Back in 1997 when Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, both class of 2001, were freshmen, they became enraptured with Jeopardy-esque trivia craze like the rest of the world.
Their late night TV sessions were more than just a break though: the realization that people like to be educated and entertained at the same time led them to co-found Mental_Floss, now a nationally renowned magazine company that seems to have no limits.
"It's kind of ridiculous that a bunch of kids are doing this, but we've been lucky," said Pearson, who was a history major and, like Hattikudur, had little journalistic experience before Mental_Floss.
During their junior year, Pearson and Hattikudur created a test issue of their pet project on campus and received positive feedback. The two then set up an advisory board consisting of journalistically oriented professors and alumni and naively dove into the complex world of magazine production.
The national pilot issue was launched in summer 2001 with the addition of art director and fellow classmate Lisako Koga. Another alum, Neely Harris, '00, was added to the staff as the editor-in-chief when the main office of Mental_Floss moved to Birmingham, Ala.
Today, Mental_Floss boosts a 25,000 subscription base with an additional 70,000 copies of the magazine out on newsstands each month. But unlike other magazines, Mental_Floss has gained its reputation and fame without spending a cent on marketing. "We didn't have the money to do that," said Pearson. "We had to pay off financial aid bills."
Instead of paying for advertising, the group worked on other ways to get their name out there. Their ideas have branched out into other fields--aside from the magazine issues, they currently do a weekly segment on CNN Headline News, write quizzes for the Discovery Channel and have been written about in several other publications, including an article in the current issue of Newsweek.
Mental_Floss has also recently signed deals for a column in Reader's Digest as well as a boardgame, due out next year. Their first book, titled "Condensed Knowledge," consists of chapters featuring quick hits about subjects like History and Pop Culture and will be released May 1.
While things are busy at the moment, the company also hopes to launch a children's version of the magazine, which they'll call Elemental_Floss, in the near future.
"[The goal of Elemental_Floss is] to get kids interested in learning in a way that they might not be stimulated in school," said Hattikudur, adding that both he and Pearson have always liked being around kids and enjoyed participating in WOODS--Wilderness Outdoor Opportunities for Durham Students--while at Duke.
So what's with all the underscores? The title, explained Pearson, includes the underscore because it gets people's attention and reminds them of the internet, where information is readily available. It was Hattikudur's idea and it stuck, just as they hope their addiction to entertaining education will stick in the minds of their followers.
The possibilities truly are infinite for Mental_Floss, not only as a magazine but also as a company. "We want people to see [Mental_Floss] as a company that's constantly blurring the lines between education and entertainment," said Pearson.
It wasn't always that easy, but Hattikudur attributes part of their success to their ignorance of the magazine industry and naive natures. "I didn't know how much failure there was [in the magazine industry]," he said, adding that the hardest part of their start-up project was at first explaining the idea to others. "But, we were pretty confident in the idea from the start."
Want to know the 10 movies that changed the world, what's not boring about chemistry or the British background of America's national anthem? Pick up their current issue. Need a condensed lesson on everything you need to know about Art History? Pick up the book. Or turn on CNN, or buy the boardgame next year, and you'll learn something new that you will want to tell others.
Pearson and Hattikudur's success is even more testimony that people never know what they'll end up doing post-graduation.
"This idea really came out of late night freshman dorm [conversations]," said Hattikudur as he offers his advice to current Duke students. "Really take advantage of all the intelligence around you. There are so many people [at Duke] I was almost envious of because they were so talented in ways I wasn't," he added.
And Mental_Floss clearly demonstrates that these talents, when combined--such as Hattikudur's own creative abilities alongside Pearson's entrepreneurial drive and the different areas of expertise that the company has taken on in the recent years--can yield incredible results.
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