From Unpaid Virtual Intern to Owner of an International Marketing Company in 14 Months

          Its spring semester of my junior year at Penn State and internship season is in full swing. I just came back from a semester abroad in Ireland so I’m already behind the ball after missing the fall career fairs. After many interviews and many rejections I have finally narrowed my internship selection down to 3 companies. The first 2 companies are offering standard paid Marketing internships. The work responsibilities don’t look very challenging, but on the brighter side: (1), they are paid job opportunities in my industry, (2) if I take either internship I will probably get hired right out of school and (3), they will be reputable names to add to my resume for future jobs. The 3rd internship opportunity is an unpaid virtual internship working for an entrepreneur named Justin Lee and his wife Dreama. To be completely honest, one of the reasons why I applied for this internship was because it was unpaid and I figured there wouldn’t be much competition if I wanted to use it as a fall back. Like many internship-hungry students, I didn’t even research the opportunity until I received an email about a phone interview. In my research, I learned that Justin and Dreama were successful entrepreneurs who owned multiple businesses. I always dreamed of owning my own business, so I figured working directly with someone who has already accomplished this goal would be a good start.
My internship started during the first couple weeks of summer. It was a virtual internship, which meant that I would be working on the computer from my house. It was also unpaid, which meant that I wouldn’t be spending a ton of money that summer. At least my meals were free and I didn’t have to pay for gas to go to work. I told Justin that I would work 7 hours a day and made a commitment to myself that I would stick to my promise. We decided to correspond daily by email and weekly on the phone to track my progress. During the course of the summer, I would be helping Justin build an information product called InternProfits. InternProfits was going to “provide entrepreneurs the tools and resources to find, hire and manage interns to help grow and expand their business while creating educational opportunities for tomorrow’s talent today.” My first responsibility was to help build the internship database. This included calling every college in the United States with 3,000 students or more and collecting data on their internship programs.

I made phone calls every day for roughly 2 months to help build the InternProfits’ one-of-a-kind College and University Database. At this point, many interns probably would have quit because they weren’t seeing the immediate returns they expected. When friends and family asked me how my internship was going, it was hard to explain to them that I was making phone calls 7 hours a day for free. They didn’t see the value in it and at times neither did I, especially when I compared myself to friends with big time internships at companies like Proctor and Gamble. I would be lying if I told you that the thought of quitting never crossed my mind, but my phone skills were getting better and better and I knew that if I could prove myself to Justin, I would be able to take on more responsibility.

Eventually, I proved myself to be the most hardworking and productive intern and I was able to move on to bigger and better things. As Justin hired more interns, he allowed me to manage/train them on the most efficient ways to build the database. At this point each intern had his or her own roles, some focused on learning to write press releases while others learned social media. We all contributed a portion of our time to build the database. The next few months were extremely exciting for me because Justin brought in industry experts to create his famous Easy Intern Assignments. As top dog intern, I was given the privilege to learn internet marketing techniques and strategies from gurus such as Sam Bell, Sean Malarkey, Yaro Starak, Brian Horn, and Michael Taggart, to name a few. Google their names real quick to get an idea of the opportunity that was in front of me. It was HUGE, and I was sucking it all in like a sponge! After each training session, Justin gave me a set of goals that he wanted me to accomplish and then he set me loose. Instead of telling me exactly what to do, he allowed me to learn through trial and error. I quickly mastered article and video marketing, search engine optimization, blogging and link wheel creation, social media integration, and many other important strategies.
At the end of the summer, Justin presented me with the opportunity to stay on until the end of the first semester. It was my senior year and I already had a full schedule with school, club lacrosse, and making time to go out partying with my friends. However, we were building up for the InternProfits soft launch and I was learning so much about internet marketing and business in general that I couldn’t possibly decline. I became a time management expert and was able to work about 3 hours a day for InternProfits without any significant changes to my schedule. As the soft launch approached, we gained momentum and were excited to finally see the result of all of our hard work and effort. The launch week came and went, and when the post launch numbers were calculated, our high expectations were crushed. InternProfits didn’t do nearly as well as we all expected it to do. We were all pretty depressed for the first few weeks following the soft launch after seeing what looked to be a lot of hard work go to waste. However, after the Thanksgiving holiday, Justin and Dreama realized that InternProfits was still an amazing product and they decided to restrategize.
While Justin and Dreama focused on changing the InternProfits service offerings and price points, I set a goal to start my own business during the spring semester. I was no longer working on InternProfits, but I was still speaking with Justin on a regular basis. He became my mentor and offered me as much training and guidance as he could to help me get my business off the ground. He still included me in high-level decisions with InternProfits, like redesigning the sales funnel and planning out prospect communications because he knew it would benefit me. He also offered me more free trainings on Local and Mobile Marketing from Laura Betterly and Adam Horwitz. I took all of this training and tried to launch my own local and mobile search marketing company at Penn State. With Justin on my side to keep me focused, I was able to land multiple meetings with prospective clients. However, I quickly learned that all of the techniques and strategies in the world wouldn’t help me if I didn’t know how to sell them. By the time graduation came around, I didn’t have a single client and I lacked the confidence I needed to start my own business. Time for the real world.

Three weeks after graduation, I started working in sales for a fortune 500 company. I set conservative goals of learning about business for 2-3 years and then one day setting out again to start my own business. With no short-term plan to get me there in 3 years, I fell into the 8-5 rat race and became a bum. I went from overflowing with ambition, to coming home from work to take a nap on the couch and watch television. I may have given up on myself…but Justin didn’t. Every time we talked on the phone he asked me what ideas I was working on and when I was starting my own business. It’s pretty hard telling your mentor, who has provided you all the tools you need to succeed, that you are wasting away on the couch every day when you come home from work. Eventually it wears on you and you have to snap out of your funk. I had to either set a plan to achieve my goals or stop pretending and get some new goals. The thought of working towards my first promotion 3 years down the road didn’t appeal to me, so I whipped myself into shape.

In mid September, 2011 Laura Betterly was hosting a conference in San Antonio on the topic of Local Search Optimization. This was exactly the type of business I wanted to start and the perfect opportunity for me to get focused again, but I wasn’t planning on going. I was paying my student loans and trying to put some money into savings and the idea of spending money on a plane ticket to go to a conference on something I already failed at wasn’t at the top of my priority list. That is until I had to face Justin on the phone again. I attended that conference and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Within 40 days of returning from the conference I had my first paying client, a used car dealer in Philadelphia named Millevoi Bros. Auto Sales. Not only did I return from the conference super focused, but I also had the chance to network with people who were interested in the same business as me. My relationship with one of those people in particular, Benjamin Beauregard from Convernet, has helped launch me into the position I am in today.

So how did I go from having a single client in October to being the owner of an international marketing company by February? First, I started my company called Hyacinth Marketing, LLC and began offering local search engine optimization services to companies in Philadelphia. I was finally able to put to use all of the knowledge that I had been learning for the past year and half and apply it to my own business. As I started to see outstanding results, I communicated them with my friend Ben who already had a successful local search marketing business. When the time came for Ben to expand his business into working with clients all across Canada, my business was the first business he approached to partner with.

Unfortunately, my story has to end here because I am still living it! I’m building my client base here in Philadelphia and we are on-boarding over 100 clients throughout Canada within the next 2 months. I wrote this article because I wanted to reflect back on where it all began, with an unpaid virtual internship. Unpaid internships are a very controversial topic in the news these days and every time I turn around I hear another horror story. Yes, I agree, there are some terrible unpaid internships out there that offer no value whatsoever to the intern. The sad thing is that these are the only stories that make the headlines. There are plenty of unpaid internship success stories, and if designed correctly, they can provide immeasurable benefits to the intern. I went through the InternProfits system and I am living proof that an unpaid internship can be a win-win for both the intern and the company.

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