What Does a Post-Start-Up Need? Bikkurim Finds Out

by Abigail Pickus

A few years back, the Jewish community experienced a start-up explosion. It was a heady time and one that spoke to a new chapter of innovation and diversity in Jewish life.

But now that the honeymoon is over, what’s next?

That question and more propelled Bikkurim, a New York-based “incubator for New Jewish ideas,” to commission an in-depth report to identify the unique needs of Jewish post-start-ups and make recommendations to the community. The result is the recently released, From First Fruits to Abundant Harvest: Maximizing the Potential of Innovative Jewish Start-Ups.

“If the Jewish community in aggregate is serious about fostering and sustaining new ideas, then serious new supports need to be built into the system to enable start-ups and post-start-ups to reach their full potential,” wrote Felicia Herman, the Executive Director of The Natan Fund and Chair of the Study Advisory Committee, in an introductory letter to the report.

Abundant Harvest focuses on post-start-ups – also called mezzanine or second-stage organizations – which they define as organizations that have been in existence for over seven years, have an established track record of funding and have engaged a set of people in defined roles. To reach its findings and suggestions, an outside consulting firm (not from the Jewish world) interviewed Bikkurim’s 28 past and present incubatees and conducted in-depth interviews with 65 people from the Jewish philanthropic and nonprofit worlds.

One major finding is that even the most successful and high-growth potential post-start-ups are at risk – not because they lack vision, leadership or demand – but because the community’s support tapers off. The report therefore calls for sustained and long-term financial and capacity building support that in contrast, is often available to non-profits outside of the Jewish community.

“The support system – funders and capacity-builders like Bikkurim – for early-stage Jewish innovators is itself moving through stages of evolution and growth. Many of us involved in this work have recognized for a while the need to ‘up our game’ to help these organizations scale healthily,” said Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, Chair of Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation, which was one of the funders of the report. “The report Abundant Harvest is a seminal piece of research and analysis to help us understand the real needs and what we should consider doing going forward. It’s a call to action and raises the profile of this topic for many in the Jewish community beyond its current support base.”

For Sarah Lefton, Founder and Producer of G-dcast.com, a nonprofit production company dedicated to raising worldwide Jewish literacy, reading this report was like “reading my diary. Everything in here is something I am experiencing in real time.”

Techically, G-dcast would still be considered in the start-up phase since it launched in 2008. “I feel like a start up. I am very much hustling for dollars and I am the only full-time staff,” said Lefton.

What doesn’t feel like a start-up, however, is the widespread recognition her award-winning organization has received.

Many of the findings in the report also rang true for Lefton. The first finding is that it takes a minimum of $100,000 per year to fully launch a start-up with high growth potential. The second finding is that start-up budgets grow very rapidly in their early years, but healthy budgetary growth is not always linear. For example, start-ups can reach a budget of $750,000 by year seven, over $1 million by year 10, and well over $2 million by year 14.

“I find this to be very true to what we’re experiencing now,” said Lefton. “Our budget all of a sudden doubled this year. On the one hand, this is amazing, but on the other hand, it means we very quickly have to go from one staffer to probably three or four, which is a lot of management growth and the exponential growth is going to be challenging.”

Among the various recommendations given, Abundant Harvest suggests the creation of a new communal function to support post-start-ups.

“I appreciated the notion that post-start-up growth does not rest solely in the hands of the organization. It is a communal responsibility that requires marrying the interests of the funders, stakeholders and service recipients to really fully form an organization in the post-start-up phase,” said Rochelle Shoretz, Founder and Executive Director of Sharsheret, a national nonprofit organization supporting young Jewish women and their families facing breast cancer.

“When an organization first launches it can often be the baby of the founder, but by the time it gets to the post-start-up phase, it no longer belongs to one person. It is owned by the community. If it is to be healthy it is to be nourished by the community in its entirety,” continued Shoretz, who started Sharsheret in 2001 from her attic with only the support of a network of volunteers. Today, the New Jersey-based organization has a full-time staff of 14, as well as thousands of volunteers from across the country.

Like many Jewish start-ups, Sharsheret was an “incubatee” at Bikkurim and Shoretz is currently a board member and a former Joshua Venture Fellow, a group that invests in “groundbreaking ventures in the Jewish world.” Lefton, of G-dcast is a current Joshua Venture Fellow.

But Bikkurim and Joshua Venture are some of the rare few working specifically in the start-up arena and according to Abundant Harvest, nothing currently exists in the community to solely support post-start-ups, which is something those approaching this tricky phase of development feel is essential.

The way Lefton sees it, “putting sustained support – whether that is financial or capacity building or moral support – into an organization doesn’t mean two years. It means four, five, six years. I think all of us feel this really intensely in this start-up phase. It is so meaningful when a funder or support organization say they are with us longer term because you don’t go from idea to successful multinational nonprofit. It takes time. The incubating world knows this, but to the funding world I would say, ‘We need your patience and support for more than a few years.’”

One recommendation Kanfer Rolnick would like the community to pursue that is missing in the report is organizations joining forces.

“The one dimension that was under-attended to was the notion that post-start-up organizations have another option beyond going to scale as a stand-alone. I would like to understand better the conditions under which these organizations can successfully be ‘acquired’ by organizations with greater infrastructure already in place,” said Kanfer Rolnick. “What does this business development path look like for the potential acquiring organizations? What would being acquired look like for the leaders and teams within the post-start-ups? What recommendations do we have for both of them to succeed in their integration?”

For Shoretz of Sharsheret, the underlying message of the report is that looking ahead and planning accordingly must be an ongoing part of the communal agenda.

“I think the next itineration of this study is that we need to now start thinking about what is next after post-start-up. That might be premature, but we are in this situation now because we did not start thinking about post-start-ups earlier,” she said. “I would love to see us become more proactive and less reactive. That’s what is missing in the Jewish communal landscape. Now is the time to start thinking about the next reiteration of the organization.”

As the initiators of the report noted, its underlying goal is to instigate reflection, discussion and change.

“We are committed to going beyond these first discussions so this is just the beginning,” said Kanfer Rolnick. “And hopefully we’ll be able to articulate a clear and compelling case for others in the broader community to join us and enrich what we’re up to.”