Jaynie Levinson — Connecting Jewish Young Adults
Interview with Mensch on a Bench creator, Neal Hoffman
I had the opportunity today to speak to Mensch on a Bench creator, Neal Hoffman, today, even amidst his media frenzy leading up to his appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank tonight! Neal lives in Madeira, and his Mensch on a Bench product has exploded in recent weeks leading up to his national TV appearance tonight. Neal couldn’t be nicer, and he answered some questions for me about starting his business from scratch here in Cincinnati. His answers are below:
(Mensch is a Yiddish word for a person of integrity or honor, according to http://www.merriam-webster.com).
What inspired you to create Mensch on a Bench?
“The actual inspiration was Jacob (Hoffman’s son) asking for an Elf on a Shelf. We’re an interfaith family, but we’re raising the boys Jewish. I told him,’ No, you can’t have an Elf on a Shelf, but you can have a Mensch on a Bench’ as a joke. This idea became a passion product on nights and weekends. It became so big I quit my job and now I mensch full time.”
How were you able to take the leap from an idea to the creation of the product?
“It’s not just dumb luck. I have a background in Hasbro toys. I happened to have an idea that falls in the context of what I wanted to do, or at least had the connections to get it done. I wrote the book that night, and it was the first time I’ve ever written something like that…I knew the basics of creating a toy, and I had some concepts about packaging and safety and a great support network from my days Hasbro.”
Did you expect it would take off like it did?
“I had a 5-year dream plan that I put together. Year 2, we were supposed to be getting into the local Hallmark stores, year 3 in one retailer, and year 4 where we are today. The dream was always to get onto Shark Tank. Some people want to climb Mt. Everest, my dream was to face off against Kevin O’Leary.”
What has been the highlight for you the past few weeks?
“I know this sounds corny, but I’m looking forward to Secret Reader day at my son’s school tomorrow, where I get to read my book to the class. It’s helping me remember what this is all about. It’s very easy to get swept up in all the media appearances like the Today Show, but tomorrow’s activity reminds me why I started all this. “
What brought you to Cincinnati?
“We moved to Cincinnati for my wife’s job. I had my dream job at Hasbro, and she got promoted at P & G. We moved out here against my will, but ya know, Cincinnati is a nice community, with a nice Jewish community. For us, it took a little while, but now we’re pretty active at Temple Shalom. The rabbi’s there have been very active in the Mensch and proofed the next book, of the Afiko Mensch. For somebody to come from out of town and feel that kind of acceptance, it really means something. It’s amazing over the past three years…we’ve found our niche and are really happy here.”
How did the Cincinnati community contribute to your creation of starting your own business/Mensch on a Bench?
“There’s a really nice toy and game community in Cincinnati because Kenner used to be here. So there’s a group of over 200 of us who get together and who have been very supportive the whole time. More recently, I just signed up with Cintrifuse and starting getting advice. For a while I was just a guy creating in my basement, and then I realized there are a lot of other guys just sitting in their basements too. I realized how great of an innovation town this is.”
What advice do you have for aspiring Jewish entrepreneurs in Cincinnati?
“It’s a tough market. If you’re starting a business from scratch, I’m not sure you want to go for a market of 3 percent of the population. If you have the passion though, the Jewish community will rally behind you. It’s a great feeling when Jewish moms and Jewish grandmas are calling you and thanking you…it’s really a great reward. Once a day I get a call from someone that says ‘thank you for what you’re doing’.”
“It just seems like this great twist of fate. What I thought was going to be leaving my home and my dream job has ended up developing a new home and new community. We are literally trying to be Mensch’s, and we’re trying to run the company that way with every decision we make.”