Two years ago, father of two Neal Hoffman and his son Jacob were doing some holiday shopping, when the little boy asked if they could get an "Elf on the Shelf." Hoffman jokingly replied "'Dude, we're Jewish. You can’t have an elf on a shelf; you can have a mensch on a bench.'"
The exchange was a prime example of what toy maker Hoffman describes as his interfaith family's annual "December Dilemma." (Hoffman is Jewish, wife Erin is Catholic and they are raising their sons Jewish.)
Hoffman -- who spent six years working at Hasbro -- mulled over the name and his imagination started to run wild. He came up with a backstory for his potential "Mensch on a Bench" idea, envisioning him as a kindly man who volunteered to watch over the oil in the temple for the eight days for the Maccabees. He couldn't stop thinking about his concept. He quickly wrote an accompanying book manuscript focused on the tale of Hanukkah to go along with the toy. It was Mensch on a Bench all day, every day.
His wife encouraged him to pursue the idea. So, he trademarked the name which ended up being the first stroke of good luck in Hoffman's story. "Someone tried to trademark it three days later."
With the whole family on board, the Hoffmans took to Kickstarter in the spring of 2013 and raised over $22,000, selling out of their first run of 1,000 in 10 days. With this market validation, his vision became a reality.
Hoffman's Mensch on a Bench is named Mosche. Standing at a foot tall, he has a distinguished grey beard, a white prayer shawl, a black shirt and blue suit. Grinning from ear to ear, he holds a candle in his right hand. In Yiddish, Mensch means a person with dignity and integrity, essentially a good egg.
In little over a year, this toy went from a Kickstarter project to a major hit this holiday season. In 2014, more than 50,000 were made and are being sold in major retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond, Barnes and Noble and Target. Hoffman attributes the word of mouth and social media promotion to the brand's success.
"I love being on social media, I respond to every single tweet, every single comment," he says. "Every one of my customers becomes a public advocate."
Besides connecting with customers, Hoffman also turned to friends and former colleagues for help – asking them to pitch in on everything from packaging to PR.
"It is the most personal thing to me. That's what I love being about an entrepreneur, there are no days of the week anymore," he says. "I don't dread Sunday nights anymore, the way I did when I was working an office job…its Mensch time 24/7, and I love it."
Hoffman sees a future for the company that includes licensing for other Hanukkah-centric items like chocolate gelt, candles, wrapping paper and dreidles -- all of which are in the works to be available to customers next year. But before this product roadmap is realized, Hoffman has one major milestone to achieve: swimming with the sharks.
"The dream was to be on Shark Tank during their holiday show," he says. "This product was custom made to be on the show."
And this Friday, Hoffman's dream is coming to fruition, as he will be pitching Mensch on a Bench on the series in hopes of getting interest (and money) from the sharks.
Of his preparation for the episode, Hoffman says he read everything he could about each of the judges. When it came time to present them with their own Mensch on a Bench, he personalized each of the books with a note that referenced something from their careers.
Regardless if the sharks bite, Hoffman continues to have his eye on the big picture. When asked about the Elf on the Shelf's recent outing as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon (and if that gig could be in Mosche's future), Hoffman replied with a laugh, "I called Macy's a year ago…I think we might just start with a Mensch on the Bench costume in the parade and eventually get to the balloon…things like the parade are right up our alley."
But in the end, it all comes back to values. "I love that our core tenets are about bringing families together, driving education and teaching kids how to be good people…It’s the great karma of my life that Jacob Maccabee Hoffman inspired Mensch on a Bench."