Does the Mensch Have Staying Power?

Appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek print edition

Oct. 25, 2016 (link)

By Matt Townsend

Neal Hoffman thought he’d hit the jackpot in December 2014 when he appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank and persuaded two of the show’s celebrity investors to buy $75,000 stakes in the Mensch on a Bench, a Jewish riff on the popular Christmas franchise Elf on the Shelf.

Tens of thousands of entrepreneurs vie to get their ideas on the hit show every year, hoping the exposure will supercharge their businesses. That’s exactly what it did for Hoffman as sales of his bearded Hanukkah dolls surged ninefold, to $900,000. The Cincinnati-based businessman was elated, but that feeling soon turned to fear that he might become a one-hit wonder like other contestants. (Remember ShowNo Towels and Toygaroo?) “You get the initial press bump, then after a few years it goes away,” says the 39-year-old. “The challenge was, how do you turn this from a product into a brand?”

Mensch was successful because it brought much-needed novelty to the Hanukkah aisles at big-box retailers that were filled with run-of-the-mill candles and dreidels, Hoffman says. Plus, mixing Christmas and Hanukkah was becoming less taboo for interfaith families like his own—Hoffman is Jewish, and his wife is Christian—as evidenced by the emergence of products like Hanukkah gingerbread houses and menorah trees.

Hoffman’s journey from toy industry executive—he worked at Hasbro for six years—to small-business owner began four years ago with a holiday shopping trip to a Nordstrom department store, where his son spied an Elf on the Shelf and asked for it. The brainchild of a mother and her two daughters, Elf on the Shelf made his debut a decade ago and has since become a Christmas staple. The doll comes with a book that tells the story of one of Santa’s helpers, whose job is to report on whether kids are being naughty or nice. Parents move the elf to a new location each night, so children must hunt anew for it each morning. Hoffman nixed the purchase but jokingly told his son “you can do a mensch on a bench, you’re Jewish.”

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