How I Got Wooed By Startups As An Intern

My life changed when I got a job at a startup. I was 19 years old and had just finished my first year at the University of Michigan. By some stroke of luck I managed to land a software engineering internship at a venture capital-backed startup called UpTo. Located in downtown Detroit, I actually stayed on with them on and off throughout most of college.

Startup jobs are infamously known to be hard to get. This is true. I applied four times for that internship through the venture capital firm that funded UpTo. I got ignored the first two times, rejected the third and then finally got matched up with UpTo. To this day, I am convinced the only reason they finally accepted me was because I was such a pain in the ass.

I’ll never forget the first day, especially that elevator ride up from the lobby to the third-floor UpTo office. There were two other interns in the elevator with me, and we got on the subject of where we went to school. The girl on my left went to Harvard; the guy on my right went to Stanford. I was shaken.

When the doors opened onto the third floor I had my first introduction to the startup dress code. If you’ve worked for a startup before, you know the code I’m talking about. It allows you to subconsciously identify someone’s role at a company just by what they wear.

I won’t give away all the details, but it’s usually something like this: developers have some variation of the Zuckerberg hoodie, designers have some sort of bright-colored shoes, the business guys wear collared shirts and the venture capitalists wear sweaters over a collared shirt.

I fit into none of these categories that day, and stuck out like a sore thumb. Classic intern.

My life changed when I got a job at a startup.

When it came time for me to get assigned my first task, I had absolutely no idea how the hell to do it. I was asked to create a view that could draw a rectangle, with n amount of scissor cuts on the right side. I had very little programming experience, let alone iOS experience, but somehow I managed to get it done.

That day, I learned perhaps the most valuable lesson a programmer could learn — which is, of course, how to use Google. I took a picture of my finished rectangle and sent it to all my friends because, for whatever reason, I thought it was badass that I could make an iPhone draw a rectangle.

Even though the first days at UpTo were intimidating, after a while I began to realize what an amazing experience I was having. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better situation. My desk was two feet away from a senior iOS developer, and I got to ask him any question I could think of whenever I wanted. Just a few feet beyond that was the CTO, CEO and lead designer — all of them willing to answer any of my questions. On a daily basis, my learning began to scale exponentially.

The Friday of my second week is when I first really realized what startups were all about.

Everyone in that room believed they were working on something that had the potential to disrupt industries and change the world.

It was the 2012 Detroit Venture Partners Pitch Day held at the Madison Theater. For those of you who don’t know what Pitch Days are, it’s where startups and investors from all over the world come together so startups can raise funding. The Madison Theater was packed. The atmosphere was electric. I had the worst seat in the house, but it didn’t matter. I was tuned-in man.

Pitching a startup is an art form. The people pitching have to convince this room full of people to give millions of dollars to their company, which often times is currently losing money. If done correctly, with just the right amount of buzzwords and slides, they receive funding. If done wrong, they will get the infamous, “It’s a pass, for now.”

After watching about a half a dozen pitches there was a break for lunch. We had Mudgie’s Deli catered in (a Detroit icon). As I was sitting there eating my Lockwood sandwich, I remember thinking just how interesting, but yet very odd, this scene was. There were probably a few hundred people in this room, but all were wearing one of maybe 15 different T-shirts that had their company name or logo on it.

The CEOs, of course, wore a blazer over the T-shirt. This is also when I learned about the black market of T-shirt exchanges between startups. One does not simply give you their company T-shirt. But I’ve said too much already, I swore I would never explain how that works, so I’ll just leave it at that.

As lunch was ending I noticed this familiar face coming toward me, but I couldn’t quite remember where I had seem him. I did, however, recognize the company name that was on his T-shirt. After a few seconds it clicked. This was the dude that was on Shark Tank awhile back!

He gave me one of those nods you do when you see a friend across the room and proceeded to walk over. Now, I’ve been in this situation before. During my high school prom, when I saw the girl I liked waving at me. That didn’t work out so well.

So this time, I remember thinking to myself, there is just no way he is acknowledging me. I did one of those head turns behind me to the right and left to see if anyone was behind me, but no one was. He was actually coming over.

He said, “UpTo, that sounded pretty cool, what do you do there?” (I was wearing my UpTo T-Shirt). I awkwardly mumbled that I was just an intern, but we still proceeded to have a conversation and we actually exchanged emails. That was my first networking connection!

Pitch Day was the first time I experienced people who did not just like, or even love, what they did for a living, they were obsessed with it. Think about that. Obsessed. Everyone in that room would do what they were doing if they didn’t get paid a dime to do it.

You are probably thinking those people were crazy, but you are wrong. They were fucking nuts. Everyone in that room believed they were working on something that had the potential to disrupt industries and change the world. And let me tell you, that mindset is contagious.

As the weeks went on that summer, my infatuation just kept growing. One of the most memorable memories I have is the first time I saw someone I didn’t know use UpTo. I was on a flight to Chicago, and the woman next to me pulled it up on her iPhone. I’ve never done a drug in my life, but the feeling I got when I saw her use UpTo has to be the same feeling. Seeing someone tap the button I programmed, then interacting with a screen I designed … it is just something I can’t even put into words.

Startups are something you have to grow into…

Although sadly, startups aren’t always this romantic. There are frustrating times, like when you get the 3:00 AM email after the release of a new update, with the subject “EVERYTHING IS BROKEN” and the body says something along the lines of “New update crashes 100% of all users upon app launch…fix plz…” Then all of a sudden, the dev team assembles suspiciously quickly on HipChat, cowboy coding on prod to the sound of their phones vibrating with crash reports constantly coming in.

I will never forget the memories I had as an intern, even though a good amount of them are pretty embarrassing. Like the time when I deleted all of UpTo’s files off of Dropbox (sorry, Dave).

I could spend hours trying to explain to you what working at a startup is like, but I am afraid if you have never been a part of one it might be a little lost on you. Because after all, startups are something you have to grow into, and with a little luck, you will never grow out of them.