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

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 STUDENT-FOUNDER’S DILEMMA

“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.