This Mensch may have started on a bench, but now he’s conquering the retail world.
You may know Moshe, AKA the Mensch on a Bench, from his star-making appearance on season six of “Shark Tank” in 2014. Two years later, we’re starting to find out more about Moshe’s history.
Neal Hoffman, 39, is the brains behind the doll and storybook that have become the Jewish counterpart to the popular Christmas accessory Elf on the Shelf.
In an interview with Heavy, Hoffman, a former Hasbro toy executive, said he originally just wanted his sons to stop begging for Christmas decorations and toys for their house.
“Every December we go through the December Dilemma of my son wanting Christmas items in our home,” he said. “When he asked for an elf, my first thought was, ‘No, because we are Jewish.’ But after thinking about it for a second, I didn’t want to say ‘No,’ I wanted to come up with an alternative.”
And so Moshe, the Mensch on a Bench, was born.
Hoffman created his own story line and design, and opened a Kickstarter campaign for Moshe in March 2013. According to the legend, Moshe helped the Maccabees by watching over the Hanukkah oil as it burned for eight days and nights.
For most of his professional life, Hoffman, a self-described “kid at heart,” just wanted to work with toys. On his first day of MBA classes at the University of Virginia, he called Hasbro and offered to work for them for free. One call turned into six years of work with Hasbro’s marketing department on lines like G.I. Joe and Tonka Toys.
He left the job in 2011, when his wife got a promotion and the family moved to Cincinnati. The move and new free time gave him the flexibility to create Moshe.
After raising about $22,000 on Kickstarter, he started selling the plush Mensches in October 2013. The 1,000 original units sold out in just 10 days, and Hoffman knew he had a star on his hands.
Then, four days before Hannukah in 2014, Hoffman (and Moshe) appeared on Shark Tank. After his pitch, sales spiked across the country.
This could have been chalked up to the “’Shark Tank’ effect,” which boosts sales for just about any product pitched on the show, whether or not it gets funding.
But Moshe kept selling. The Mensch on a Bench sold out on Amazon and in stores. That year, it was the top-selling Hannukah-related product at Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond, according to Hoffman.
“It was awesome,” Hoffman told Entrepreneur. “It was crazy.”
Audiences didn’t see the panic behind the scenes, though, when a leaky bathtub almost drowned Hoffman’s dreams. The day before the episode aired, as Hoffman prepared for sales to come flowing in, a bathtub in his house overflowed and fried his computer.
“The day before I was on ‘Shark Tank’, I spent in Best Buy, in tears,” Hoffman said.
Luckily, both the idea and the Mensch survived the flood. Sales in 2014 reached $900,000—and Hoffman got backing from two Sharks, software expert Robert Herjavec and retail guru Lori Greiner. The two invested $150,000 in the Mensch.
Not all the sharks had kind words for Moshe—or his creator—at the time, though.
“Do this as a hobby and extract a million bucks over the next few years for yourself,” investor Kevin O’Leary told Hoffman. “Don’t quit your day job.”
A Mensch Makeover
But the “hobby” has turned into much more. Now Hoffman and his Sharks are working on turning Moshe into a long-term brand, instead of a one-hit wonder.
“One of the issues I am having as I move forward with Mensch is how quickly do we expand and in what direction,” Hoffman said.
To solve that problem, he’s explored options like partnering with the popular Elf Yourself app. The company has also branched out into other products, like plush dreidels and a hot cocoa brand.
“The Mensch app with Elf Yourself was a huge hit and people flocked to our Mensch Munch candy bars!” he said earlier this year. “It was hilarious and heartwarming to see all the different ways that families incorporate Mensches into their lives.”
The Mensch on a Bench underwent some cosmetic surgery in 2015. The new redesign helps Moshe appear friendlier, after Barbara Corcoran said he looked “scary” on the show.
He also gained a new friend in Hannah the Hanukkah Hero, a female mensch with a role in the Hanukkah legend. Hoffman says 2016 will be the “year of the female Mensch.”
“Before ‘Shark Tank,’ only 2,000 families had Mensches,” said Hoffman. “Now we have over 100,000 families creating new traditions together using the Mensch. It has been amazing to see the Jewish community rally around us!”