Full Time Internship or Freelance?

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When I have needed to bring more hands on deck to support my business in the past, I’ve often found myself stuck in analysis paralysis. It’s never simply the choice of who to bring on—it’s what type of engagement, and what standards and boundaries are going to define that relationship. Different types of hired help come with different risks, benefits, and liabilities. It’s crucial to nail this choice with thought and careful deliberation. Leaders who fail to recognize all of their options are inevitably left with burned bridges, a sour taste in their mouths, and loads of wasted time, money and energy that could have been funneled into new projects.  When expanding your team, you have three basic options upon which to build a working relationship: a staff position, a freelance contract, or an internship.  What’s it going to be? Full Time Internship or Freelance?


A freelancer is always going to be your only viable option if the project is finite and limited. Do you really need a bigger team, or do you need a professional with a niche skillset for a very specific project you need done? The pros of using freelancers is that little to no training (and therefore time or money) is needed to get them up and running other than acquainting them with your project and laying down the ground rules. (And do not, I repeat, DO NOT ever enter into an engagement with a freelancer without at least a simple contract or scope of work signed by both parties that lays out the expectations of the project beforehand. You do not ever want to find out that you are not on the same page when you are hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours deep into a railroaded project.)

Freelancers are often comfortable with remote working arrangements as well, expanding your candidate pool beyond your immediate area. If you spend the time to do your research and find someone who comes qualified and well recommended, you may also find that freelancers do better work in general, as the success of their business is at stake, rather than simply your own. And don’t think that freelancers are just moonlighting college kids, either: Forbes describes the typical freelancer as “…a Gen-Xer with at least 10 years of experience, commanding over $24 an hour, and 14% make over $100k a year.” Drawbacks for a freelance arrangement include a loss of control of how the work is done, and an inability to directly supervise. There is also no guarantee that your freelancer will be available from one project to the next without paying out the nose for a non-compete agreement, and when your freelancer leaves, the time and energy you’ve spent training them leaves with them.


Internships have changed a lot recently. The 2008 crash left many new grads fighting to compete for scarce jobs with a huge pool of newly unemployed experienced professionals. With the increasing desperation of new workers to gain any kind of professional experience to pad their resumes, many sleazy companies took the opportunity to create manipulative “internships” that offered little more than the expectation of free labor. To my constant chagrin, I see that the idea has stuck around like a grease stain, and many companies now seem to think that an intern is just a person they can get to do free or cheap labor.

I once had a conversation with a small business owner who needed social media work done to promote his growing venue, but he had neither the skills to do it himself nor the budget to pay a professional. “I know!!” he told me with excitement, “I’ll turn it into an internship!” I diplomatically avoided pointing out that it is disingenuous, to say the least, to offer a supposed “internship” when what you really want is free labor. I did, however, point out that an intern wouldn’t have the skills he was looking for, but would expect to be trained to do what he couldn’t do himself in the first place. He also didn’t have the free time to set up any sort of accreditation with a potential intern’s school to ensure that the proper college credits and stipend opportunities were available to them. (It seemed that the idea of the intern receiving academic credit or a stipend or—any benefit whatsoever, really—had tragically not occurred to him.) Of course, it is absolutely possible to arrange a mutually beneficial internship.


The easiest option, and one I most highly recommend, is simply to pay your interns. An internship is a good option if the work you need done is simply time consuming or labor intensive. If you need to stuff 10,000 envelopes with flyers, it will be well worth both of your time to trade a few hours of mentorship and training to get it done by an intern. It’s also a good idea if you simply enjoy mentoring and have skills to share or need a solid piece of PR work that shows community involvement and stewardship of your industry. Hire an intern when you are willing to spend the time and energy imparting your skills and making connections that will help launch their career. If you really are just looking for someone to screen emails or fetch the coffee, then an assistantship (or a Virtual Assistant!) is a much better idea. Another huge benefit of training interns is that you can groom potential employees and observe them at work for a while before making any hiring decisions.


Hiring a full time employee is a full time commitment, and is more challenging as well as more rewarding. Your hiring decision will have an impact on your enjoyment of your own job on a daily basis for the foreseeable future, so I cannot stress enough that leaders should look at personalities as carefully as resumes. Hiring employees comes with increased tax liability and requirements as compared to a sole proprietorship or an LLC, but expanding your team is sometimes the final step in building something bigger than yourself that will outlast you, and that can support you and operate even when you’re not physically present. An employee will be buying in to your business and your success, and every employee is truly an investment. If you spend the time to carefully train and empower your employees to make independent decisions for the good of your business, you will be building a team that is greater and offers more value than the sum of its parts that will be reaping dividends for years to come.

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