- Company: Mensch on a Bench
- Product: Jewish-themed plush doll and book (a holiday seasonal product)
- Asking Price: $150,000 for $10%
- Final Deal: $150,000 for 15%, with guaranteed investment payback within three years
- Sharks Who Took The Bait: Lori & Robert (joint deal)
- Season/Episode: Season 6, Episode 12
Shalom Is Where the Heart Is
Oy Vey, Bubbeleh! The world has Neal Hoffman of Cincinnati, OH, to thank for this delightful Yiddish riddle of an episode, falling just a little more than halfway through an otherwise drab, if not playfully antisemitic, Season 6 of Shark Tank. Luckily for us, the greatness of this episode is nothing compared to the greatness of the toy itself. Just look at the product line it inspired. (Scroll down to see the full catalog for this wonderfully original children’s brand.)
Hoffman is the former Hasbro executive, inventor, and unintentionally hilarious mastermind behind the Elf-on-a-Shelf Jewish alternative that absolutely nobody asked for, Mensch on a Bench.
Nobody asked for it, but as it turns out, everyone needed it.
Like all great things, the idea of Moshe the Mensch seemed absurd and impossible right up until the moment it took over the world.
Happy Shark Mitzvah, Bubbeleh.
There’s a word in Yiddish for what Hoffman exudes as he takes the stage, and that word is chutzpah. Beaming adorably, bouncing on his toes, gesturing wildly on a plain stage with no visible props, Neal’s enthusiasm and stage presence speak for him. He makes a strong case for what he sees as a revolutionary Jewish holiday product – because, as every American already knows, being a Jewish kid at Christmas time sucks. Neal’s goal is to make it suck just a little bit less.
“I was walking through the store with my kids one Christmas,” says Neal. “We passed an Elf on a Shelf and my kid wanted to know why we didn’t have an elf in our house. Jews don’t have elves on shelves, I said. They have…” And here, this reporter presumes, a softly glowing cartoon menorah twinkled into existence above Neal’s head, while he stood in the animatronic reindeer aisle of some downtown Cincinnati Toys R Us, having an idea. You can see where this is going.
With charming introductions out of the way, Neal turns the table on the stage to his right to reveal a giant retail display of his product line, including a life-size Mensch doll perched beside a table overflowing with smaller dolls and books.
“Moshe the Mensch can become the centerpiece of your holiday tradition. It will watch over your menorah. Who wants to ‘gelt’ together and make some mensches?” Neal asks, to a largely non-receptive crowd.
It remains to be seen whether his unforgivable Yiddish pun will be forgiven. The sharks laugh and seem charmed by his presentation, however, even if the dolls are terrifying.
Undeterred, Neal plows ahead with his presentation, careful to mention that his product already has tons of support within the Jewish community. He doesn’t want to just sell a seasonal product, he says, but to develop his Mensch on a Bench concept into a credible, beloved Jewish brand.
To do anything else, as Neal Hoffman’s whole life story seems to suggest, would be pure meshuggenah.
A Very Kosher Bottom Line
While Mark Cuban seems to have dropped out mentally somewhere in the first thirty seconds of the presentation, Robert and Kevin are kind enough to ask questions and dig into the financial details of the business.
- Seed Fund: raised $22,000 on Kickstarter
- Production Cost: $7.45 per unit
- Retail Price: Big Box retailers, $29.99; Specialty Stores, $34.99
- Profit Margins: 75-79%
- Projected Sales: $930,000 for 60,000 units ($250,000 in profit)
Neal has already struck distribution deals with Target, Barnes & Noble, Michaels, Toys R Us, and Bed Bath & Beyond. This is impressive, albeit slightly less impressive once you remember that he used to work at Hasbro, has bazillions of connections to the toy industry, and is selling a product that, either consciously or unconsciously, provides Americans an outlet for one of their very favorite holiday pastimes: openly mocking people who celebrate anything other than Santa and Jesus.
Now arrived at the merchandising and sampling segment of the show, Neal continues to sell the sharks on some unconventional perks of the product. Mensch on a Bench, like all beloved children’s toys, comes with a book full of rules. As Neal hands out samples of the book and soft, cuddly samples of the plush doll, the sharks are quick to scrutinize some of the areas where the Mensch is falling short.
“He’s not a good-looking guy. He’s not a fun-looking guy,” say several of the sharks at once, almost in unison. Kevin, meanwhile, doesn’t see this growing into a brand. Robert wants to know how he intends to use the money. Music cues indicate we’ve officially entered the brutal criticism portion of the show. Little by little, the sharks begin to tear into Neal Hoffman, ridiculing his retail figures; mocking his own and, vicariously, Moshe the doll’s manhood; and generally disposing of Neal Hoffman’s dreams like globs of unused matzah dough.
“I think for next year, we’d like to develop an app,” says Neal, by way of a righting the ship and getting things back on track. “Have you seen elf yourself?”
“Yeah, but the guys behind that spent millions of dollars developing it. I know the guys behind it,” says Mark, who is still paying enough attention, apparently, to be mean.
Neal falls silent. Kevin doesn’t let up, either. He says Neal wants a hundred and fifty grand for half-baked marketing ideas. Neal counters that he wants to expand the IP (intellectual property).
“There’s no IP in the Jewish community,” he says. It’s unclear whether Neal grasps the overwhelming irony of what he’s just said, but this is Shark Tank, and there’s no time to think about it.
“There’s Frosty, there’s Santa, there’s elves [for Christmas]. There’s none of that for the Jewish market.”
Needless to say, the sharks are all giving Neal highly skeptical looks at this point. One has a feeling that the bidding is going to be all kinds of fakakta.
A Bissel of Bidding, Bubbeleh.
“Neal, it seems you want to take your potential $150,000 in profit and put it into a whole bunch of enterprises that may not have anywhere near the metrics of success that this thing seems to already have.” From the look on Neal’s face, Kevin has cut pretty deep, but he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that Neal shouldn’t quit his day job. Nor should he be tempted, Kevin warns, to call this more than what it is: a unique hobby for a couple of months.
“I don’t see mensch on a bench as a $10 million toy, I really don’t.” The truth hurts. After a pretty scathing indictment of the entire concept wrapped in an embarrassing display of gentile privilege, Kevin is first to drop out.
Mark Cuban has some fairly harsh criticism for Neal as well, saying that even after asking plenty of questions, he still has no idea how Neal plans to actually grow the company. “It seems like you want to grow yourself into bankruptcy,” says Cuban. Mark drops out unceremoniously.
Next up is Robert, who goes out of his way to be kind up front, saying that the Croatian community and the Jewish community share a lot in common. He loves the idea, but thinks that much of Neal’s presentation and vision for the future are still realistically three or four years out. Nonetheless, he’s interested.
“There’s an old Yiddish saying that says, ‘How it begins is how it ends.'” With all this in mind, Robert and Lori team up to make Neal an offer. Their deal is $150,000 for 30%.
Neal and the two sharks go back and forth for a moment. Neal counters that the company has a proven track record of profitability. He thinks 15% is fair, and makes a counter-offer: $150,000 for the original 15%, but with a personal guarantee that they make back their full investment within three years. “If I have to take out a second mortgage, I’ll do it.”
“Neal, that won’t be necessary because I’m going to make you a better offer,” says Barbara, seemingly out of nowhere. All heads swivel toward Barb Shark as she proceeds with her offer.
“I’m going to give you $150,000 for 20%, and I don’t need any guarantees. But it does come with a couple of contingencies. I look at your book, and I see a friendly guy with an adorable face. I look at your doll, and I see a nervous old man.” Touche, Barb.
She lays out the two main contingencies of her offer:
- The doll needs a new face in the worst way. “He needs to look friendly and huggable.” In other words, he needs to look way less creepy and horrifying in order to work as a children’s toy, let alone an iconic one.
- The book needs a happy ending. The ending, in its current iteration, is essentially a list of commandments. “Kids hate rules,” says Barbara. (Which, to this reporter, seems like less of a problem with Neal’s product and more of a problem with God’s product. If Barb Shark is looking for permission to rewrite the Old Testament, she needn’t be doing it prime-time on ABC. There’s a time and a place for that. But I digress.)
Arguably the best joke in the entire history of Shark Tank occurs just split seconds after Barbara’s offer, when Kevin comments to the room at large: “By the time Barbara’s finished, this mensch is going to be Catholic.”
After a moment to clarify the offers on the table and consider the details, Neal strikes a deal with Robert and Lori.
Final Deal: $150,000 for 15%, with guaranteed payback over three years. Mazel Tov!
Where Are They Now, Bubbeleh?
Since Shark Tank, Mensch on a Bench managed not only to meet but to surpass expectations, carving out a successful niche for itself in the holiday toy market and becoming a best-selling household brand, known by Jews and gentiles around the world. Much like the oil that kept the menorah burning in the holy temple of Jerusalem 2,200 years ago, the Mensch on a Bench plush doll has lasted much longer than anyone thought it would.
Retail partnerships and online sales are strong, the press is buzzing, and even more exciting, the Mensch is now the official mascot of Israel’s baseball team.
Neal’s hopes for expanding the product line have come to fruition. Much to this reporter’s delight, the full product line now includes:
- Mensch on a Bench – the original 12″ plush doll, plus book – $29.99
- Talking Mensch – a 12″ doll with a speakerbox that helps you master Yiddish – $19.99
- Inflatable Mensch – a four-foot tall blowup doll, complete with balloon bench and menorah – $49.99
- Mitzvah Moose – a cuddly, plush toy moose with blue fur and…wait for it…menorah candle antlers – $24.99
- Ask Bubbe – a talking plush grandma doll
- Ask Papa – a talking plush grandpa doll
Since the episode’s air date, Mensch on a Bench has been mentioned, shouted out, or lovingly reviewed by a dizzying array of publications, including Forbes, The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, NPR, ESPN, and dozens of others. In fact, with over 4 million media impressions, Mensch on a Bench is now the single most published brand in Shark Tank history.
Details on exact sales figures are hard to dig up at the moment, but inquiries are openly encouraged on the website.
For now, at least, Neal and his brand are thriving. It’s hard to say how long the bubble of success will last, if his dreams of expansion will materialize in broader terms, or even if the company will survive years from now – especially given the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic. But it seems only appropriate that a mensch as spectacular as this one taste fame and glory, if only for one metaphorical night of the fiscal quarter. Who knows? It might, miraculously, last eight.
This reporter, for one, is kvelling with pride.
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