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Fifteen years later, Duke alums reflect on success of Mental Floss publication

<p>Hattikudur and Pearson had the idea for Mental Floss while they were undergrads at Duke.&nbsp;</p>

Hattikudur and Pearson had the idea for Mental Floss while they were undergrads at Duke. 

With article titles ranging from "11 Life Lessons from Alexander Hamilton" to "What is the Difference between a Crevice and a Crevasse," Mental Floss draws 20.5 million unique users per month.

But more than 15 years after launching the publication, Mangesh Hattikudur and Will Pearson, both Trinity '01, are preparing to move on from the venture they started as students. The pair had a unique journey into the publishing business.

“The idea for a campus publication came up first, and that was Mental Floss,” Pearson said. “The idea that a history major could learn something in physics, and a physics major could learn something in literature and so on.”

As first-year students, the pair would chat with their friends on the first floor of Alspaugh residence hall about interesting things they learned in class. Pearson, a history major, and Hattikudur, a cultural anthropology major, realized they would enjoy having a publication that could bring them accessible intellectual material without needing to be an expert to understand. After unsuccessfully searching for such a publication, the idea for Mental Floss was born.

The pair published the first copy of Mental Floss in the Spring of their junior year. The magazine consisted of eight full color pages and included a story on the importance of James Brown, a piece about Easter Island and mating tips from a dung beetle.

“It started in the middle of the ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire’ craze,” Pearson said. “This idea that people wish they knew a little bit of everything was something we talked about regularly.”

Pearson explained that one of the largest obstacles the team faced during the process of creating Mental Floss turned out to be a major reason for the publication's success. Their inexperience in publication and, as Hattikudur explained, his and Pearson's bizarre mix of naive and cocky attitudes propelled them to learn about the trade.

“We would put out the first issue and by the time we put out the second issue, we’d be embarrassed to look back at the first issue, and by the time we put out the fifth issue, we were embarrassed by what we had done in the second issue,” Pearson said. “What that told us is that we’re evolving, that it was growing and that we were learning along the way. It might be an obstacle to overcome but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying something.”

Both Hattikudur and Pearson stressed the importance of the Duke community in developing their magazine. Several Duke professors wrote content for the publication and helped find other graduate students to contribute. Some University departments helped funded the project, and Robert Bliwise, editor of Duke magazine, aided in finding people for the Mental Floss advisory board.

Pearson said it may have been naivete that led to the success of the student publication since they were not aware of what they could and could not do within the magazine industry. They pushed boundaries and churned out content that they wished to see instead of focusing on a specific market. 

“We realized being evergreen, instead of hooked to current events, made the back issues valuable,” Hattikudur wrote in an email. “We realized that if you wrote to your customers and opened the lines of communications, that they'd become your biggest evangelists.”

Jason English, Trinity '01 and the editor-in-chief for digital of Mental Floss, originally met Pearson in a second-semester seminar their senior year. After the professor asked the class what they would be doing after graduation, Pearson resolutely said that he would be starting a magazine. English said he was surprised by the answer but was amazed to see a publication of Mental Floss on the shelves of a Borders bookstore the following fall and Pearson speaking on CNN about the publication he co-founded. English joined the Mental Floss team in 2006 as a freelance writer, eventually working his way up to his current position.

As media has moved away from print toward digital publication, English said Mental Floss has worked to continue evolving. Strategies that worked one year might not work the next, so the Mental Floss team must remain nimble. 

“We have to do a good job of not selling out too much there while still keeping the lights on,” English said.

Mental Floss changed its direction slightly, moving away from print to focus more attention and resources on digital media and its website.

"The economics and the realities of the newsstand industry for a magazine like Mental Floss no longer made as much sense as it did to continue growing on the digital front," English said. 

Both co-founders are leaving Mental Floss to join HowStuffWorks. English said that the pair would be thoroughly missed but noted their legacy will live on through the site's transition.

“It’s really a testament to them that them that leaving won’t cripple business as it may have five to 10 years ago,” English said. “Their fingerprints are all over [Mental Floss], even if they’re not here day to day. We will continue down the same path we’ve been going down.”

Pearson said that he encourages entrepreneurs and those trying to start a creative project to simply dive in and learn along the way, instead of letting a lack of experience stop them from trying new things.

“We have a lot of experience in doing things in which we have no experience,” Pearson said. “Part of the fun is doing something that is new and is exciting.”

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