Startup Opinion

A work experience program was the secret sauce that took our business global

Oliver Garside /

As a startup co-founder, I can understand the reluctance of many startups to consider work placements for university students.

More often than not, the startup environment is incredibly fast-paced, operating with a lean team focused on business growth. Founders might think mentoring university students will be a drain on resources that slows the pace of growth. Many businesses think entrusting young people to meaningful business activity is just not feasible with little to no work experience, especially when the startup is your baby. 

Recently, however, we were involved in a fantastic program, Nexstar, and I have to confess I have become a convert. Involving students in the day-to-day of our startup has provided real, tangible benefits for everyone involved. 

The students who participated didn’t do it for course credits, but because they saw the value of work experience for their future career path

The Future of Work for Australian Graduates reportpublished on October 22, found “Australia’s higher education system could do a much better job at anticipating the needs for highly-skilled workers in the future, evolving their program offerings in light of those needs, and then assisting students as they traverse their university educations and find meaningful, relevant work”.

Work experience gives students meaningful opportunities, guided by experienced mentors within a structured framework.

Beyond the evident advantages for students, there are pros for startups too. In fact, I would argue our startup got as much, if not more, out of the experience. Not least of which was our access to eager minds and creative thinking.

Startups need to be innovative, disruptive and agile, but even we can become jaded at times. Students bring renewed energy and a unique perspective to business problems because they are not constrained by experience or scarred by previous ‘mistakes’. 

Five benefits to startups

  1. The opportunity to trial tomorrow’s employees.
  2. The chance to train students and prepare them for industry issues, resulting in improved student and professional outcomes when they are unleashed into the working world.
  3. Assigning students to younger employees offers the latter valuable hands-on leadership experience. Young or new employees can learn (or build on existing) management and mentoring skills, effective supervision techniques, as well as finessing the delicate art of constructive feedback.
  4. Programs run by universities and tertiary institutions expose startups to the new methodologies currently being taught. It’s an excellent on-the-job way to up-skill the team in the latest industry thinking and research, with oversight from academic and business mentors.
  5. Students and their academic mentors can address specific issues or problems within a business. While businesses still need to be involved in the process, it motivates them to hone in on areas that need attention, and which may not otherwise have been addressed.

Seven places to find work experience programs

  1. Federal, state and local governments, and well as councils.
  2. Local, state or national entrepreneurial associations.
  3. Universities and tertiary institutions.
  4. Trade and commerce associations.
  5. Incubators and accelerators. (Attending networking events can provide useful information about forthcoming programs.)
  6. Social media. Join a LinkedIn group specific to your industry, or specifically for startups, to get access to forthcoming opportunities.
  7. Startup-specific media.

Thinking big

Startups need to move away from the mindset that we are too small, or too fast-moving, to be saddled with the inexperience of students at work. We also need to move away from the mindset that they can’t be trusted with anything more complicated than fetching coffee or data entry.

By asking students to approach complex and real business problems, startups are not authorising them to go public and deliver tactical implementation. We can still choose to accept or reject their project, but they may provide the missing magic ingredient to move to the next stage of your business growth, or they may even create the opportunity to allow you to go international.

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Oliver Garside

Oliver is co-founder and chief operating officer at sole-trader accounting app Rounded. He has worked in the SaaS technology space for the last decade and was one of the first employees at LinkedIn Australia when it launched in 2010.