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September 16, 2011

The billboard revolution

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/the_billboard_revolution_20110916

If you’ve driven down La Cienega Boulevard recently, you may have noticed a large billboard that says, “Free Gilad Shalit.”

What you may not have seen was the small print at the bottom of the billboard that says, “35 people crowd-funded this billboard using EpicStep.com.” 

Created by two business-minded 28-year-olds from the San Fernando Valley, the new crowd-funding Web site allows anybody to pitch an idea for a billboard and collect pledges online to get the billboard funded and up in their city. 

“Almost anybody can get a billboard up, but most people don’t know that,” said Lev Reys, a Valley Village resident and co-founder of

EpicStep.com, along with partner Gene Veksler. “Most people don’t have the funds or the passion to take $5,000 or $10,000 out of their accounts to fund one. We figured, ‘Why not break up the costs?’ ”

As soon as someone launches a campaign on EpicStep.com, Reys and Veksler contact companies that own billboard space and inquire about availability and cost to get the proposed billboard up.

Once they are given a price — which they say is a discounted figure from what billboards usually cost, given the relationships they have built with companies like Clear Channel and CBS — a target fundraising figure is listed on the Web page for the campaign. The organizer has 30 days to meet that target. If a campaign hasn’t reached its fundraising goal by the deadline, the campaign is canceled and everyone who pledged gets his/her money back.

Those who pledge funds can also pitch designs for the billboard and vote for their favorite one. Billboards funded through EpicStep.com remain up for approximately one month.

Since EpicStep launched in March, two billboards have been successfully funded calling for the release of Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas — one in Los Angeles and one in New York — as well as a pro-WikiLeaks billboard and a billboard that advocates for SWAAY.org, a sex-worker education Web site.

A proposed pro-Charlie Sheen billboard that read, “Newsflash, I’m Special” and a Lakers billboard, which was set to go up in New Orleans when the Lakers were playing the Hornets in the playoffs last year, were among the campaigns that didn’t make it to fruition.

Reys and Veksler, who are both from Jewish Russian immigrant families, met in their sophomore year of high school. Veksler attended Valley Alternative Magnet in Lake Balboa and Reys was a student at Grant High School in Van Nuys.

Recently, over drinks in the lobby at the Marriot hotel in Sherman Oaks, Reys discussed why founding a company with a friend beats working in a traditional office.

“We’ve been working together for three, four years now, and I consider him my best friend,” Reys said. “I’ve had other partners in the past, but we kind of just fill in each other’s gaps. I can call him whenever the hell I feel like it. I can wake him up.”

Reys — who previously ran a coffee shop in North Hollywood and had a mobile billboard business — has idealistic reasons for starting EpicStep, which offers people unprecedented access to mass advertising to further a cause.

“This could revolutionize the world,” he said.

The two friends came up with the idea during a drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix, when all they saw were billboards advertising product after product.

“Every billboard we saw was something being sold,” Reys said. “We were kind of shocked that there weren’t more causes on billboards.”

They ran the idea by friends and found that it struck a chord of inspiration.

“Very few people we spoke to said, ‘I would never give money to a billboard,’ ” said Veksler, who recently left a job with Capital Group Cos. to focus all his attention on EpicStep. “For the most part, people said it’s a great idea.”

Running the site is a full-time job for Reys and Veksler, who invested approximately $50,000 into developing the Web site — working with Veksler’s older brother, Eugene, and another friend, Igor Rashnitsov — and their compensation is 10 percent of the total amount raised for each successful billboard campaign. They hope to make EpicStep available worldwide, but, as of now, it’s only for cities in the United States.

The Web site is still in its infancy, the young founders said, and they agree that what EpicStep needs is more users.

“We need more people to know that we exist,” Veksler said, “that this is even a possibility.”

Perhaps they could put up a billboard.

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