A.J. Steigman, WG’18, can always see his next move. He adapted the business strategy for Soletron, his online streetwear and lifestyle company, from retail to content before exiting to his biggest competitor and to the industry leader. Even earlier, as a prodigy chess champion, he regained his number-one ranking in the U.S. for his age group after almost losing his life to Lyme Disease. Now, at Wharton, he’s a first-year MBA student working at building his next venture.
A former investment banker turned serial entrepreneur, A.J.’s longest-term venture, Soletron, was a VC-backed startup advised by a former CEO of Adobe, an initial investor and board member for BlackBerry, Tom Austin, W’93, cofounder of AND1 basketball, and Santonio Holmes, former NFL Superbowl champion. From its founding as an online e-commerce platform in 2010, Soletron pivoted two years later to become a full content site in order to play on its traffic and userbase. The company deployed a Huffington Post model by creating a worldwide network of content contributors that published over 100 unique articles a day of content about sports, music festivals, video games, retail, and tech products.
In 2015 Soletron’s biggest competitor, Karmaloop, acquired them in order to merge ecommerce and content. A.J. has no regrets.
“For my first tech venture, I was able to exit to the industry leader,” A.J. said. “When you build a product, there’s always an attachment to it. We had a very good team, we worked very hard. I had done this for five years, and if I had to sell it to anybody, I had to choose the industry leader.”
A.J. wanted Wharton to be the next step he took.
His mother received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Penn, and his childhood friend Arjun Srinivas,W’07, won the Gloeckner Award in the Wharton Business Plan Competition. When A.J. exited Soletron, he thought he’d use that time to go to Wharton.
“Since high school, I have always had a long-term vision to get my MBA here,” he said. “My mother always instilled in me the value of a great education, and the talent here is unparalleled. I hope to use my time here to learn, and maybe start another industry disrupter.”
He began in Pre-Term by trying to meet as many people as possible — both for social reasons and to find potential business partners.
“It’s like an X-Men school of accomplished individuals from all over the world,” he said. “Every day you meet a talented individual — Navy SEALs, astrophysicists, state department officials, champions, intelligence officers, and top athletes. The talent per square foot is astonishing. Being in this environment always pushes you to strive towards a higher threshold.”
The academic work matters too, and A.J. is making the most of it.
He took the Pre-Term Management class with Prof. Adam Grant. “I’ve never seen a professor know the background and names of every individual on the first day,” he said. “He was able to showcase and apply the collective of individuals’ experiences to the class. I always enjoy the psychological aspect of Management classes in understanding the human capital component.”
Know Your Priorities
A.J. said it’s up to the entrepreneur — or any student — to know what they’re looking for when they come to Wharton.
“It’s a special 22-month time period where you can build a team as quickly as possible, start testing your ideas, and hopefully get funding before everyone re-disperses to their respective communities,” A.J. said. “You have to be strategic and maintain your compass of what you want to get out of the experience.”
A.J. credits part of his focus to his earlier career as a chess champion. He started playing at age 4, became a Chess Master at age 13 (beating Bobby Fischer’s record), was number-one ranked in the U.S. for his age group from 1993 to 2001, and represented the U.S. all around the world.
“Chess has given me so much,” he said. “It’s you versus the opponent. You might be playing a stronger individual and be in a bad situation. It might be very painful and you want to give up because statistically, you might lose. But chess trains you to not give up.”
When A.J. was 16, he contracted Lyme Disease and nearly died. He was hospitalized, lost significant core cognitive functions, had to relearn how to walk and talk, took a year off from school, and lost his number-one chess ranking. The experience stuck with him.
“It makes you appreciate life. I had to prove that I was going to come from behind.” He fought his way back to regain his top ranking and went on to attend Emory University’s Goizueta Business School on an academic scholarship.
“My playing style is that you have to beat me,” A.J. said. “I won’t give up against the odds. Entrepreneurship is the same thing. There are always problems. It’s a turbulent process. You have to be mentally tough to weather those storms.”
Pivoting to What’s Next
Now he’s finished up his first semester at Wharton, including core and elective classes.
His favorite class was Prof. Robert Chalfin‘s MGMT 811: Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition. “Professor Chalfin employs a very hands-on teaching style. With him being a successful entrepreneur, his advice and feedback are always spot on. I will be 100% applying the information learned from the class to my next venture,” he said.
A.J. discovered that his strongest passion is in entrepreneurial real estate ventures. “I am in the late stages of evaluating how to dedicate my time between raising capital for a small business fund, developing a real estate-focused tech platform, or building a brick-and-mortar real estate development play,” A.J. said.
He has been researching these opportunities, utilizing the Wharton network to receive beneficial feedback, and gauging investor interest. “I can’t wait to get one of these concepts off of the ground,” he said.“It will be a proud feeling to know that my next venture will be launched here at Wharton.”
Posted: January 12, 2017