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Fast Chat: Will Pearson

Mental Floss founder talks about his trivia magazine, which new owner Felix Dennis says has the 'worst name in the world'

Will Pearson

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A magazine about trivia might not seem like an obvious hit, but British publisher Felix Dennis, who recently bought Mental Floss from its founders, has a record of defying the odds, launching The Week and Maxim with unexpected success. Will Pearson, one of Mental Floss’ founders, talks about the concept behind the bimonthly and his first dealings with Dennis.

Adweek: That’s an interesting phone number you’ve got—all odd numbers?
Will Pearson: As someone who despises odd numbers, it’s not nice to look at. For some reason, odd numbers disturb me. Maybe it’s an OCD thing. I guess I’ve revealed too much already.

You started Mental Floss in 2000 while a student at Duke. How would you describe it?
Mental Floss is a magazine for knowledge junkies that makes an effort to blur the line between education and entertainment.

Why did you decide to start it?
Mangesh Hattikudur, my founding partner, and I really started it in many ways as a selfish endeavor. When we didn’t see the magazine we were looking for, as naive college students, we felt we were qualified to found it. I don’t think we realized how quickly it could branch out to other avenues like books and games.

Right, you’ve spun off books and products like Law School in a Box.
That in some ways started out as a joke about our moms wondering why we weren’t going to law school and med school. It comes with nifty little items like your bar exam and your mini-bar exam. Because any good lawyer needs to know how to drink as well. We actually had an attorney in New York threaten to sue us for granting a diploma. Now we’re doing a series of games. We put out a board game called Split Decision. It was based on a quiz that became popular on our site. You read a quote and have to decide if it was said by Gandhi or Angelina Jolie.

I read that Felix Dennis, who recently bought the magazine, wasn’t so hot on the name?
His first words were, “Mental Floss is the worst name I’ve ever heard because no one else around the world knows what dental floss is.” We immediately got a sense of Felix’s personality. He loved the magazine, but it was great to hear a critique from somebody who’s been so successful.

Who reads Mental Floss?
When we started, we expected it to be [people] fresh out of college. It’s still a young audience. But it’s largely busy professionals, people who are well-educated who want to continue learning. It’s slightly more female than male. That surprises people.

Why do people need a magazine like this when there’s Wikipedia?
Certainly all or most of this info is out there. I think what surprises people is [that] we take it a step further to find the more interesting facts. In almost every case, we try to find those “wow” facts. And it’s presented in a way that’s fun and playful.

You just hired Jim Kaminsky to be the editor and brought on a publisher and circulation director. What are your plans for growth?
We’re significantly increasing the investment. We’re looking for 35 percent circulation growth from 100,000 over the next year. We’re going to be increasing our cover price, probably 20 percent, from $4.99 to $5.99, and increase the frequency next year, probably by a third. We’ll probably go eight times in 2012. Now that I’m saying this to you, we’ll actually have to do it.