mensch on a benchWhat started out as a limited quantity Kickstarter campaign based on the insight of a five-year-old Jewish child is about to become one of the “must-have” gifts for Jewish and interfaith families this holiday season. Sold out last Hanukkah in just 10 days, THE MENSCH ON A BENCHTM, is now available at retailers such as: Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, Michaels, Barnes & Noble, Toys”R”Us, and more.

I recently met with Neal Hoffman, former toy marketing executive turned entrepreneur, to learn more about the business that went from basement to big box in just over one year. Having recently left his corporate job, Hoffman says he is now “full-time mensching” and living out his version of the American dream- complete with an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank this Friday. And it seems that his customers are having *almost* as much fun as he is. What is the magic behind the Mensch on a Bench brand?

Q. Give us a quick recap on how you got the idea for this product.

I am Jewish and my wife is Catholic and we are raising our kids Jewish. Hence, December becomes a tough time for us- we call it the “December dilemma.” A few years ago, we were shopping at the local mall and my son asked us if we could buy an Elf on the ShelfTM. In jest, I responded that we celebrate Hanukkah and so I he could have a “mensch on a bench”

I was inspired. I typed up a whole story surrounding the concept of the mensch a few days later and read it to my son. I couldn’t stop thinking about the different scenarios that would work with the mensch- my vision- and my passion- for this concept continued to grow. My wife told me “stop talking about it and just do it.” I went ahead and trademarked it…three days before someone else submitted exactly the same name.

I used some of our savings and created a logo, trademark, video to get a Kickstarter campaign up and running. And from there we raised $22K. I started by selling 300 on Kickstarter and then I set a goal on October 31st of selling out of the 1000 Mensches we made. We were sold out by November 9th, 2013. We couldn’t meet the demand so we went to the retailers and they loved it too.

Q: What kind of feedback and reactions have you received from customers?

When I was initially selling the Mensch on Kickstarter, it was challenging to drive traffic to the site. That was the hardest I have ever worked in my life. I sent personal emails to every single connection I had on my social networks, bloggers, journalists. There was a lot of self-doubt at that point until I later realized that the key was context and timing and when those two aligned- then the floodgates opened.

Since Fall, I have been inundated with emails and photos of kids reading their books with grandparents, sharing the Mensch at school. My original vision had been realized. We have struck a nerve with these customers and the Mensch on the Bench has become a part of their families.

Q: How did you scale the business from a small operation out of your basement to big box retail?

It wasn’t that hard to scale, once you’ve made 1000- manufacturing 50k wasn’t that big of a deal. The tough part was scaling in social media. I respond to every single post, message. I call myself the Beetlejuice of twitter, you say my name and I appear. I am the voice of Moshe the Mensch- he is fun and sarcastic on twitter, but my voice is sincere and thankful on Facebook. It’s knowing the platforms and having the right voice for each of these platforms. I can only create so much content- I rely on user generated content that is mensch inspired. I now have 12k people coming up with ideas that are amazing.

Q. Since the mensch hit the market, how have you connected with customers?

Last year I was so desperate to jumpstart this phenomenon. And there were only 1000 of them out there- I just didn’t have enough “buzz” out there. So I sent free products to some mommy bloggers and hosted a contest where customers could submit photos and videos of their Mensch in action.

Q: What does the future hold for the Mensch on a Bench?

Short term- by next year, I want you to walk into a store like target BBB, and there will be a section of mensch themed stuff- chocolate, dreidls, etc. There is no cool and current “character” intellectual property in Judaism. It seems to me that there is some room to have some fun with it and create engaging characters that bring kids into the religion.

Q: Can you give us a preview your debut on Shark Tank?

I’m a huge fan of the show and taking Mensch on a Bench to Shark Tank was a goal from the start. I went into the room as the most prepared entrepreneur in the world- I did my homework. The Sharks are smarter and certainly richer than me- the only competitive advantage I could go into that room with is knowledge. As prepared as you are, I don’t know how you can really be prepared for five successful, smart celebrities asking questions simultaneously. I had dreamed of walking down the hallway so many times…and I made it.