Broken Business Models in “Non-Profit” Start-ups; Case Study: JDub

by Jacob Ner-David

Last week I had a packed Wednesday, starting off the day leading a Wexner Heritage Leadership group focused on the New Economy of Israel. OK, so the new economy is not so new, been around for almost 20 years, but what can I tell you, Americans are slow to pick up on these things. Anyway, talked to them for hours about entrepreneurship in Israel, start-ups, wealth creation, and more. To kick off the day I asked my friend Jon Medved to join us, who is featured prominently in Saul Singer’s book, Start-Up Nation.

And then I walked down the street to meet with the PresenTense 2011 Global Summer Institute fellows, to talk about business models in the non-profit world, where most of the fellows are planning to make their mark in the near term.

I told them that from my perspective, there is a false distinction drawn between “for-profit” start-ups and “non-profit” start-ups. The only real difference is that in a for-profit the goal of the founders/investors is take money out of the business in some fashion at some point in time (either by dividends, IPO, trade sale). In a non-profit, the founders/investors are happy to let it ride, i.e. not to take any money out, except for salaries for paid staff members. Otherwise, all start-ups should be run in the same manner. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t trade-offs all the time between generating usage/traction/influence and financial stability/sustainability. Twitter for many years did not think at all about generating revenues, let alone profits. Same for Facebook. And so many others. In the Venture Capital world right now people go ga-ga over Groupon which is generating massive losses, because they are showing “growth.” Sustainable? Probably not, but the founders/early investors of Groupon have already cashed out in a big way. And current investors believe that with enough growth a profitable business model will be developed.

But lets look at non-profits. How should they pay the bills in a sustainable manner? Well, like their peers on the for-profit side, at first need to find investors (which could and should include the founders themselves). Very quickly comes the question: what is more important, short term financial stability or growth? Usually growth wins out, but there is no secondary market for shares of “” – which means there is no liquidity event, nor will there ever be – but on the other hand, there does need to be financial sustainability. Well, after many years Facebook turned on the revenue generation, and now they bring in (profitably) billions of dollars a year. Twitter is slowly making their way there, and so on.

The time has come for non-profits to realize they need a business model, more than “let me try to raise a lot of money to pay my staff.” The same metrics that VC use to decide whether to keep pouring money into start-ups that aim to one day provide liquidity for their investors should apply to “social ventures,” whose goal is making the world a better place. (I am one of the few that believe we can make the world a better place and provide liquidity with the same venture, but that’s a different conversation). Relying on passive donors for the bulk of the budget is a recipe for financial meltdown at some point. And it does not reflect any “buy-in” from those actually benefiting from the venture itself.

As a case study let’s look at JDub, which I have known since their very first baby steps. As some of you know, JDub announced yesterday they are shutting down, and founder/CEO Aaron Bisman sent out the following letter:

Dear Friends, Fans, and Supporters,

I have to share some unfortunate news. After almost 9 years in operation, JDub’s Board of Directors has decided to wind down the organization.

The decision to close was entirely financial, as the challenges facing our business model are too great to overcome. We were never a normal record label, nor were we ever just a record company. We always knew that in order to discover, curate, and promote unique, proud Jewish voices and role models in the mainstream we would need to rely, at least in part, on philanthropic support. In addition to buying our albums, sharing the music with your friends, and attending our concerts and events, so many of you supported us as donors, talent scouts, and stream teamers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

JDub would never have grown into the organization that it was without you.

JDub earned half of its annual budget from mission-related revenue, including album sales, concert tickets, and consulting fees, and the other half from foundations and individual donors. The collapse of the music business in the decade that JDub has existed, combined with recessionary effects and aging out of the cohort of Jewish “start ups,” made securing the necessary operating support an insurmountable challenge.

We have shared some incredible memories – bringing 3,500 people together for The Unity Sessions at Celebrate Brooklyn; watching Balkan Beat Box play to sold out crowds of Gypsy bikers in Portland; jumping into a spontaneous hora at The Independent in San Francisco while a half naked Golem played frenetically onstage; putting many of you onstage at the Bowery Ballroom for an American Shmidol karaoke battle; being told “I’ve never felt Jewish until tonight.”

We’d love to hear your memories and reflections as well. Please post them on Facebook, or tweet them to @jdubrecords.

Just as JDub modeled what a new Jewish organization could look like and achieve, we will also model how one appropriately winds down. We plan to share as much information as possible, and seek appropriate homes for our successful programs and assets. We hope that our albums will continue to be available on iTunes, Amazon, and record store shelves long into the future.

We are extremely grateful to all of our fans, funders and supporters, the creative and inspiring artists with whom we’ve had the pleasure to work, their devoted fans, and our innovative and energetic team. We close with heavy hearts, but incredible pride in our collective accomplishments and impact.

We hope you will join us for the last official JDub event this Sunday night on the Roof of the 14th St Y in NYC, where Deleon will play songs from their new album, Casata, which you’ll get, along with free beer, when you attend.

Thank you again for supporting us in all our endeavors. It has been a true honor.


Aaron Bisman

Co-Founder & CEO, JDub

OK, so what is wrong with the above letter?

1. Well, for one, not enough transperancy. It’s not clear if the half of his budget that came from “mission related revenue” was profitable. If it was, why shut down? Why not cut back and live off revenues? If you are going to tell us you are shutting for financial reasons, tell us more – you are a public entity (a non-profit).

2. Aaron talks about the success they enjoyed, but he doesn’t show us on a graph if they plateaued at some point, or if the growth continued. If they reached their maximum somewhere over the past decade, that is the point at which they need to say: “this is how big we will be, how do we make this work.” If they did keep growing, why couldn’t they find additional investors (donors)??

3. The statistics fall far short of showing me whether this really was a successful venture. That 3500 people came to a concert is not a massive accomplishment. Discovering Matisyahu was – and not clear why that and other achievements didn’t generate enough revenue to support a modest music operation. Aaron in a postscript to his farewell letter sums up 9 years of work as follows:

A final JDub snapshot:

  • 150,000 event participants in 472 cities
  • 35 album releases
  • 3 Gold Records
  • 3,500 attendees at The Unity Sessions, the largest Israeli/Palestinian concert in the history of the United States
  • 52 songs placed in major films, TV shows, or ads
  • 800+ mainstream press stories including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, MTV, CNN, NPR, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Rolling Stone, SPIN, Billboard, and Pitchfork
  • 26 foundation and Federation funders
  • 630 individual donors
  • 2.7 million unique visitors to since JDub’s adoption

It is very difficult to analyze the above without understanding development of the venture along a timeline, together with a business plan.

4. Donors are simply investors called by a different name, and need to be treated as such. They need to be shown how their investment is generating results – and results means more than paying the overhead (or half the overhead) of an organization. Again, results could mean many things, ranging from user traction to revenue growth to public awareness, but it needs to measured and proven.

Bottom line: if a venture is delivering bang for a buck (or a shekel), it will be sustainable. It’s up to us entrepreneurs to figure out how.

Jacob Ner-David is life partner of Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David, together they are parents to Michal, Adin, Meira, Hallel, Nachum, Mishael, and Shefa. Jacob lives in Kibbutz Hanaton, but maintains strong connections to Jerusalem. Jacob is a serial entrepreneur, having co-founded many ventures, including Ambient, DeltaThree, NomadIQ, DoubleFusion, and Jerusalem Capital. Jacob is currently chairman of NoProblem, AttracTV and sits on the executive board of PresenTense.

Here are additional responses to JDub Closing Up Shop.