), provided by InsideView are staggering. For example, 80% of the world’s population will watch some part of the World Cup; the US, it is estimated, lost $390 million in productivity during their group match game against Germany alone; and the World Cup will cost the British economy 250 million working hours. During the World Cup, quite literally, the world stops.

Where is all this productivity lost?

The biggest area affecting productivity is from workers who actually take sick days in order to watch their nation compete in games. But it gets worse. An estimated 10% of workers will come in late for work having stayed up late to watch the games. And who knows how much time and productivity is lost from workers sneaking a peak during working hours or just conversing about the tournament. All in all, as far as productivity is concerned, the World Cup amounts to a colossal distraction.

Steer Into the Skid

Some business owners’ strategies, in light of these statistics, can be to implement draconian-like policies for the duration of the tournament. But, some business owners are finding that the best solution is not just to not fight it, but to embrace the tournament, and see it as an opportunity to enhance other aspects of the business. According to Mercer research in four Latin American countries, it showed that on average over 87% of businesses are willing “to be flexible during the World Cup in offering employees short-term benefits that may have a positive impact on long-term productivity and morale”.

Specific Strategies

Many businesses are coming up with ways to make the World Cup accessible to their employees while keeping a steady workflow. They include things like allowing employees to leave work early or be flexible with their working hours, watching their nation play while working from home, and even equipping their break rooms with TVs that show the games.

The Lasting Impact

A recent Forbes article even found that the World Cup can actually have a positive impact on the bottom line of a company by boosting morale. Neal Taparia, Co-CEO of Imagine Easy Solutions, described the buzz of excitement around the office by their policy of embracing the tournament and playing all of the games in one of their conference rooms, suggesting that it connected employees to each other and to the products they design.

There’s much to learn from the World Cup, as it will surely test employee commitment. At the end of the day, the World Cup is never the difference between success and failure, but reveals much about the connection between the management and the employees.

Links to studies and works referenced in this article:




Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Strategies For Juggling Multiple Projects

If you run your own business, chances are you have a seemingly endless to-do list that can overwhelm the senses and would lead a more fragile mind into despair. Sometimes the first thing on everyone’s to-do list is to figure out which item on the to-do list to actually do first. Like a car with standard transmission often the hardest thing is just getting the car rolling. Here are a few handy tips and tricks on how to manage all the items on that list so you can get out of first gear and get into the fast lane.

Organize Your Projects

No two projects are created equal and it’s up to you to figure out which ones are high priority versus which ones can wait. You also need to figure out which projects are long-term projects and which ones have imminent deadlines, or ongoing deadlines. Some individual tasks within a particular project are themselves more complicated than others and those need to be sorted out as well. In my case, I have a set of regular tasks that need to be taken care of weekly and then a variety of projects that are, on average, a month’s worth of work and all with deadlines falling at various points throughout the year.

When all the chips are down I have a way to break down all my tasks for the year by month and by week, which then allows me to plan out each day.

Organize Your Week

As a rule, I make sure that any projects with ongoing deadlines I devote a portion of any given day to complete. I also make sure to devote at least 25% of time during any given week to any of my monthly projects (this percentage may increase as any deadline looms). The reason why I make sure to devote this substantial amount of time even early in the process is because I never want to get to a point where I need to devote 100% of my time to a particular project at the expense of the work that is ongoing. Normally it is advisable to put the ongoing work at the front part of the week.

Organize Your Day

Luckily the day comes conveniently broken up into two parts: before lunch and after lunch. Lunch isn’t just a time to gas up and take a much needed break, it’s a great way to set goals. Often, I give myself a set of tasks that I can reasonably complete before lunch. I find that my productivity is highest before lunch so this is when I take care of higher priority projects. I repeat: DO YOUR HIGH PRIORITY WORK BEFORE LUNCH - save the cat videos for after lunch. The afternoon is also a good time to tackle lower priority projects, assess your progress, and plan the next day’s work schedule.

Always Spend At Least a Minute With All Your Projects

Even if it’s as simple as delegating a few minutes of thought, or simply asking a colleague “how far along are we with that?” it’s worth touching base with all your projects at least once a week. Never let a week go by without checking in. The weekend is a time of forgetting and if you don’t make it a habit to check in, that kind of procrastination can lead to a massive crunch or worse - a missed deadline.

Never Devote an Entire Day to One Single Thing

There’s nothing more demoralizing than the prospect of devoting your entire day to one single task performed over and over again. Although sometimes it may be necessary, it’s advisable to restrict assembly line tasks to a portion of the day in order to give the mind a break from that inherent monotony as staying vocationally fresh is a great way to optimize productivity. Conversely, miring oneself in drudgery is tantamount to flicking the “off switch”.

Develop Your Time Management Skills

Time management is a skill just like needlework, cooking, or playing the guitar, and all the same rules apply. Just like any skill it has to be developed to serve you any real purpose and you have to practice to get better at it. There are numerous tools at your disposal to help with all of the advice mentioned above like spreadsheets and calendars where you can jot down, make notes, color code, and organize everything that’s on your plate. Along with helping cut through all the clutter, giving myself a visual sense of what’s ahead really gives me a sense of where to start and how my time can be best used. Naturally, it takes a portion of time to carry out this strategy of organization, but the benefits over the long term are well worth it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The High Cost of Free Labor

When I was in college there was a word that floated around the halls in whispers. It drew people in, it had a story attached to it, and it caught the attention of anyone who heard it – it was the word “internship”.

What Belongs to History

Once upon a time, internships were seen as being set aside for, and granted only to, the most exemplary individuals. The way to get an internship took time, effort, and the ability to connect with the people who could get you to where you wanted to go. It carried an uncommon caché that lauded the intern as the bright eyed next generation. It was a springboard for worthy candidates to help them gain real world experience and prepare to enter the workforce while building on the knowledge they were gaining by investing in their education. In sum, not too long ago, internships were both a rare and effective way to kick-start one’s career.

In principle, an internship is a great idea: A company hires an enthusiastic individual looking to build a career in that field and nurtures them, at little or no cost, into eventually becoming a fully functioning member of their workforce. Internships were once a sort of farm team where a company might have been looking to create a position and would tell the candidate, “Tough it out over the summer and when you graduate you’ll be on the team – we have high hopes for you”.

Times Change

It didn’t take too long for people to learn that the path to a better job and a better life went through the area designated for the intern and the volunteer. So when the cat got out of the bag, everybody was out looking for a chance to get some experience that would often serve as nothing more than a way to fill out one’s resume. In no short amount of time, people who had worked as interns were becoming less and less likely to be taken on by the company they worked for, or would parlay their internship experience to go and work for another, sometimes rival, company. Suddenly companies started experimenting with what kind of tasks they could get away with delegating to their interns, and just as suddenly some companies began to realize that branding a job as an internship could be a quick and easy way to get cheap, even free, labor.

The Rise and Fall of the Volunteer

Not all that long ago, seemingly well-intentioned projects would hire volunteers who would trade their labor in exchange for a meaningful experience, usually overseas, that could change lives. It was a direct exchange of labor for experience, straight up. Because of the rising number of volunteers looking for experience to once again, fill out one’s resume, the opportunities became more numerous and the exchange is no longer so direct. Nowadays, aside from the smallest community volunteer group, all volunteers are pay volunteers as in they pay to volunteer. The volunteer experience of working for free has become an actual commodity that people pay for, and is now a business in its own right.

Where We Are

The net effect of intern-volunteer inflation has been to render their titles virtually meaningless. Tales of internship woe among the young are ubiquitous as they are being charged with doing real work, involving long hours for no pay, and coming away from their experience disillusioned and with little to show for it. Within many companies the intern has become a position like any other usually connoting that they are responsible for all tasks deemed beneath that of the full-time staff. Once reserved for individuals who were otherwise green in the workforce, it is now not uncommon to find college graduates, and individuals with several years of relevant work experience, settling for the role of intern by virtue of the fact that internship positions continually replace what were once legitimate full-time jobs.

What Can We Do?

I wish there were clear answers. The truth is, the following are just suggestions: 
  • Always try to create full-time employment.
  • Make it a policy to pay every employee better than the minimum wage.
  • Let your full-time staff share the load of the less desirable, no less important, duties of the company – don’t create a position specifically for them.
  • Recognize that interns are there to learn, so you are the teacher and your company is the classroom – so offer them an educational experience.
  • If you are someone looking for experience, instead of dropping the big bucks to essentially just travel, find the most local grassroots organization that you can and just say, “I want to help”. The rewards from that kind of community involvement are far more gratifying in the long run.