Welcome to the Death Zone

In mountaineering, the death zone refers to altitudes above a certain point where the amount of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for an extended time span. This point is generally tagged as 8,000 m (26,000 ft, less than 356 millibars of atmospheric pressure).[1] 

A startup, by its very definition operates intentionally mostly inside this zone, because the startups' expedition goal is to reach a) the summit, b) on a novel route, in c) record time to d) enjoy the view from the top (and e) come down safely and alive.)

But the comparison is also correct with regard to the financial situation. Just as the mountaineer in the death zone runs out of energy reserves at some point, the start-up runs out of funding or is outpaced by others on the way to the summit.

The daily grind

As it can get terribly cold and uncomfortable in the death zone, one descends briefly to a lower situated high camp, only to ascend again shortly afterwards to take another attempt to the summit. Translated to the usual work in a startup, that often means that you will have reached your 40 hours by midweek, while asking for more with a smile on your face. Sounds familiar or tempting for you? Then read on.

Do what you really really want

There are enough pleasant walks and nobody forces you to do an internship in a startup, just like you are not forced to climb a high mountain.

So why bother? Well, because it can be pretty damn casual up there, the view can be awesome and every step of the way can be a reward. This is why we many people in the startup world have left their established career paths in exchange of a world of uncertainty and adventure.

Frithjof Bergmann (Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the University of Michigan) the founder of the New Work movement is famous for his statement, that work can only be good for the individual if it is what you really really want.

What do you expect from an internship in a startup?

The fact that you are interested in an internship in a start-up honours you. You belong to a growing group of intelligent and hungry young people who are looking for new and interesting perspectives and that you want to change the world. Good news: there has never been a better time to do that!

You probably have a few images in your head of what life in a startup is all about. Flat hierarchies, relaxed atmosphere, table football and a loft-style office with Google-like interior. Uh, well, almost. I think the entrepreneur and investor Ben Horowitz sums it up quite nicely here:

“This is not checkers, this is motherfuckin’ chess: Startup businesses tend to be extremely complex. The underlying technology moves, the competition moves, the market moves, the people move. As a result, it is more like playing three-dimensional chess” (from Ben Horowitz, "The Hard Thing About Hard Things", page 62.)

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Test your career plans under real conditions

In my opinion, an internship should provide a very authentic experience. If you like, an outlook on what it is like to start or co-found your own business, because this is what you can learn here.

Therefore at Walkolution, we try to give every Intern a lot of responsibility for an entire project. You have to want this and also know what it is all about. For most problems, which can often change daily, there are no existing solutions. There is no one to take your hand and help is not in sight. Don't ask for a backup. You are the backup.

In essence, this means that you have to basically find out the way to the goal yourself, in a short period of time and as resource-efficiently as possible, because all of this is only available in an extremely limited form. Does that still sound good?

Our real-world compensation model

There are start-ups that do not pay their interns a salary. There are certainly arguments for that, but life in our cities has become so outrageously expensive that it actually forces the intern to do another paid job parallel to the work at the startup. This makes no sense and is not compatible with our company philosophy.

Over the time we have developed the following scheme. It is honest, transparent and easy.

  • There is a very small base salary and a two-stage bonus on top of that.
  • The first level of that bonus is paid out when the monthly milestones or KPIs agreed upon are met.
  • The second level of that bonus can be reached when not only the milestones are reached, but when the intern has achieved something of real and lasting value for the company and most importantly: on his/her own initiative. A true accomplishment, that you can be proud of.

This model enables in a very straightforward way the following:

  • the intern can find out whether he/she likes and thrives in a true performance-oriented work place setting
  • the start-up company can assess whether the intern is a suitable candidate for a long-term work relationship.

Where are you after six months?

In the vast majority of cases, 3-5 months is the minimum time in which an internship makes sense for both parties.

In these months you will probably have worked incredibly hard, you will have made new friends and you will have become a part of the start-up company with your contribution.
But most importantly, you will have expanded your own toolbox with many infinitely valuable new tools that will accompany you for a lifetime.

At Walkolution, interns who have reached the second level of their bonus in at least 75% of their time with us, will be offered an employment contract with us.

Learn more about our latest internship openings.

Eric Söhngen, M.D., Ph.D.

Written by Eric Söhngen, M.D., Ph.D.

Eric is Founder and CEO at Germany based treadmill desk manufacturer Walkolution.