Climb a Mountain, Start a Company

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VIBE and Milgard alumnus Steve Buchanan, '13, '14, reaches another summit with the national rollout of ChooseVets.

Above: Rep. Derek Kilmer (WA-6, center) with ChooseVets team (from left) Paul Galasso, Chris Sheppard, Steve Buchanan and Johannes Schonberg.

Update: ChooseVets was recently profiled by tech news site Read the article from Feb. 11, 2015.

What does climbing a mountain have in common with launching a startup?

Some people might say both are Sisyphean tasks, referring to Sisyphus, the king in Greek mythology who was doomed to an eternity of rolling an immense boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again before he reached the top.

But that’s not Steve Buchanan’s take on it. And he should know. He’s summited Mt. Rainier nine times, and he’s in the midst of a national launch of his startup company, ChooseVets.

Buchanan, who holds a 2014 MBA from UW Tacoma’s Milgard School of Business and a 2013 JD from the UW School of Law, developed the idea for his company while participating as a student in UW Tacoma’s VIBE, the Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship.

A well-lived life

For Buchanan, climbing a mountain and being an entrepreneur are logical progressions of a well-lived life. He grew up in western New York State, near Niagara Falls, and moved to Chicago when he was 13. He was always athletic and early on learned he had a talent for leading people.

“I was elected president of my senior class in high school, in Lake Forest, Illinois,” said Buchanan. His father worked for business forms giant Moore Corp., which had an executive team in the ritzy suburb north of Chicago. “But we absolutely didn’t live in the ritzy-mansion part of town.”

“I guess it was kind of natural for me to go to West Point,” the nation’s oldest military college in New York’s Hudson Valley, part of the Army’s officer-training program. “I always loved playing ‘army’ as a kid.” Just like Tom Sawyer, Buchanan got good at persuading other kids that acting as a team was better than acting alone.

He got a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and upon graduation joined the Army for what became a nine-year career as an infantry officer. His first posting was Fort Lewis, south of Tacoma (now part of Joint Base Lewis McChord), “which was great, because I love climbing!”

Indeed. He’s summited Mt. Rainier nine times, and tried many more times than that. “It sounds impressive, and I guess it is, but there’s not a whole lot of technical climbing involved. You just really have to be fit.” He hopes to make the summit again later this year, this time with his father.

Impact of 9/11

“My first plan was to get a JD/MBA from an east-coast school. I was going to get married, leave the Army, get the degrees, pass the bar. I had it all planned out.”

But then 9/11 happened. “I just felt I couldn’t leave the Army after that happened.” Buchanan ended up serving tours of duty to Afghanistan and Iraq. Because of his fluency with mathematics, he routinely ended up serving on the strategy-planning staff of the generals leading the campaigns. “It was a little bit frustrating, because I really wanted to be in the action!” But the experience was invaluable and humbling, giving Buchanan another crash course in leadership, and demonstrating the quality of the people that make up today’s Army.

Buchanan did get married, too. “That ended up happening right before 9/11.” Now divorced, he has a daughter and a son.

When Buchanan mustered out of the Army, he came back to live in Tacoma. “The South Sound has one of the highest concentrations of military veterans of anywhere in the U.S. It’s just really comfortable for veterans to live here,” he said.

He decided now was the time to pursue the JD/MBA degrees. He got into the UW School of Law. He wanted to do the coursework for the MBA at the same time, and UW Tacoma’s Milgard School had an evening MBA degree program. “In hindsight, it was a kind of madness. The first year of law school is really tough, so I knew I had to focus on that. As it turned out, I sort of interleaved the law school studies and the MBA courses, so I finished both degrees in four years.” Buchanan got his JD in 2013 and his MBA in 2014.

But that’s not all he was doing. “I served as a local delegate during the Obama campaign, and I met [Tacoma Mayor] Marilyn Strickland. She ended up being an important mentor to me.”

Steve Buchanan, '13, '14, co-founder and CEO of ChooseVets, giving a presentation about his company.Veterans' Moving Company

By 2013, Buchanan was thinking of starting some kind of business, and he knew he wanted to employ veterans. “There are all these words I can use to describe the veterans I know: loyalty, judgment, integrity, dependability… they are great workers.”

At first, his plan was to start a moving company. “I hired a couple of guys, and we posted an ad on Craigslist. It was a great way to stay in shape. I figured if I could buy a couple of trucks and sell franchises, the business model would allow me to retire, spend time with my kids, and do work on veterans' outreach and legal issues.”

But then he learned about VIBE, the Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship. “I was in a class at the Milgard School, and the professor, Tracy Thompson, brought in the director of VIBE, Phil Potter. VIBE had a huge impact on me. Not only was I encouraged to think bigger, but I was connected into all these resources – mentors, people who became my co-founders and co-workers, funding sources.”

And then Buchanan heard about 1 Million Cups, the entrepreneur community-building program created by the Kauffman Foundation, which had just launched a Tacoma group.

“All these things happened at once – VIBE, 1 Million Cups, getting ‘inducted’ into the entrepreneur community in Tacoma and Seattle,” said Buchanan. Suddenly, his plan to buy a second moving truck morphed into an idea for a web-based labor-booking service featuring veteran workers.

“That’s really what ChooseVets is in a nutshell. It’s taking the informal day-labor market and building in reliability, confidence, security and a work ethic. And it helps veterans make the transition from being warriors to being civilians.”

Buchanan started incubating his company at VIBE and at Startup Hall, the entrepreneurial center recently launched in the old Condon Hall at UW in Seattle.

On a roll

And now, like Sisyphus, Buchanan is on a roll. Rep. Derek Kilmer, who serves district 6 in Washington State (which includes Tacoma and JBLM), has invited Buchanan to be his guest at Pres. Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address on Jan. 20. It’s a huge honor—legislators each get to invite only one guest. Buchanan will be sitting in the House Gallery, amongst the other hand-picked lawmakers’ guests. He’ll be in uniform, since he is now a Major in the Army Reserves.

Meanwhile, there will be “viewing parties” tuning into C-SPAN to watch the address, to catch a glimpse of Buchanan in case a TV camera pans by him.

These viewing parties, though, are not just for Buchanan “groupies.” (“Hah!” says Steve, “as if there were such people!”) Some of them will be UW alumni, rooting for their classmate, but others will be employees and customers.

ChooseVets, having recently recorded its first sale, and having attracted early “angel” financing, is expanding via a nationwide rollout. “We’re launching in Tacoma, Oahu, Washington, D.C., Dallas and Detroit.” These are places with large populations of veterans in major metropolitan areas.

And this is where the allusion to Sisyphus stops. Because Buchanan seems to have summited the mountain one more time, and doesn’t show any sign of rolling back down. Rather, he’s ready to take off and soar into the future.

Read a profile of Steve Buchanan and ChooseVets published in the [Tacoma] News Tribune and the Seattle Times.

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / January 20, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Advancement Communications, 253-692-4536 or