First in a series: Condensed Knowledge, a less-than-trivial pursuit Photo: Beau Gustafson
First in a series: Condensed Knowledge, a less-than-trivial pursuit Photo: Beau Gustafson

Son of Einstein

Mental_floss offers information in a cheeky style that deliberately mixes education and fun.
October 1, 2004

Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur know your dirty little secret: You know that you don't know as much as you think other people think you should know.

Don't worry; they're not going to expose your intellectual shortcomings to public ridicule. To the contrary, these 2001 Duke graduates and co-founders of mental_floss magazine want to help.

First, a few cerebral calisthenics:

  1. Why did a 1937 children's play about water-loving rodents provoke members of Congress to kill a Depression-era work program for unemployed theater professionals?
  2. What element was isolated for the first time during a 1669 experiment to make gold from putrefied urine?
  3. Who did so poorly in boarding school that his father accused him of caring about "nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching" and fretted that the boy would disgrace the family name?

Stumped? Maybe it's time you joined the nearly 60,000 readers who turn to mental_floss magazine every other month for a treasure trove of brainy facts, academic minutiae, and conversation toppers they never learned in high school or college (but maybe would have if they'd been paying more attention in class).

Pearson, left, and Hattikudur, co-founders: "Everybody wants to be smart. But nobody wants to work at it."

Pearson, left, and Hattikudur, co-founders: "Everybody wants to be smart. But nobody wants to work at it." Photo: Beau Gustafson

 

If you'd thumbed through a recent copy of the magazine, you would have learned that:

  1. Members of Congress responded to the thinly veiled Communist ideals espoused in The Revolt of the Beavers in 1939 by killing President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Theatre Project (and set a sixty-five-year precedent for anemic government funding of the American theater).
  2. German alchemist Hennig Brand boiled the urine to a paste, heated the paste to draw out the vapors into water, and found a waxy, glow-in-the-dark substance now called phosphorus--and commonly added to multivitamins.
  3. Charles Darwin was a bit of a late bloomer.

As the tag line on every mental_floss cover says: Feel smart again.

"People like to be well informed," says Pearson. "People like to know a little about almost anything. At the same time, there's so much out there, there's no way to learn everything."

Hattikudur puts a slightly different spin on it. "Everybody wants to be smart," he says. "But nobody wants to work at it."

That's where mental_floss comes in--offering chunks of predigested information about myriad topics in a cheeky style that deliberately mixes education and fun. The publication may lack the name recognition, ad pages, and circulation figures of Newsweek, People, or Vanity Fair, but it shares the same magazine racks in Barnes & Noble, Borders, Wal-Mart, and Books-A-Million.

Pearson fondly describes his publication as "Mad magazine meets Smithsonian." The magazine's third annual "10 Issue," published last spring, hopscotched from snippets about rebellious teens getting voluntary amputations and Ben Franklin's predilection for nude "air baths" to articles about the "10 Movies That Changed the World," "10 Things That Aren't Boring About Chemistry," and "The Not-So-American History of Our National Anthem."

"You skim it," Hattikudur explains. "If you have five minutes, you can pick up something to use at a cocktail party."

The magazine even takes a crack at answering some of the truly big mysteries of life. For example, "Are green M&Ms really an aphrodisiac?" That's an urban legend, according to mental_floss writer Kelly Ferguson. But two chemicals in chocolate--and thus, every color of M&Ms--do cause symptoms that correspond to feeling "in love," she says. Phenylethylamine elevates heart rates, increases energy, and creates a sense of euphoria; anandamide is a neurotransmitter that works on the brain in essentially the same way as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical found in marijuana.

The eclectic mixture of oddball items has attracted a surprisingly large amount of media buzz. Write-ups and interviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Times ("like Reader's Digest as penned by Jeopardy! writers"), The Chicago Tribune ("For the discerning intellect, mental_floss cleans out the cobwebs"), Reader's Digest ("Read once a day for a minty-fresh mind"), National Public Radio, CNN, Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, and Newsweek magazine (twice).

And in two episodes of the NBC comedy hit Friends, Monica, the character played by actress Courtney Cox, was spotted thumbing through mental_floss while she sat in a doctor's waiting room.

Mental_floss offers "to the contemporary mind, adrift in the sea of random data unleashed by the Internet ... the kind of fact you want from a magazine--the kind that snaps you awake in the middle of a plane ride with its staggering insignificance, the kind that by its total absence of context is guaranteed to stay lodged forever in your brain, impressing future dates," wrote Newsweek senior editor Jerry Adler in a recent article that carried the headline "The Titans of Trivia" and featured a photo of Pearson.

First in a series: Condensed Knowledge, a less-than-trivial pursuit

First in a series: Condensed Knowledge, a less-than-trivial pursuit. Photo: Beau Gustafson

But the big story behind mental_floss is the marketing savvy that focuses this kind of media attention on a magazine chock full of item upon item of "staggering insignificance." Getting a newspaper, magazine, or TV news show to cover almost any topic, especially a near-niche publication, can be a frustrating endeavor, which may explain why mental_floss posts its successes on its website, like notches on a gunslinger's Colt 45. (The website, www.mentalfloss.com, enjoys its own popularity, generating approximately 250,000 hits a month.) "We never want anyone to come to our website and see that nobody's written about mental_floss in five or six months," Pearson says. "But, at some point, we have to prepare for the fact that we will not be the new magazine on the block forever."

Concerned about the ever-present risk of becoming yesterday's news, mental_floss is constantly seeking new outlets that keep its brand fresh, front, and center. Pearson agreed to appear weekly on CNN Headline News a year ago, hosting a short trivia segment. Just in time for grads and dads, in May, HarperCollins published the first in a planned series of mental_floss books, Condensed Knowledge. A regular column in Reader's Digest made its debut in June. A mental_floss board game is slated to hit stores in 2005.

Pearson and company leave little to chance, even going so far as to make certain that the publication of the book and the release of the board game would be far enough apart to generate their own publicity--and reflect positively on the magazine.

Deals to provide content to Salon.com and Discovery Channel websites are in the works. A syndicated radio show, a nonprofit educational magazine aimed at children (named elemental_floss), and a TV game show are on the drawing board.

"Everything is aimed at driving people to our website and toward signing up for subscriptions," Pearson stresses. "So it all points back to the backbone of our business, which is the magazine."

Mental_floss has turned down a number of potential suitors, including several television producers. "It's tempting to do a mental_floss TV show, but the timing isn't right," Pearson says. "We're about gradual growth and creating a brand that has substance."

The task of maintaining mental_floss' distinctive voice--a fine line between smart and smart aleck--falls to Neely Harris '00, who joined the magazine in late 2001 and is now editor-in-chief. Finding writers who can discuss head-scratchingly obscure or complicated topics in a conversational style that mixes humor, sarcasm, and education--and do it all for limited pay--is not easy.

"The tone is light; it's humorous," Harris says. "We want to make jokes. But it has to be clear that the information we print is nonfiction." And, she adds, "It's all meant to be in laymen's terms, so it's easy to understand."

Today, mental_floss has a staff of nine scattered from Birmingham, Alabama, to Birmingham, Michigan, and Cleveland, New York, and Durham. "It's largely a virtual company," says Pearson. Pearson spent the past school year in Durham, where his wife, Georgia Liston Pearson, started as a graduate student at Duke's Nicholas School, before returning to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, for the summer. He now holds the title of president and publisher, and Hattikudur is vice president for product development.

"We really have the perfect blend of personalities," Hattikudur says. "Will is really gifted in terms of promotion and directing the company. I handle the creative side."

The staff gets together as a group only three times a year. The majority of communication is handled through e-mail. "Everybody has their own branch of the company to run," Hattikudur explains. "It doesn't really matter where they do it. For creativity, I think it's best when people are where they're happiest."

This emerging multimedia mini-empire was hatched during late-night conversations freshman year between Pearson, Hattikudur, and other students living in Alspaugh dorm on East Campus. Pearson, an inveterate collector of trivia since sixth grade, was toying with the idea of publishing a book. Hattikudur suggested a magazine instead.

"We thought that if a magazine could bottle some of that enthusiasm and that love for education from those late-night conversations, it would be something that we would really want to read," says Hattikudur. A check of the shelves at Barnes & Noble failed to turn up such a publication, and so the pair decided to put one together themselves. They enlisted the help of three classmates: Milena Viljoen '01, John Cascarano '01, and Risako Koga '01, who remains the magazine's art director.

The lightness of the magazine's content is belied by the seriousness with which the aspiring publishers applied themselves to their task. After distributing a trial issue on campus their junior year--Hattikudur remembers it as "a complete embarrassment"--they turned to industry experts for feedback. Their goal was to build from the inside out, starting with a board of formal and informal advisers "because they are living in the publishing world on a daily basis," Pearson says. "We knew what we didn't know--which was anything about the publishing industry."

They approached Susan Tifft '73, Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the practice of journalism and public policy studies at Duke and a former associate editor at Time magazine. (Tifft is also a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.) She put them in touch with George Hirsch, an old friend and publisher of Runner's World, who formerly published New York magazine and also launched Men's Health. They added Jackie Leo, editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest; Books-A-Million vice president Patsy Jones; Jerrold Footlick, a former senior editor at Newsweek (also on the advisory board for Duke Magazine); and others.

"First of all, I was just impressed with the concept. And Will struck me as a person with not only a good idea, but the ability to listen, work, and do something with that idea," says Tifft. "He's also got a pretty thick skin, in my opinion, and I think you have to."

The board members helped mental_floss avoid early missteps and continue today to provide important wisdom and contacts. Pearson illustrates the point by opening up his ever-present Palm Pilot. "If we've got a question about anything, we've got somebody in there we can go to."

Samir Husni, a magazine-industry analyst and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, was an early believer. Pearson and Hattikudur had read his book on magazine publishing and hired him as a consultant as they prepared to put out their first issue. "They had a good plan of execution," recalls Husni, whose website refers to him as "Mr. Magazine." "Their feet were definitely on the ground, and their heads were definitely on their shoulders. It was a much easier job to work with them than with a gazillion other people."

They chose to call the magazine mental_floss after hearing about a comedy troupe with the same name. "It says everything you need to know about us. It's smart. It's educational. But it's also a joke, a pun. It doesn't take itself too seriously," Harris says.

Mental Floss coverMental Floss coverMental Floss cover

Hattikudur came up with the idea of putting the title in lower case and adding the underscore, as a way of getting people's attention and reminding them of the Internet. "Our entire mission statement is in those two words," Harris says.

On the eve of their graduation in 2001, the five friends published the first, full-fledged mental_floss, using $20,000 from savings and summer jobs. Besides topics ranging from Alexander the Great to sumo wrestling, the first issue featured a cover photograph of Albert Einstein. "He was being a big dork, sticking his tongue out, not taking himself too seriously," Hattikudur explains of the photo selection. "That seemed perfect for us." The late, great physicist has appeared on the cover ever since.

In addition to selling about 6,500 copies, Pearson and Hattikudur showed the magazine to potential investors--including former corporate executives Toby Maloney and Melanie Maloney. Initially tapped for a modest outlay, the married couple from Russell, Ohio, later sank significantly more into mental_floss--and joined the magazine's staff. Both are now vice presidents, of business development and planning and operations, respectively.

"What was appealing to me was the freshness of the idea and the product," says Toby Maloney, a self-described "media junkie." "You're really talking about an educational self-help magazine that is original, irreverent, and humorous. And there's a real desire in this country for self-improvement."

Mental_floss could hardly have chosen a less propitious time to be unveiled: the middle of the biggest magazine-industry slump since World War II. What was worse, they had little advertising income and no budget for marketing and could hardly afford to pay their own staff, let alone freelance writers. But the magazine persevered, garnering positive reviews, including a spot on Library Journal's list of the ten best magazines of 2001--and kept adding readers.

One factor working in their favor was the wide demographic appeal of the magazine. "We've been completely fooled since the outset by the diverse ages of our readers," says Harris. "We have high-school classes reading us, as well as residents of nursing homes."

More important, instead of following the herd and relying on advertising revenue to support the magazine, mental_floss zagged and relied on subscriptions and circulation. And it worked. The sell-through rate (number of newsstand copies that sold) for those early issues topped 60 to 65 percent--nearly tripling the industry average. Subscription and circulation numbers climbed steadily. Mental_floss moved from publishing quarterly to bimonthly.

Some industry analysts say it's too early to tell whether mental_floss is a success. But for others, the very fact that they're still in business is reason enough to break out the champagne. "My definition of success is, if you're still in business, you're a success," says Husni. Nearly two out of three magazines fail within the first year; only one in five magazine start-ups makes it to the fourth year. About one in ten magazines lasts long enough to publish a tenth-anniversary issue. "They've managed to stay in business and to get a lot of good coverage."

Advisory board member Footlick was initially skeptical about mental_floss' chances without significant increases in advertising. But the magazine's continued growth is making him a believer. "It shows me there are a lot of ways to skin a cat," he says. "You can burn tens of millions of dollars, like Talk did. Or you can do it this way by not throwing money around."

Money is still tight and the hours can be long, but staffers aren't complaining. "It's a testament to how all the main players at mental_floss are committed to the growth of the magazine and the company and the brand," Harris says. "Everyone here has said, 'I will take only as much as I need to live.' Everything else is put back into the company. We wouldn't want it any other way."

Not that Harris or the others are averse to living a more comfortable life someday. "I think we are very confident that day will come," she says. "We're just not anxious to get there."

Pearson garners much of the credit not only for building, but also for maintaining the buzz around mental_floss. He serves as "Mr. Outside" for the magazine, doing the bulk of interviews and eschewing fancy public-relations firms and press releases for personalized pitches, contacts, and relationships. "We try to tailor any material we send to specific journalists and their publications or stations," he explains. "So it is a win for both them and mental_floss."

"And Will does it without being noticeably pushy," notes Footlick. "It's really Southern style at its best. It doesn't come across as a hard sell."

Newsweek's Adler had originally planned to do a story about the trend toward books on miscellaneous facts--such as the best-selling Schott's Original Miscellany--but that plan fizzled when an interview with Ben Schott fell through. Pearson, meanwhile, cleared his schedule, quickly agreeing to the interview and welcoming a team of photographers into his cramped Durham apartment. It didn't hurt that one of Adler's colleagues on the magazine, Mary Carmichael, is a 2001 Duke graduate or that mental_floss adviser Footlick was Adler's first editor at Newsweek almost twenty-five years ago.

"We have had quite a few Duke alums work for us in the past few years," Adler says, and they do bring Duke-related ideas to people's attention. Although, he quickly adds, "that doesn't mean something with a Duke connection will automatically get into print."

Duke connection or not, mental_floss--the magazine and its evolving manifestations--will continue to grow as long as people hanker after the answers to questions such as why Hiram Ulysses Grant, our eighteenth president, has an "S" as a middle initial, or how many mosquitoes it would take to drink all your blood.

"We thought the magazine would be doing well after three years," says Pearson. "We're all optimists. But if somebody had said that at age twenty-four we'd have a book published, a board game in the works, regular appearances on CNN, partnerships with Reader's Digest and the Discovery Channel, and so on? No way. We've just been so lucky."

Luck is how you define it, Footlick says. "As the former Dodgers owner Branch Rickey once said, 'Luck is the residue of design.' Sometimes you have to work hard to be lucky. Will and Mangesh have certainly done that."