Who has time for learning anymore? The leisure time between working, sleeping and eating that used to be the domain of self-education has become filled with a thousand little digital chunklets all vying for our attention. Have you checked your Facebook feed? Have you tweeted? Have you read your email, downloaded that new app, checked in on Foursquare? We no longer have the mental space in which to buckle down and learn something new, not if we are going to keep up with the torrent of social information flooding into our lives.
No longer. For the last 10 years, one Birmingham company has been quietly laboring to provide the interconnected masses with an educational resource that is too fun to be ignored, and so easy to absorb that you won’t skip over it. Founded in 2000 by then-Duke University students Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, mental_floss magazine was born when, over conversations in the Duke cafeteria, they realized that there was nothing out there that could replicate the kind of snarky and enjoyable lectures some of their favorite professors gave.
“From the beginning this really started as a selfish endeavor,” said co-founder Will Pearson. “It was like, what do we want to know? Okay, let’s go find people who can teach us these things. We fall in the camp of people who acknowledge it feels good to know more, it feels good to feel smart, and to give people as much information as they can handle on interesting topics is fun for us.”
They didn’t stay in the cafeteria for long. Though the bi-monthly mental_floss magazine began life shortly thereafter as a Duke campus newsletter, it soon leveraged a few key partnerships with howstuffworks.com and the Discovery channel as well as a surprise cameo on a Friends episode (in the hands of Courtney Cox-Arquette, whose husband David Arquette had become a fan) into a nationally recognized magazine.
When the burgeoning publication began looking for a home base, Birmingham was a natural choice. It’s not just that Birmingham is the hometown of Will Pearson and mental_floss editor-in-chief Neely Harris. “We started realizing the presence Birmingham had in the magazine industry,” remembers Pearson, “with Southern Progress, Ebsco and Books-A-Million based here and so many related advisors here that we decided to set up shop [in Birmingham] after graduating.”
In a time when many print publications are struggling or failing, mental_floss has continued to grow. One of the things that gives them the ability to survive is a business model that bucks a number of traditions and trends. For one, though the company is headquartered here in the Magic City, it maintains other offices in Ohio and Brooklyn, and maintains a network of free-lance writers and bloggers who are not tied down to physical location.
“It’s amazing how many projects we’ve worked on without sitting face to face with the people that are working on them,” says Pearson. “Split Decision, the board-game that [we are currently developing], other than an initial meeting where we sat around and looked at board game ideas and said this is the one we want to try this year, Jonesin’ for facts?
it’s all been a long distance thing. Jason, who’s our web editor, actually had the idea for Split Decision working out of our New York office. Then five or six of our bloggers got together and contributed a number of the ideas for categories. Everybody was working remotely from wherever they were, and we just came up with an organized system for everybody to contribute their ideas and ways to filter it without everyone being in the same place.”
With its satellite locations and reliance on roaming contributors, mental_floss is at the forefront of a new business paradigm. “More and more people do seem to be building their businesses less around physical location than around communication,” according to Pearson. “It’s definitely something that wouldn’t have been possible 15, 20 years ago. I think the virtual company model has its advantages and disadvantages. I think for us it’s worked very well and we hope it will continue. It has its disadvantages in that it would be nice to have a question for someone and be able to sit down over coffee. If they are next door to you it is much easier than if they’re 500 miles away. But for the most part the pros have outweighed the cons.”
As mental_floss has become more successful, they have expanded into other content delivery mediums. In fact, their website has become hugely popular, and they have also produced a line of quirky t-shirts, a number of educational books and some novelty items. Pearson sees the building of a loyal audience that is interested in anything branded with the mental_floss identity as a key component to their success. “What we see developing is a company with a magazine and a website as the backbone for what we’re doing, and then from there we’re really depending on that most loyal 10 percent of our audience. We’ve got a magazine, and then they hear in the magazine about a new book we have coming out, or a new board game or new t-shirts, and that core audience is really the audience that makes this a profitable company, and those are the ones we’re reaching. That being said, it’s amazing to me how many people there are that discover one part of our company, and no matter how hard we try, they’ll never realize we have [other areas to discover]. You know there are website readers that no matter how many references we have to it, do not realize we have a print magazine. And for many of those, that’s fine, but we still need that loyal audience that knows everything we’re doing.”
That loyal audience does more than purchase mental_floss gear, they also provide content and inspiration for future products. For instance, when Pearson was attempting to create buzz around their new Split Decision board-game, he decided to engage their readers. “We said you come up with the best idea for a board game release party, or a Split Decision party, and we’ll send you a copy of the game to play,” Pearson says. “We’ve had people say, ‘we’ll play it at our wedding reception, we’ll play it while scuba diving, we’ll play it on Mount Rushmore’—and that’s what we want to continue building on, is this ability now that as we’ve grown, to release a product, and even if it never goes into another retailer, it’s still worth doing because we’ve built an audience that’s ready for everything we’re putting out.”
Board games are a particularly difficult new area to break into, according to Pearson. “This really is our first venture into independently producing board games, and so I think it will be interesting to see how this goes, because you know, the board game industry is one, more so than many, that is just completely dominated by two or three companies,” he says. “You walk into a mass retailer and [they] control all of the shelf space, other than the eventual breakthrough game that comes out—I don’t know how it breaks through, but we’re gonna give that a shot.”
Also soon to be released by mental_floss is the next in their line of entertaining and educational books, The mental_floss History of the United States (MFHUS), by Erik Sass. After reading only a few chapters of this tome, I had more interesting factoids about U.S. history to throw at my wife than I have ever managed to accumulate elsewhere, not to mention the fact that I actually learned and remembered more about our early history than I have in a very long time. mental_floss does an excellent job, in this book as well as all of their other endeavors, of providing interesting and entertaining material that actually sustains your need for real knowledge. I have thought more than once while reading the MFHUS that if textbooks in high school had been this engaging, I would remember a lot more of it now.
Though mental_floss is headquartered in Birmingham, until recently they haven’t made much of an effort to engage the community at large here. That is all about to change. This October 12 at Cantina, mental_floss will hold their first Birmingham mental_floss Trivia Night, based on an event they’ve been running successfully in Brooklyn for a while. “We were approached by the Ronald McDonald house about doing a trivia night locally to raise money for the organization,” Pearson says. “It’s something we’ve been tossing around the idea of doing here anyway. Strangely, while we’re based here and while we’ve done some events here, we’ve never done, ‘Hey, there’s this big mental_floss trivia night’ in Birmingham, and so we thought, this is a great opportunity. Let’s team up with an organization and do something for a good cause. We’ll be celebrating the release of the new board game and the new history book.”
The event also provides mental_floss an opportunity to partner with another local luminary. “We wanted to include a fun musical element to it as well,” says Pearson. “That’s something that I’ve always enjoyed, following new music. Reg [of Reg’s Coffeehouse] has always been a fan and friend of the magazine, and we thought, here’s an opportunity to do something together. Years ago, before LIVE 100.5, when he was just hosting the Sunday morning show, he would mention mental_floss as part of Joe Muggs’ sponsorship, and we thought if the appropriate opportunity comes, we’d do something together. And this seemed like a good opportunity. So a lot of the trivia on the 12th will be based on music, music history, music trivia. It’s a very interactive event.”
So, if you are interested in meeting some of Birmingham’s most engaging entrepreneurs, filling your head with interesting tidbits and having a raucously good time, head out to Birmingham’s first ever mental_floss Trivia Night at Cantina on October 12, click on over to mentalfloss.com or pick up their latest issue at your local bookstore. Your brain will thank you.
Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to email@example.com.