LEADING UP to Chanukah, 2014, former Hasbro toy and game company employee Neal Hoffman conducted a successful Kickstarter online crowdfunding campaign to get out his new product, Mensch on a Bench. The Cincinnati resident was readying for an even bigger stage: national TV.
Hoffman’s toy-and-book set based on the story of the character Moshe the Mensch sold more than 50,000 units, generating close to $1 million in revenue.
The product a Jewish take on the famed Elf on a Shelf Christmas toy has distribution in Target, Michaels, Bed Bath & Beyond, Toys R Us, Barnes & Noble and Hallmark.
That kind of success can only mean one thing: an appearance on the ABC networks popular Shark Tank program, in which entrepreneur contestants seek funding for their ventures from high-profile investors.
The Shark Tank segment aired Dec. 12, 2014.
”I remember smiling ear to ear walking down the hallway and thinking to myself, I did it,” Hoffman says regarding his entrance into the Shark Tank set.
Hoffman has common ground with one of the sharks, investor Mark Cuban, in that both are Jewish — something Hoffman thought might give him an inside track to scoring a deal with Cuban, the owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks. Cuban not only passed on the opportunity but also teased the product. Undeterred, Hoffman solicited the interest of three other sharks.
After being offered $150,000 for a 30% stake in his company by sharks Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec a tandem that outbid Barbara Corcoran, who despite not securing a deal offered advice on the design of Hoffmans product, Hoffman went from part-time dreamer to full-time Mensch on a Bench employee.
”I am a huge fan of the show. I still cannot believe that it happened,” Hoffman says.
THE IDEA for Mensch on a Bench came while he was walking through the store with my son and he asked for an Elf on a Shelf. Hoffman was concerned that his children would not have a religiously relevant holiday toy like the elf enjoyed by their Christian friends.
”I really wanted something to reinforce Judaism,” he says.
Though the Mensch started as a laughing reply to his son Jacob’s request, Hoffman soon began to think of possibilities for making Moshe come to life.
”First came the name [Moshe the Mensch], which I fell in love with,” Hoffman says.
After writing the story of Moshe, Hoffman first read the tale to Jacob. Once securing his son’s approval, he began designing the prototype of Moshe.
”Originally I was not sure if this was something just for the Hoffman house,” admits the entrepreneur, ”or if it was something I wanted to launch mainstream.”
As more people began to hear and embrace Moshe’s story, Hoffman was emboldened and began to reach out.
“We funded the original project via Kickstarter to test out the idea,” he says, noting that many of the donations came in Jewishly appropriate denominations of $18.
”My mom loved the idea and my wife loved the idea, but I needed someone to love the idea who did not love me. Kickstarter allowed us to raise the funds to make the first thousand Mensches, illustrate and produce the book, and not dip too deep into the kids’ college funds.”
EACH MENSCH on a Bench set includes a full-color hardcover book that tells the story of Moshe, a do-gooder who demonstrates the way to keep Chanukah and the rest of the year bright through good deeds. Each set also includes Moshe, a stuffed toy, and a bench on which he can sit while he watches over the family that owns him.
The first Mensches did not arrive at Hoffmans house until one week before Chanukah, 2014. ”We stayed up all night packing them up and shipping them out to make sure everyone got them on time,” he says, citing what he believes is a modern-day Chanukah miracle.
Hoffman appeared on The Today Show and The View — and the products first batch sold out in 10 days.
”We knew within a week of launching that we had a hit on our hands,” Hoffman says. ”From there, we showed it to retailers and they all said they wanted the Mensch.”
Not surprisingly, the products status has been further elevated by the Shark Tank appearance. Since the episodes airing, Hoffman says that our awareness levels have gone through the roof.
”We have gone from an unknown to a household name in 24 months, which is every toymaker’s dream,” he says.
”We are trying to expand from a toy into a brand in 2015.”