I have been the single developer of a 3 man start-up for about 1,5 years and have recently acquired two students, both are engineering students in their 1st and 2nd year of bachelor-studies. This is my first time leading a team of engineers and I want to make sure they have a good experience, I am hoping to employ later on. Some details about the company and students:

  1. Everyone at the company works for no pay, all the funding goes towards R&D, the company is split 40/40/20 between founders. I am one of the 40. We are currently not making any money in the business, but have received funding to keep us going for the next 18 months.
  2. The students are free to work on what they want as long as it is something they would have worked on in their free time.
  3. We pay for materials, supplies and sometimes lunch at the university (where we are daily).
  4. We do not have an office location, one founder and I are currently doing our engineering master thesis so we are at the same location as the students quite often.

The students seem happy to be working on projects and getting supplies and help from our network whenever they need it, I want to continue this process as it has been fruitful for everyone. I think I am doing a pretty good job. I have weekly meetings with one of the and meet the other one a couple of times a week since they have different schedules.

My question is the following

Question: I want the students to feel like a part of the team such that they will feel inclined to join as soon as we can pay them a wage, how can I convey this message in a convincing way? A contract?

  • Hey Sweetshop. Please keep questions to one topic at a time where the context of the post is related to the single question at hand. Include the information that's only relevant to that question. You'll get more responses from people when they got 1 question to answer. You'll also avoid having your post closed because sometimes you may ask excellent questions that are relevant here but some are simply off topic or too broad to answer, you won't know which ones are unless they're separated. Please visit visit the help section for more tips: workplace.stackexchange.com/help – Jonast92 Mar 1 at 10:35
  • @Walfrat I have removed the 3 question and combined the first two. I have left the question that I find has the highest priority, making the students feel more as part of the startup and convincing my co-founders to participate. I will try and talk to them about average time, currently they are increasing the amount of time they spend on the startup week-by-week, which is great. I remind them to look after their studies, but I admittedly do like that they are so engaged. – sweetshop Mar 1 at 10:41
  • It's great that you've simplified the question, but some of the context is now no longer relevant to the question that remains. For example the attitude of your partners towards working with the students is a completely separate topic. You're already receiving feedback after simplifying the question, consider working a bit more on the post and you'll get even more excellent feedback. – Jonast92 Mar 1 at 10:50
  • @Jonast92 thank you for helping me out! Much appreciated! – sweetshop Mar 1 at 10:53
  • It's not clear when you say "the funding goes towards R&D", but no one in the R&D is paid? Where does the money go then? – Bebs Mar 1 at 12:01

The one thing that almost always helps is: Be honest. Just tell them that you like their work and that there's a good chance they might be the nucleus of the development team if the company takes off.

Same for your partners. Do they agree that it's a good idea to have the two students on and groom them for employment? If not, you should discuss their points - the management should be aligned. If yes, it's obvious that the students should partake in some discussions about vision and strategy.

In the end, there are two simple management principles that apply here:

  • People work best when they are working towards a goal they know and agree with.
  • Companies work best, when all employees have a shared vision and their goals match that vision.
  • The alignment is one of the key issues. My partners are not clear on where they see the students in the future. I am keen on getting them onboard as I am involved with their work and have seen how they perform, but I guess I should invest in more time conveying their work to my partners to convince them. Their main argument for not employing them in the future is that we do not "need" them even if they are nice to have, I have tried telling them that I cannot do this on my own in the future so we should invest in skilled people. I don't feel like they see the value that I do. – sweetshop Mar 1 at 11:02
  • There you have your answer. This should be the prime discussion you have, and anything else will sort itself out. – Jörg Neulist Mar 1 at 13:04

There's something of a dissonance here - you want to treat the students as employees but they aren't because you aren't employing them, they are volunteers (here's a handy way to tell the difference - employees get paid)

Is it possible to talk about 'deadlines' when we have students who are working in this manner?

I mean it's certainly possible - but don't be surprised if they tell you to shove your "deadlines" somewhere dark. Because that's what they are; your deadlines. As far as I can see there's nothing of any note in it for the developers.

at some point the risks....how can I properly balance project - risk - deadlines in this startup environment?

What "risks"? If you're talking about the company's risks in terms of delivering projects etc then since they are the company's risks the company should be the one to mitigate them. One way to do this would be to pay your developers so that you can then have some actual grounds to apply deadlines.

  • You are right they are volunteers as of now, but I want them to feel like I am invested in making them employees in the future. I would not be surprised by that response to deadlines, asking volunteers for deadlines is pretty bad, ideally we will be able to employ them when the projects scale up, that way we do not have to try and push deadlines on volunteers. The students have expressed that they are learning a lot, I am helping them learn about version control, supply chain, documentation and more, that is what is in it for them atm. I agree on the last part, thank you! – sweetshop Mar 1 at 10:47
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    @sweetshop my "nothing in it for them" was more in the context of there being deadlines - at the moment as you say they are trading time for learning, which is fine. Start treating them as employees (e.g. deadlines) and you are asking more of them and would have to provide more in return – motosubatsu Mar 1 at 10:49
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    my bad! I agree with that as well then, there should be more in it for them if we start pushing deadlines i.e. some kind of compensation. – sweetshop Mar 1 at 10:54
  • @sweetshop no worries - I can see how you might have misunderstood – motosubatsu Mar 1 at 11:03

I want the students to feel like a part of the team such that they will feel inclined to join as soon as we can pay them a wage, how can I convey this message in a convincing way? A contract?

I don't think there is a way for that. Words are just words and nothing should prevent to go to another company after they finished their degree. What if they find something better for them? What if you find better candidates for your company?

The best thing you should do, for a semi-long-term health of your company is to hire actual engineers so you can make plans and deadlines.


Here in the UK, we call this Work Experience, or Internship if you use the American terminology.

So, treat this as such.

During this time, the students on work placement have the opportunity to use the skills and knowledge gained in their first two years, and see how they are applied to real world problems. This offers them useful insights for their final year and prepares them for the job market once their course has finished. Some companies offer students in their final year the promise of a job at the end of the placement. This is an incentive for the student to perform well during the placement as it helps with an otherwise unwelcome stress: finding a job when the placement ends.

I've paraphrased the Wiki article slightly here to take it away from the context of University students, but the meaning is clear.

Talk to these students about how they're finding things. Crucially, ask them if they might consider working for you as a fully paid employee in the future and take things from there.

  • This is great, thank you! Do you think it is ok to bring this up now or is it too early? They have been with us for a month and worked an equivalent of about ~4 days fulltime. Edit; asking never hurts, so that is what I am going to do after consulting partners. – sweetshop Mar 1 at 10:57
  • More like 1 1/2 week fulltime, not 4. I forgot to account for the time they spend working at home/not at university campus. – sweetshop Mar 1 at 11:04
  • @sweetshop, FWI, in France, engineering internships are paid (though less than graduated engineers) and have to have a specific project that fits the school program and expected results. They are not " free to work on what they want". – Bebs Mar 1 at 11:09
  • @Bebs Thank you for the information, it is the same in the EU country we are in. I cannot pay the students since we are spending our seed money on development, marketing and so on. There is no one in the startup that is paid a salary. – sweetshop Mar 1 at 11:19
  • @sweetshop, so engineers don't count as development? "There is no one in the startup that is paid a salary." You said you were paid 40% of the company incomes... – Bebs Mar 1 at 12:03

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