When I was a freshman in college I started my first company running my own painting business. Every weekend during my spring semester, I took the Greyhound bus 90 minutes down to where my parents lived and spent the weekend knocking on doors trying to convince people to let me paint their house. I managed to sell around $50,000 worth of work – not bad for an 18 year old.

I hired a bunch of my buddies who had as much experience as I did (which was none) and made every mistake you can make as a business owner. I ended up firing my friends and completing the last couple houses on my own. Standing on a ladder in the August sun painting while your newly unemployed buddies are at the pool isn’t fun.

In spite of that, starting that business was the smartest decision I made as a young adult. I had three internships at ad agencies in subsequent summers, but none of them came close to helping my career as much as my crappy painting company.

Don’t Get An Internship. Start a Business.

If you’re looking to break into the business world (particularly the world of startups) and are having a hard time finding an internship, I suggest you stop looking. In fact, even if you think you have one lined up but haven’t committed yet, consider changing your plans. Start a business instead.

A traditional internship certainly has upside. You learn skills specific to a given career and get to execute them on a small scale. You get a foot in the door and hopefully impress your boss enough to want to hire you down the road. All good things.

But I’d argue a typical internship doesn’t give you the same value for your time as venturing out on your own. The amount of learning and growth you experience in your own company is orders of magnitude higher.

In particular, I think there are three critical skills you’ll pick up – skills that can be broadly applied to anything you decide to pursue next:

  • You’ll learn how to sell
  • You’ll learn how to manage others
  • You’ll learn how to create value for others

Learning to Sell is Priceless

Being skilled at sales can help whether you’re an entrepreneur or an employee. It makes you impervious to shifting market conditions or changing technology. Regardless of economic climate, companies need people who can make it rain.

Sales allows you to make things happen within an organization, bring in new business, and have more influence in your personal life. It is a mindset and skillset that will make you more successful in every part of your life.

I learned dozens of lessons about sales that summer:

  • I learned how to overcome initial resistance and get a meeting. I learned if you stand three steps away from a door after knocking, wear khakis instead of jeans and smile when you talk people will be more receptive.
  • I learned how to build rapport. I learned you can touch someone’s elbow with your hand or shake their hand with both of yours to create safe physical intimacy. I learned if you repeat their name three times in the first five minutes they’re more likely to like you.
  • I learned to listen and ask questions way more than you talk. I learned how to ask “yes” questions to get prospects in a favorable frame of mind.
  • I learned understanding your product back to front is critical for communicating confidence.
  • I learned objections reveal what matters to a prospect and open up the conversation rather than closing it.
  • I learned you have to explicitly ask for the business. I learned the “heavy pen close”, where you push the contract across the table, pull out a nice heavy pen, drop it from a few inches above the table, and sit silently until they make the next move.
  • I learned you have to follow up as many as 10 times to close the sale, and you should never assume the sale isn’t going to happen until you hear it from the prospect’s mouth.
  • I learned if you proactively ask for referrals you’ll get way more than if you simply hope they think of you.

Those lessons helped me tremendously in New York when I started as an account manager. I could talk persuasively about our product because I had studied it extensively. I could identify needs and help clients see how our platform could solve their problems in ways they hadn’t considered. I was religious about follow up, and wasn’t afraid to ask for their business.

Even though it wasn’t my job, I managed to upsell multiple accounts, which caught the eye of the owners of the company. I was only 23 but was able to sit across from University VPs and sell $40,000 pieces of software without getting ruffled.

After getting the door closed in your face hundreds of times trying to sell house painting services, those conversations were easy.

You Don’t Learn How to Manage by Doing the Work

Even though I had to fire my buddies, I learned a ton about managing others that summer:

  • I learned it’s often a bad idea to hire your friends. You have to maintain a healthy separation between business and personal lives.
  • I learned avoiding hard conversations doesn’t help anyone – do whatever it takes to create a spirit of candor.
  • I learned people want structure and accountability. I learned that good systems and processes can maximize the effectiveness of mediocre performers, and can dramatically improve the impact of A Players.
  • I learned most people want to do a good job, and if they’re doing a bad job they want to know so they can remedy the situation.
    I learned the importance of good communication, making sure everyone knows where you’re headed as an organization and how they fit into that puzzle.
  • I learned everyone thrives on momentum and positive energy. Both high morale and low morale are self-reinforcing patterns, and it takes a ton of work to reverse low energy.

Even though I started my professional career in New York without management responsibility, I remembered those lessons. When we got acquired and I was promoted to VP, our new CEO told me my future success was going to be a function of how well I get things done through other people.

Many people think because they understand the technical work of a business they understand how to manage others to do that technical work. Not true. The skills of management are fundamentally different, and many people who are exceptional tacticians fail when they are thrust into management roles.

To the degree you learn how to manage early on, you make your eventual transition from a doer to a manager considerably less difficult.

It’s Up to You to Create Value

When you’re the boss you’re on your own. You can try to become buddies with your team. You might already be buddies with your team. But there is a chasm they can’t cross with you.

They don’t know what it’s like to wonder if you can make payroll. They don’t know what it’s like to talk an irate customer down from the ledge. They don’t dream about your business at night. They don’t know what it’s like to look at your financial statements and realize you’ve succeeded or failed.

The solitude of entrepreneurship forces you to confront the reality that your success or failure is up to you. You have team members and outside forces at play, but ultimately it’s up to you to identify what is valuable to customers, to create a solution to their problem and to relentlessly execute on the promise you make to them.

There’s freedom in this knowledge. You become the captain of your own ship, the maker of your destiny. Whether you end up working for someone else or pursuing another entrepreneurial adventure, you know the success of your career is in your hands.

As I entered my career I was relentless about creating value. It’s what allowed me to be comfortable working for free knowing it would work out in my favor. It’s what drove me to strive to work harder than my peers. It’s what gave me a laser focus on spearheading activities and initiatives that could tangibly make my boss and my company more successful. And it’s ultimately what gave me the confidence to strike out on my own again even if other people thought it was nuts.

The Best Education is From the Real World

You’ll certainly learn things in a typical internship. You’ll learn how to create an expense report. You’ll learn how to sit in meetings and take notes. You’ll learn how to make a pot of coffee. You’ll even get opportunities to create PowerPoint documents or write blog posts or crank on some code or design some things.

But it’s unlikely you’ll build character in a compressed time frame. It’s unlikely you’ll learn how to create considerably more value than you get paid for. It’s unlikely you’ll have the opportunity to directly sell to clients (or even talk to them), and it’s unlikely you’ll get direct management experience.

Consider going the road less travelled. Start a business.


Thanks to Sarah Press for reading a draft of this post and to Willy Franzen for the inspiration.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004716695510 Chao Siang Chan

    It is exactly the same story for my first business.

    I do learn a lot and may test my ideas quickly. I could change quickly according to the test result.

    But my ideas taking a job and learn from enterprise to improve my business doesn’t work. It waste my time and discourage me from start-up again.

    Now I quit my job and leave the comfort zone. Searching myself by travelling and preparing to be a startup again!

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  • Ryan O’neil Knight

    Fantastic post, every student in high school and college should run their own business at least once!

  • http://www.sean-johnson.com/ Sean Johnson

    Thanks Ryan – glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://www.i7marketing.com Sean Gallahar

    Great post!

  • Shane McHan

    Great post. I will be graduating with a degree in counseling and was under the impression I would be getting my state license shortly after. Turns out I need 2400 client contact hours before I can apply for the license. With an internship I will work 8 hour days but I will be lucky if I get 1 to 2 client contact hours a day. I was thinking about starting my own counseling center and contracting a licensed counselor to supervise my work. I only require 2 hours of supervision a month so this should be relatively inexpensive. And having my own private practice will give me the potential to max out my client contact hours in 1 to 1.5 years rather than waiting 4 to 5 years. Thank you for the post.