Mensch on a Bench: An innovator creates a business without quitting his day job

Posted By on December 28, 2014

By Gargi Apte, Greer J. McPhaden, Gerry Yemen and Gregory B. Fairchild December 26

The big idea: Who hasnt thought about breaking the chains of working for someone else and founding his own company? Is there one among us who hasnt come up with a genius idea that could change the world? All it takes is a good idea. Yes and well, not exactly. Having an idea doesnt mean it will happen. How you think about starting a business in terms of your own skills or the skill sets available in your network are crucial.

The scenario: Neal Hoffman and his wife, Erin, were an interfaith couple out shopping when they ran into the December dilemma of how to balance Hanukkah and Christmas. The Hoffmans had agreed to raise their children in the Jewish faith, yet Erin and their son Jake wanted to buy the Elf on the Shelf, a toy they had seen all over Facebook. Hoffman instinctively joked, Jews dont do Elves on Shelves. We do Mensches on Benches.

Hoffman saw his son feeling left out of the craze and suspected there were other Jewish and interfaith families that would appreciate a character for themselves. But a mensch on a bench wasnt a compelling idea on its own. He could write a book to help Jewish kids appreciate and celebrate Hanukkah. He inserted a new character into the story of the Maccabees, who returned from a fight to find they had only enough oil in the temple to last one night. Hanukkah, the festival of light, celebrates the fact that the oil lasted eight nights instead of one. The new character Hoffman added was Moshe. He would watch over the oil and help everyone by letting the Maccabees know when the oil ran out. Moshe was a mensch a good and honorable person in Yiddish, the historical language of Ashkenazi Jews. With a book and a character, Hoffman believed he could instill a sense of culture and celebration into his idea for a toy.

Hoffman and his wife believed that the Mensch on a Bench was a great idea. But Hoffman worried whether the idea could be successful without resigning from his job and putting their lifes savings at risk.

The resolution: Hoffman bought a trademark for $300 and developed a prototype for $500. He then found a company that could provide 1,000 units in a relatively short time at a good price point. He wrote the book, illustrated it, got a package made and designed a Web site. Although they had a number of offers from people who wanted to invest early on, the couple wanted 100percent control of their project. To mitigate risk, Hoffman decided to use Kickstarter crowdfunding to raise money. With a logo, video and rhyming name, they raised $22,000 and sold out of on the first run. Recently, Hoffman landed a deal on Shark Tank to continue growing his business.

The lesson: You dont have to quit your job to launch a business. Starting with a product unavailable in stores, generating start-up capital with crowdfunding, collecting feedback on initial sales, Hoffman was able to test the market without risking everything then attract experienced investors to move his idea forward.

Gargi Apte, Greer J. McPhaden, Gerry Yemen and Gregory B. Fairchild

Apte is a 2014 MBA graduate, McPhaden a 2001 graduate, Yemen a senior researcher and Fairchild a business professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

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Mensch on a Bench: An innovator creates a business without quitting his day job

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