I spoke with Neal Hoffman prior to his appearance in the Shark Tank Holiday special. He was just headed home to his family in Cincinnati after a promotional road trip. Hoffman is the guy behind the Jewish answer to Elf on a Shelf: the Mensch on a Bench. Last holiday season, Mensch on a Bench was the hottest non-Christmas holiday product around. In one year, the Mensch on a Bench became THE must-have Hanukkah product. He shared his background, his methods for getting the Mensch a lot of media attention, and his thought on his upcoming Shark Tank appearance.
Mr. Hoffman is a native of Marblehead, Massachusetts who earned his MBA from the University of Virginia. After college, he went to work at HASBRO toys, a job he got by offering to work for free to start. After six years at HASBRO, the Hoffmans packed up and moved to Cincinnati where Mrs. Hoffman got a new job in the marketing department at Proctor and Gamble. This is where the Mensch on a Bench was born. When his son asked for an Elf on a Shelf, he remarked “Jews don't have Elves on Shelves, we have Mensches on Benches!” That comment sparked the idea for Moshe: the Mensch on a Bench.
The Origins of Moshe
Neal got his business going like a lot of Shark Tank entrepreneurs: he ran a successful Kickstarter campaign. “I'm a big fan of the show,” he explains, “my wife and I watch it and we'll pause and talk about the product and the pitches. I think a lot of people watch the show that way – it sparks discussion. I thought about applying for Shark Tank when I first started, but I decided to hold off until after Kickstarter. I wanted to be able to show I had some sales.”
A funny thing happened after his Kickstarter campaign got funded, Neal Hoffman and Moshe the Mensch became celebrities in their own right.
“I basically hustled. I sent samples and press releases to The Today Show, Ellen, Good Morning America and a bunch of local TV affiliates. CBS in Boston picked up the story and things sort of blew up after that. The Today Show called and invited me on; after that, the rest fell into line. That kind of exposure is huge. I actually had people pre-ordering after that. They were willing to order in January and wait until May for delivery – all for a product they couldn't really use until the following holiday season. That's when I knew we had something. The other thing is, when you walk into a retailer and tell them you were on The Today Show, it helps opening doors. I was on again this year, too. The ‘gold standard' for a toy company is getting on the morning network shows, I did it in back to back years. Now, we're in Target, Barnes and Noble, Toys R Us – we're everywhere.”
Neal Hoffman also benefited from his experience at HASBRO. “What HASBRO taught me is when I was developing the concept, I knew we needed a story to go along with the cute name. That's where the idea for the book about Moshe minding the oil for the Maccabees came from. HASBRO also taught me a lot about the logistics of getting and selling into retail. It also taught me how to manage risk, so we don't hold a lot of inventory; we'll sell 50,000 units but we don't stockpile. In many ways we're just a small family business, even though it feels like we're growing like crazy.”
“As a business, it isn't that good when you think about it. I have a product that I can sell to 3% of the population for 6-8 weeks out of the year, but Hanukkah products are unique. Hanukkah is really a minor holiday in the Jewish faith. Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana, and Passover are much bigger. I think that's why there aren't a lot of Hanukkah related holiday products. What's happening is, Hanukkah falls near Christmas and there is a lot of pressure to bring non-Jewish traditions into the home. That's why I created Mensch on a Bench.”
“Coming out after Elf on a Shelf makes a big difference, too. People knew the concept. Social media helps as well. Instead of one mom telling another about this cool new toy, she posts it on Facebook and tells 500 people. What used to take ten years to get the word out only takes ten days. I also use social media a lot. I respond to every Tweet and Facebook post as Moshe. People get a kick out of it.”
The Mensch in the Tank
“Like I said, I wanted to apply after we had some sales. I went the regular route and sent in an application. They called and did a phone interview, then asked me to send a video. From that point on, there was near constant anxiety. When they called me to tape in September, I was excited, but still very anxious. In the months leading up to taping, I was in a near constant state of anxiety. By the time I walked down the hall, I was totally numb to it, but I was still biting my nails all last week.”
“I think I may be the most over prepared entrepreneur in the history of Shark Tank. I read all the Shark's books, watched every episode, read all the blogs, listened to all the podcasts; even then, I still wasn't completely prepared for the experience. Don't think you can over prepare, I was humbled by the experience. Going in, I didn't take into account that all five of them are smarter than me. For me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, for them its ‘NEXT.' I hadn't prepared for every question – the intelligence factor of the Sharks is something I didn't anticipate.”
“Of course, when I taped, I hoped we would be on the ‘holiday episode,' but I didn't know if they were even going to have one. I wanted to air before Hanukkah because I have a lot of inventory I want to sell. The worst thing, other than not airing at all, would be if I aired in January, but I knew there were risks going on the show.”
“I was a little disappointed Daymond wasn't on the panel. He has his own “Jew crew” with Soundbender and Hanukkah Tree Topper. It would have been neat to join that club. The Sharks were impressive. Kevin and Mark were pretty true to form. Barbara has a very strong presence, you can tell she's a solid business woman. Lori was something else, she has a movie star-like quality about her in person. I think Robert intimidated me the most. He has the most piercing eyes, it felt like he was looking right through me.”
“One thing I knew is that I wasn't going to get caught up on numbers. I knew my margins, costs, customer acquisition costs and all that stuff, so I felt prepared. I specifically prepared for Kevin, due to his toy industry background. I have some other products in development for next year, so I went there wanting to do a deal. We are a family business and I wanted a Shark who could be part of the family.”
“Two of my favorite products and entrepreneurs on the show were Mori from Hanukkah Tree Topper and Ryan from Ryan's Barkery. I liked Mori because he had the right balance between schtick and business. I liked Ryan because his was a family business and I felt like I could root for him.”
I asked Neal if he had any advice for would-be entrepreneurs. Here's what he had to say:
“I know it sounds corny, but if you are going into business, make sure you love what you do because it is going to take over your entire life. People say it all the time – you need to be passionate about your business; it's because you spend so much time with it. For instance, my wife's been saying she wants a third child, an I tell her the Mensch on a Bench is our third child.”
I had one more question for Neal Hoffman. He answers it on The Hot Dog Truck.