The student-founder dilemma: why this start-up CEO gets an MBA

Jeff Phaneuf is Founder and CEO of Adventurelist, the Airbnb of Guided Outdoor Sports. Phaneuf is pursuing an MBA at 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 resume.

Last fall, the former Marine Infantry Officer and Iraq veteran earned his Masters of Public Administration from Princeton University while setting up a tech startup for outdoor recreation, Adventurer. (Think Airbnb for guided adventure sports.) He pitched the idea to Princeton’s Keller Center eLab Incubator and assembled a team of undergraduates to help get it started. In January, Phaneuf won the first-ever Princeton-TechStars Innovation Bootcamp pitch competition, securing essential non-dilutive funding to grow his business. On June 15, he launched the Adventurelist website.

But the startup CEO had to make a tough decision: Should he devote all of his time and attention to his young company, a company that had already garnered attention and money? Or should he pursue an MBA to fill in the gaps in his business acumen?

THE STUDENT-FOUNDER DILEMMA

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

Phaneuf chose the MBA. This week, he began his orientation at Stanford Graduate School of Business, the top business school in the United States by most major rankings..

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

The Adventurelist home page. Find it on www.goadventurelist.com

Tell us about your educational background.

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

After leaving active service in 2019, I studied Public Policy at Princeton and earned an MPA in International Relations. I had a wonderful time there, but realized I wanted to have a more deliberative impact on a large scale. I thought I could do it more efficiently through entrepreneurship.

What attracted you to the military after having already joined the world of work?

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

How did you come up with the idea for Adventurelist?

I was stationed for three years at Twentynine Palms in the California desert, and there isn’t much to do at Twentynine Palms. It really is the middle of nowhere. So on weekends my friends and I would always try to pursue some kind of adventure and look for the chance to get away from base. Sometimes it was rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, spear fishing in San Diego, or mountaineering in the North Cascades.

We just returned from Iraq one day, 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 have found it increasingly difficult to find useful information online. So after a few hours of research we gave up and decided to do a local island pub crawl. We chatted with bartenders to try to find out if they had a friend who would help us. And that’s where the connection basically comes from, the difficulties in finding good adventure sports guides in a simple and trustworthy way.

Adventurelist is a marketplace for adventure sports guides to promote their services and connect with clients across a range of outdoor sports. We are looking to become the hub of outdoor recreation. Right now the outdoor industry is experiencing an incredible boom due to COVID and, I think, many circumstances that are pushing people towards the outdoors. It’s a really exciting time. And our goal is to be really helpful to the guides. We want to make sure that we help them capture this increased demand and turn their core business into something truly sustainable.

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