The Debate: Unpaid Interns or No Interns ? 3

Before you get all up in arms, we are keeping the interns we have, but we don’t have the budget for any more at the moment.

Jose:  Software developer, started as an intern


Gonzalo: Also started as an intern, also developer

However, we have work that needs to be done, particularly in sales and marketing. I talked to a few of our investors recently and they all made the same suggestion:

Hire interns but don’t pay them for the first two or three months.

I was taken aback by this suggestion because we have always paid interns and my impression of people who don’t is a cross between Scrooge and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Yet, all of the investors telling me this are kind, generous people who made their money the old-fashioned way – they worked for it. They started out with nothing and ended up in a position to invest in our company.

I had a long discussion about this today and pointed out that a core value of our company has always been that talent exists everywhere. We started designing and testing our games on American Indian reservations and then moved to rural California and rural Missouri for testers and experts in education. I argued that a lot of brilliant people can’t afford to work for free – I know, because I was that kid in college who needed a paycheck. Unpaid internships, I said, benefit kids from families that can afford to support them while they get experience in these unpaid jobs.

At this point, one of our investors made several points that still have me thinking:

  1. You have the maximum number of interns for your budget.
  2. You don’t HAVE to have interns work 15-20 hours a week. The new interns could work 4-6 hours for a few months and if they do work out, then you can start paying them. Anyone with a sincere interest can surely find 4 hours in a week to learn the job.
  3. If we hire 3-4 interns at once and one of them works out, we have not wasted the time we spent on-boarding them. If we do as much group training as possible, having 4 new people will take us 110% of the time of hiring one new person.
  4. Unpaid internships would give an opportunity to people we would otherwise NOT have a chance to work with us. Since I know I am where I am today because of the people who believed in me, it’s always been important to me to give chances to people to break into a new field or learn a new skill. It was suggested that there may be women who have raised their children who are interested in going  to work in sales or social media. Maybe there are men in their 50s who are having difficulty finding a new career and would like to try us out. We would NOT hire anyone with no relevant experience or education at a salary for 20 hours a week, but we might consider them for an unpaid internship to see what they can do.
  5. As entrepreneurs, we have some “skin in the game” . We make FAR less than we did in our previous jobs. Some months, after we make the payroll, we pay ourselves nothing. So, why are we hiring sales and marketing people at market rate salaries, who work for us for a few (or several) months until it’s apparent it is not going to work out and then go on to the next thing?

After thinking about this, I am inclined to consider unpaid interns. Our CEO, Maria, on the other hand, is adamantly opposed. She was an intern while at NYU and felt it was taking advantage of young people, who desperately needed the experience, to get them to work for free.

I was an intern when I was an MBA student at the University of Minnesota, and I thought it was fine.

After much heated discussion, I told Maria we should leave it up to the wisdom of crowds. (This sounds SO much better than,

“Let’s ask some random people on the Internet.”

So …. what do you think? Unpaid internships – opportunity or exploitation?

If you are interested in an unpaid internship, email me,

Don’t email Maria, she hates the idea.

red linered line

If you were our intern, you’d be marketing/ selling these games, so please check them out. Two are even free.

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3 thoughts on “The Debate: Unpaid Interns or No Interns ?

  • Gill

    I’ve heard this arguement alot. I even tried to hire on an unpaid internship at my agency but it’s an administrative mess. Also, I’ve done both but even my unpaid came with a stipend. Also, there are new laws in place that make it difficult to hire unpaid interns. The internship has to have to “be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment.” The intern’s job should complement, not displace, the work of paid employees. So often it’s deemed illegal since most companies don’t do there homework and network with the local universities. If an intern provides work and that work adds value to you company then you must pay them a minimum wage. If an intern trains with you and provides test, mock, or pseudo work as training then there is evidence to allow unpaid interns to work for you company until they provide value. So basically free training for both parties but work must be paid. Sounds fair, right?

  • Samantha

    I’m with Maria.

    You say that your original instinct is that it is wrong not to pay people for their work. Then you say

    “Yet, all of the investors telling me this are kind, generous people who made their money the old-fashioned way – they worked for it. They started out with nothing and ended up in a position to invest in our company.”

    First of all, how is that relevant? Second of all, their actions don’t sound very kind or generous – they’re literally telling you not to pay people. But you know them and I don’t. Maybe they’re generally awesome and simply have a blind spot in this area.

    It’s very easy to have a blind spot that benefits you. Having people do work for you and not pay for that work is certainly a more profitable way to run a business and may lead to a higher chance of becoming an investor.

    You mention having felt at one point that “a lot of brilliant people can’t afford to work for free.”

    Yes, that’s very true. Another thing worth considering is, even if you CAN afford to work for free, does that mean you should be required to? Who will you give a higher weight towards hiring? Someone who worked for free? Unfair advantage to rich kids. No higher weight to any candidate? Then why is it fair to ask some to work for free? They’re literally not getting ANYTHING in return. If you REALLY HONESTLY believed it was okay not to pay people to work for you, you would have “hired” those people for non-paying volunteer positions in the first place.

    Why is it only now, when you’re at your maximum budget for interns, that it’s suddenly okay to not pay them? (It’s not okay now. It’s still wrong. The answer is cognitive dissonance. You’re out of money now, so suddenly the psychic costs of knowing you’re doing the wrong thing by not paying employees seems much less bad than the very “real” cost of progress slowing down because you need more employees. )

    You’re a very tough lady. I’m sure you could not think about it or convince yourself you’re right. But if you DON’T “hire” new volunteers, can you deal with knowing you could be getting more done faster if only you had more people working/more hours in the day? Frankly I think it’s easier for you to convince yourself that it’s okay not to pay people for working than it is for you to sit back and watch your company accelerate at a lesser speed than the maximum humanly possible when you could DO something about it, damnit!

    I’m sorry, but no matter how you try to rationalize it, it’s just insane to expect people to work for free because ” if they do work out, then you can start paying them.” It is simply wrong to string people along like that, using their labor and hours of their life to further the goals of YOUR company and not even pay them.

    The mere POSSIBILITY of working for your company is supposed to be enough? What they are learning is so invaluable that THEY should give up their free time that they could be using to make a few extra dollars by driving for Uber or whatever gig? You literally think a college student who needs a job and who is eating ramen noodles should work for your company for free instead of making even minimum wage?

    Their work isn’t even worth the MINIMUM WAGE? It’s honestly insulting. How would you feel if you found out one of your interns was on food stamps? And was working for you for free? Now imagine she’s NOT on food stamps. Why is it suddenly “more okay” not not pay her?

    The ethics don’t change simply because you realized how convenient it is to be unethical.

    This is just so wrong. You should listen to Maria.

    • AnnMaria De Mars Post author

      Well. Samantha, you’ll be happy to know I did go along with Maria. The main reason was that she felt SO strongly about this issue (as did you) and I think if you are a co-founder and you feel very strongly we should go with Plan X and I think “Well, Plan X seems good but I can also see some arguments for Plan Y” then we should go with X. I think it’s called choosing the hill you want to die on, and for me, unpaid interns definitely is not it.