By Billy Planer
“Turn it over and turn it over for all is therein”
It has been wonderful to see the number of opportunities available for Jewish educational startups. It is an exciting time to be a Jewish nonprofit entrepreneur. It was a very different climate just 13 years ago when I created a startup called Etgar 36. As a result, nothing about Etgar 36 has been traditional. Since 2015-2016 represents the bar mitzvah year of Etgar 36, I want to share some thoughts of my Jewish startup journey as it matures into a grown up venture. I hope that this bar mitzvah reflection can serve as an alternate map to the usual way we create businesses in the Jewish communal world. These are lessons that I learned as I built Etgar 36 from scratch into a program that has an annual revenue of $1 million and engages over 1,200 people each year while staying true to the original mission.
Tip # 1 – “TAKE YOUR PASSION AND MAKE IT HAPPEN” (Irene Cara)
I remember the “aha moment” well. It was a Friday afternoon in April of 2002. I had been a synagogue youth director for 12 years and I knew it was time to do something else, but paralysis had set in. Up until that moment, the only thing I had done was youth work and was not sure what else I could do.
The aspect of my job that I enjoyed the most was the annual youth group trip. We studied the history, politics, and culture and saw the sites of whichever city we visited. Running this weekend trip fulfilled me in a way that taking the teens bowling or on an overnight did not. I decided that my next step would have to be something that spoke to me. For two weeks I kept a list of my passions which included: youth work, Judaism, social and political activism, travel, experiential education, making the Jewish connection to America, pop culture, music, learning about a historic event where it happened among others. Combining all of these passions helped me create Etgar 36. This would be a program that took Jewish teens across America and taught them about history, politics and activism by having them engage with various sides of political debate in order to develop their own thoughts and opinions. This helped the teens connect to the Jewish community’s longstanding tradition of being involved with social change and politics.
Etgar 36 only happened because I believed there was no way I could not create it. It was a natural extension of who I was. I simply took what was of interest to me, what spoke to me, and found a way to create a business around that. A startup should be deeply personal. It has to be you examining your own kishkes, and saying this is what I must do.
Tip # 2 – “FAITH IS TAKING THE FIRST STEP EVEN WHEN YOU DON’T SEE THE WHOLE STAIRCASE” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
At some point, and it will be clear, you must take the leap. You can’t start a business while holding on too long or deeply to another job. You must show your commitment before others will commit to your dream. While this is the scariest aspect of creating a startup, it is also the most energizing!
How did I know it was time to make the leap? When I realized the risk of not doing it was greater than the risk of taking the leap. What was the risk of staying in a job with the safety of a steady paycheck? There was none. There is never going to be the right day to make the leap and begin your startup. Entrepreneurs follow their gut instincts. They have to be comfortable with being mostly certain, but never 100%. They understand Bob Dylan’s lyric: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Do your best research and planning and then at some point, you just gotta leap!
TIP # 3 – “You can’t just sit there and wait for people to give you that golden dream. You’ve got to get out there and make it happen for yourself” (Diana Ross)
Don’t go the traditional route. In the world of Jewish nonprofits, that would mean fundraising or going for Foundation or Federation support. I know that is counterintuitive, but don’t give in to it. When I began Etgar 36, I thought I would go down the well-worn route and start fund raising. Luckily, I was not good at it. I was uncomfortable with the idea of courting a donor or Foundation. This forced me to think outside the box and forge a new path. I created a budget based on self-generating programming revenue. Don’t get me wrong. I felt I was failing by going this route. I saw almost every other program I knew getting Foundation or Federation support. I felt that I wasn’t doing this startup thing right because I couldn’t get invited to the Foundation table.
The way I went around the typical route of fundraising was by getting a new credit card every few weeks. Each new card allowed me to transfer my current balance on to their card at 0% interest for 3 months. It took me a year and a half to pay off the final balance, but the “loans” had been completely interest free. As a result, Etgar 36 has always been, and will continue to be, completely self-funded. We have never been supported by a foundation or Federation.
I highly recommend to any entrepreneur not to rely on, expect, or search for Foundation or grant money. While at the beginning I was trying to figure out how to get that funding, I now realize that not getting it made me more resourceful, hungry, and focused on making the business work. I didn’t have the luxury of making bad decisions that could be covered over by already having money in the bank. My margin of error was non-existent. If I were to make a mistake, I wouldn’t get a paycheck that week. This also kept me from becoming bloated with staff. Etgar 36, at the most, has had two other full time employees and myself. I have been so fortunate to have employees who are committed to the ideals and education of the program, and who worked so smartly and with such energy that we could keep it small and focused.
TIP # 4 – “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything” (John Kenneth Gilbraith)
We are often called the “people of the book”. An updated name would be the “people of the conference”. One just needs to look on social media at friends and colleagues in Jewish education to see they are in hotels and conference centers more than they are at home. I have been told that I should come to conferences and unfortunately (or fortunately for the bottom line) I am too busy doing what is being conferred about. We need more people doing rather than just researching. I feel we have become too comfortable relying on strategy meetings instead of actual doing and implementing.
Stop asking people what they want and create something they need. If you are just filling a desire or request of a student or customer, all you are doing is treading water. As an entrepreneur, I not only want to lead the way, but I want to show the way as well. This sometimes means creating the path. Stand up, stick your flag in the ground, and proclaim who and what you are and see who follows.
If you are passionate about something, feel it is right, and you have done the work, then do it. As for best practices, run your idea/program up the flagpole and see who comes. If enough people salute it, then keep going. Process, in my opinion, squashes energy, creativity, and excitement – three vital ingredients to a successful startup. As far as outcome results, if you have money in your bank account at the end of the day, then you are doing something right and you have earned the right to open tomorrow and do it again.
TIP # 5 – “THIS ABOVE ALL: TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE” (Shakespeare)
Take a stand. Be for something. Have a point of view. There is a phrase “FOMO” which translates into Fear of Missing Out. In the Jewish communal nonprofit world, it has come to mean the Fear Of Missing One. We are so afraid of losing one member, customer or person that we sometimes look over those who are showing up and focus on those who are not. FOMO also makes us forget what and who we are as an organization in order to appease the person who isn’t showing up. When defining who and what you are as a nonprofit, it is equally important to be very clear as to who and what you are not. In retail, it is fine to satisfy the customer any way you can, but in a nonprofit educational/religious venture, the business needs to stand for something. This means it can’t be everything to everyone. Some people simply won’t buy what you are selling, and I think that is fine. Being self-sufficient has also allowed Etgar 36 to say no to groups, families, and individuals whom we know are bad fits.
I am not scared to lose one prospective person or possible partner if I feel that, in the long run, it would not have been productive for either of us. Being true to your mission keeps the nonprofit from wasting time covering ground that you don’t need to.
Walt Whitman once wrote, “when I give, I give myself.” If you can’t imagine not doing your startup, then welcome to the cliff and take the leap. If you think your idea sounds like it could be fun, turn it over some more because you aren’t ready. While the startup period was the most scary, exhausting, and exasperating time I have ever had in my life, it was also the most alive I ever felt. If you have an idea, are passionate about it, and feel the need to make a change in your current life, then I highly recommend looking over the ledge, being scared, not being 100% confident but being sure this is what you must do and go for it! Sure there is risk and danger in starting up a non-profit, but it is also where the real prize is. As Bruce Springsteen sang “Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun, but mama, that’s where the fun is”!
Billy Planer has been working in Jewish experiential education for 30 years. He is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36, a program that during the summer takes Jewish teens across America teaching them about history, politics and activism. During the academic year Etgar 36 takes day schools and synagogue groups on Civil Rights journeys.