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The Student-Founder’s Dilemma: Why This Startup CEO Is Getting An MBA

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Jeff Phaneuf is founder and CEO of Adventurelist, the Airbnb of guided outdoor sports. Phaneuf is pursuing an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Courtesy photo

By the time Jeff Phaneuf considered applying for an MBA, he already had a full plate — and an even fuller CV.

Last fall, the former Marine infantry officer and Iraq veteran was earning his Master of Public Administration at Princeton University while building a tech startup for outdoor recreation, Adventurelist. (Think Airbnb for guided adventure sports.) He workshopped the idea at Princeton’s Keller Center eLab Incubator and assembled a team of undergraduate students to help get it off the ground. In January, Phaneuf won the first-ever Princeton-TechStars Innovation Bootcamp pitch competition, earning essential non-dilutive funding to develop his company. On June 15, he launched the Adventurelist website.

But the startup CEO faced a tough decision: Should he throw his full time and attention to his fledgling company, one that had already attracted attention and money? Or should he pursue an MBA to fill in the gaps of his business acumen?


“The way I thought of it was the student-founder’s dilemma. There are inherently trade-offs when you are in an MBA program,” Phaneuf, 33, says. “While there are incredible opportunities and resources to help you build up your startup, you have to give up some things as well. Whether that’s your social life, or your academics, or time for the business itself, there are trade-offs to being a student-founder.”

Phaneuf chose the MBA. This week, he started orientation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the No. 1 business school in the U.S. according to most major rankings.

In this conversation with Poets&Quants, the entrepreneur and first-time B-school student shares why the MBA was the right choice for him.

The homepage of Adventurelist. Find it at www.goadventurelist.com

Tell us about your educational background.

I did my undergrad at Harvard, where I studied history and literature. After a stint as a boarding school teacher, I joined the Marine Corps and spent a total of eight years in the Marines, six active and two reserve. That included a deployment to Iraq in 2016.

After I left active duty in 2019, I studied public policy at Princeton and earned an MPA in international Relations. I had a wonderful time there but realized that I wanted to have a more deliberative impact at scale. I figured I could do that more effectively through entrepreneurship.

What attracted you to the military after you had already joined the working world?

I was a high school teacher for three years, and I loved it, but I had a strong desire to find a way to serve. I had such admiration for the young men and women who serve in uniform and who were doing incredible things in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think, for me, as a relatively young guy, I also wanted to pursue some adventure. That was certainly part of the desire to join the Marines, specifically, and to try to become an infantry officer.

How did you come up with the idea for Adventurelist?

I was stationed for three years in Twentynine Palms in the California desert, and there’s not a whole lot to do in Twentynine Palms. It’s really the middle of nowhere. So on weekends, my friends and I were always trying to pursue some kind of adventure and looking for the chance to get away from base. Sometimes that was rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park or spear fishing in San Diego or mountaineering in the North Cascades.

On one particular day, we just got back from Iraq, and a few friends and I went to the Virgin Islands. We were looking to book a fishing charter, and we searched the usual channels: Google, Yelp, etc. We found it increasingly difficult to find any useful information online. So, after a couple of hours of searching, we gave up and decided to go on a local island pub crawl. We chatted up bar tenders trying to find out if they had a friend who would help us out. And so that’s where the nexus essentially came from, the struggles to find good adventure sport guides in an easy and trustworthy manner.

Adventurelist is a marketplace that allows adventure sport guides to promote their services and to connect with customers across a spectrum of outdoor sports. We’re looking to be the go-to hub for outdoor recreation. Right now, the outdoor industry is experiencing an incredible boom due to COVID and, I think, a lot of circumstances that are turning people to the outdoors. It’s a really exciting time. And our goal is to really be helpful to the guides. We want to make sure that we help them capture that increased demand and turn their guiding businesses into something that’s really sustainable.

Adventurelist founder and CEO Jeff Phaneuf came up with his startup idea when he was a Marine stationed in Twentynine Palms, Calif. He was always looking for adventures on his off time but was frustrated with the resources he found online. Courtesy photo

And how did you then turn Adventurelist from an idea into a startup?

Princeton doesn’t have a business school, but they do have a great entrepreneurial ecosystem. So, while I was there, I worked closely with the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council as well as the Keller Center eLab Incubator. We were able to begin to work on the idea. That helped with some resources and a lot of advice. We had incredible faculty advisors as well as folks from industry who advised us on the entrepreneurial journey.

I ended up bringing on five Princeton undergrads who had various roles in business development in tech, doing everything from building out the Adveturelist website to helping us cold call guides and customers to get them on the platform. We also were excited to win the first-ever TechStars Innovation Bootcamp pitch competition in January, securing some early non-dilutive funding. We were then accepted to the Keller Center eLab Accelerator program which ran from June through August this year.

So, in the middle of getting this startup off the ground, when did you start thinking about pursuing an MBA?

I think it coincided with the beginning of founding a business. I realized quickly that, although I had plenty of leadership experience from the Marines and from some other coursework that I had done, I had no idea how to run a business. Founding a startup was a great crash course in it, but I definitely felt like I was running up a very steep learning curve.

Courtesy photo

I should say I had some incredible help from friends who have been entrepreneurs. For example, my friend Brendan Aronson, who I first met in Iraq and in the fight against ISIS, and the co-founder of Paintru, has been incredibly helpful both in applying to business schools and navigating the process of being a first-time founder. But, there was so much to learn.

I realized that an MBA would do two things for me. One, it would give me the academic background, the actual understanding of how the business world works in a clear and concise way. And two, especially in a place like Stanford, I would be entrenched in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. That was an incredibly strong motivator. I think it’s really important when building a team to be surrounded by a group of advisers and others who really understand that world. There’s no better place than the Stanford GSB to found a tech startup.

I probably began thinking about pursuing an MBA last summer, and I wrote my applications mostly in November and December. I had incredible help from a lot of Marines who had gone to business school before me. There’s an incredible network of service members at business schools who go way out of their way to help other vets who are trying to apply. They would read my essays and offer advice, and they would give me feedback on the applications.

Where else did you apply, and where else were you accepted?

I applied to Stanford, Harvard and Wharton. I was very very fortunate to be accepted into all of them.

So, why Stanford?

A few reasons. For me, Stanford is so wonderfully located in the heart of tech innovation, and that was a huge driver. Those other schools are incredible places as well, and they all have their strengths, but specifically for what I’m trying to do, which is to found a tech startup in the outdoor industry, you can’t position yourself better than Stanford. I think, too, that Stanford is a little bit smaller, it’s a little bit more focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, so it just felt like a really good fit. You can’t beat the weather here either.

How is the veteran support network at Stanford?

The Veterans Club here is great. It’s a small but very vibrant group, and they were really wonderful as I was applying. Many of them gave me tons of their time, and that was really helpful.

Now that I’m here, we’ve already started to get together as a group. We did a 9/11 memorial run on September 11 to remember the last 20 years of war. Many of us who have served in the wars came from that era. So it’s a strong, strong community here.

Adventurelist is like the Airbnb for guided outdoor recreation. Adventure guides in climbing, fishing, mountain sports and more can list their services on the Adventurelist website (like an Airbnb host) and customers can book directly with them. Courtesy photo

So, what’s next for Adventurelist?

Adventurelist went live on June 15, and we’ve had some great early traction and some early adopters who were willing to give us a try. Right now, for me, I’m focused on expanding the team and bringing on some co-founders. I’m specifically looking for a CTO and a COO, and then finding out exactly what we need to do to bring this to scale. I’ve had some really incredible feedback from both our customers and also our guides, and that’s enabled me to really think about the future. But I think part of the reason that we’re talking now is that it is tricky to run a startup, which deserves your full attention, while also being in business school. That’s what I’m navigating now.

What were some of the factors that went into the decision of going to b-school while launching a startup?

I think, for me, it was less a calculation in time and more a calculation of adding value to my ability to be a successful startup founder. I saw an MBA as a chance to really accelerate my growth and learning as a founder and to put me in a position to bring my startup to the next level. What I have to figure out now is how to be really effective in managing my time in order to be successful.

You know, Stanford is a wonderful place to find co-founders, and it’s a wonderful place to get incredible advice from faculty. There are also a lot of requirements on your time as an MBA student, especially a first year MBA student. And it’s part of why I picked Stanford. Talking with students here, it was very clear that Stanford is very very student-founder friendly. Some schools, I think, especially in your first year, want you to focus on the academic program and think about building a business later down the road.

A screenshot of the Adeventurelist marketplace

What advice would you offer other entrepreneurs grappling with the student-founder dilemma?

First, I think if you want to learn how to run a startup, there’s no better way than diving in. If you have an idea or if you have a problem that you want to solve, try it. Try to build a team, seek out resources. You’d be amazed, even just having the initial phone call with people in the industry, how helpful folks are and how interested people are in your idea.

I was incredibly lucky to get some funding, assistance and advice from Princeton, and I’m looking forward to gathering as much of the help I can get here at Stanford. If you have a little skin in the game, I think you’ll find that a lot of people come out of the woodwork to help you. So, I think that’s my main advice: Dive in and give it a try, and you’ll learn incredible things.

What do you think the value of an MBA is to other student-founders or even working professionals looking to advance their careers?

I think, number one, is building relationships. I mean, even just in the first few weeks of orientation here I’ve met so many incredible people. People with such an array of backgrounds so different from my own in the military. That’s made it worth it already.

I think there’s definitely mixed advice for student-founders. Some people say, it’s better to hit pause on your startup and pick it up when you have more time and the ability to truly commit. I’ve also heard others say that your MBA is a great chance to de-risk the founding of a startup because you’re already immersed in that environment and there are plenty of resources available in that MBA program. Beyond that, I think an MBA program gives you a little wiggle room to experiment, to try things out and to rely on your classmates and your professors to help build on your idea. And that’s the adventure that I’m watching myself on right now.


The post The Student-Founder’s Dilemma: Why This Startup CEO Is Getting An MBA appeared first on Poets&Quants.