Mensch On A Bench Sits On More Shelves This Holiday Season
The Elf on the Shelf might need to scoot over a little bit more this coming holiday season. It’s time to make more room for Mensch on a Bench, the Neal Hoffman creation that gained attention on Shark Tank in 2014, and previously was featured here and here on Wall Street Insanity.
During the 2015 holiday season, it appears that Mensch on a Bench will feature more prominently on store shelves, in some instances as part of an entire Hanukkah section. This season, the Mensch can be found adding cheerfulness to shelves at Barnes & Noble, Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Party City, local Hallmark stores and Michael’s. “Our goal is to be in the Hanukkah section, not to be next to Elf on The Shelf,” Hoffman tells Wall Street Insanity.
“We’re not in all stores,” he explains. “Nor do we want to be … In New York, for example, there’s a big Hanukkah section and we’re a big part of it. In North Dakota, there are no Mensches because there’s no Hanukah section.” That’s when customers can order online, and have Mensches packaged by Hoffman himself. Products are sent to homes everywhere from North Dakota to Hawaii. The company is looking to ship to Europe and Mexico next year.
Building the Mensch brand.
Now that Mensches are in every store Hoffman wanted to see them in, he is explicitly focused on expanding the product’s presence within stores. This year, there’s a Mensch Menorah that sings, teaching children Hanukkah prayers. There’s a plush dreidel, an activity kit in Target, and candy bars in some stores.
As more products are being sold, Hoffman is conscious of moving too fast. “I want to stay with items that are core to Hanukkah and have an educational element to them. We don’t want to go crazy.”
Through his creation of new items, Neal has seen endless opportunities to create. There have been opportunities to market Mensch cups, wine toppers, aprons, etc. However, it appears that Hoffman is focused on staying true to the holiday, and adding fun elements slowly, and with discretion.
All of this is part of Hoffman’s effort to go from “a product to a brand and impact more and more Jewish families. We’re setting down that path and we’ll continue. We’ve also sold the rights to our book to a movie studio out in L.A. We’re now pitching networks to get a cartoon going next year. We have a vision of adding more meaningful Jewish moments to the holiday.”
Mensch goes Hollywood.
As we speak, Hoffman is pitching his product-related TV show to networks. He hopes to broaden the story included in the Mensch on a Bench book, and transform it into something that speaks generally to the value in simply being a good person. The goal is to have it appear on TV screens as early as next holiday season. He says networks seem to love the idea, and recognize a need for it.
In the meantime, Mensch has already found another way to showcase the brand in a fun and unique fashion: through an app. The Elf Yourself app is popular nearly every holiday season, and Hoffman seized on its appeal to bring something relevant to those who celebrate Hanukkah.
Thanks to his “dream big” sensibilities, he was able to forge a partnership with the Office Depot-owned app with just a phone call. “Honestly, I just looked up who created the app for them, and called them up and asked if we could do something similar for our product.” He was faced with sticker shock, but resolved to keep trying. He asked if they could introduce him to Office Depot, and the process began.
Hoffman explains that his call with Office Depot was no different from any of his other pitches. “I always start out saying, please let me go through two seconds of this before you hang up. I’m the Mensch on a Bench guy. Jewish alternative to Elf on a Shelf.” Office Depot liked it, and worked quickly to put together a deal that put the Mensch on a Bench on people’s phones. “They’ve been so wonderful,” Hoffman says. “We went to New York, worked in a studio, had choreographers and dancers, including the choreographer for one of the top hip-hop artists out there, and I was so amazed at the resources put behind my little crazy idea. It’s just a message of perseverance.”
A big small business.
Through the studio visits and Hollywood negotiations, Hoffman still remains humble. “I’m still a small business,” he tells Wall Street Insanity. “I like to say, we play bigger than we are. We’re still a one-man operation.”
This is no exaggeration. In spite of its prominence in stores, online, and potentially on TV screens, Neal still runs his shop at his house. His basement is filled with his products. He has three, five-foot Mensches in his home for his kids to lay on. And he continues to do almost everything on his own, including accounting and PR. He explains that, as a “niche business, we’re going to stay small for now. We’re not going to go out and buy a big office building with a huge staff. That’s how you go bankrupt.”
Neal quit his full-time job to make Mensches full time, and savors the opportunity to be hands-on with his product. His cell phone number is the customer service number, and he talks to every customer who calls. This is what he says he loves about the business. He cites a quote he’s heard, “Entrepreneurship is working 100 hours a week so you don’t have to work 30 hours a week for someone else.” For him, that’s exactly what this is.
The authenticity of his product is something he prides himself on. Hoffman’s goal is to keep the product popular, but never bigger than the holiday. The personal interaction and small-business feel of Mensch on a Bench is what Hoffman believes keeps it popular. “I don’t think it would work as well if a major business did it,” he adds.
“Shark Tank” — because it has to come up.
Neal gets asked a lot about his appearance on the December 2014 holiday edition of Shark Tank. He received investments from Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec. They collectively contributed $150,000 for a fifteen percent stake, which Hoffman promised he would return to them within three years.
Today, Lori and Robert serve in an advisory role. Neal is, self-admittedly, very independent. “I’m going to call you if I have a problem, but I’m not going to be high maintenance,” he explains. “Lori is a great product person, so she’s very involved on the product side. She’s helping with products for next year, which I can’t say too much about. But they’re going to be very mindful of the holiday. Lori inspired the main, big item for next year.” He adds that she’s extremely accessible, talking to him on the phone until midnight as they sort through business ideas and concerns.
Hoffman sustains his relationship with Robert, but speaks with him less. “This week, I had an issue with a retailer not sending the product out to stores,” Hoffman tells Wall Street Insanity. It was what he describes as a $100,000 issue. Robert was able to step in on Hoffman’s behalf to help resolve the matter. Hoffman also does annual reviews with Robert and Lori alike, receiving valuable guidance on pacing and focusing on one product at a time.
He has taken every piece of constructive criticism from the show to heart, having changed the face of the Mensch to look “nicer. The doll was good, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been.” Moving into next year, there’s still more feedback coming from Lori and Robert as they suggest new ideas, and encourage Hoffman to adequately space out the release and implementation of his ideas.
The Mensch moves forward.
Neal is still focused on turning his product into more of a brand. The strides already taken through the app and potential tv show are just the beginning. “Ultimately, my goal is that when you walk into any major retailer, there’s a four-foot Mensch section. It’s got your Menorahs, your dreidels, your candy, your dolls, your wrapping paper. We’re not trying to be a $20 million company. We want to break your $2 million mark, your $3 million mark.” Understandably, the greatest challenge is setting and achieving these goals with only a brief holiday season in which to see results.
Still, everything is “really going according to plan,” Hoffman says excitedly. “Everything’s happening in year two or three, even though I had a five-year plan. So now, it’s how big can we dream?”
With lofty ambitions and Neal’s ability to see every vision he has had come to fruition, it’s likely you’ll be seeing lots more Mensches and related products this holiday season. The Elf on a Shelf finally has some company.