As co-founder Will Pearson puts it, "From the very beginning, we wanted Mental Floss to be a magazine that blurred the line between education and entertainment."
In 2001, Pearson was studying history at Duke University and looking out for potential business ideas. He and anthropology major Mangesh Hattikudur were watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire when inspiration hit. "We were at Duke and we wanted to learn everything. There was all this knowledge around us. The magazine was a way to pull information from all the professors and put it in a fun package."
Soon, Mental Floss (called mental_floss on its own pages) appeared as a newsletter on the Duke campus. "We wanted something where you could learn what you were supposed to know already, but also enjoy yourself in the process. Most educational magazines didn't allow you to laugh enough."
The magazine was such a success that the founders began thinking national thoughts. "We were naive college students who had no idea what a difficult industry magazines are."
In fact, while high-profile start-ups such as George and Talk were floundering, Mental Floss began making steady in-roads, even though magazine retailers had no idea where to shelve it. Most magazine shops are divided into specific sections dedicated to news, or sports, or porn. General knowledge magazines get lost in the mix and have been vanishing from the newsstands. Worse, there was no set demographic for the magazine.
“Most magazines are targeted at very specific audiences: women 18-21 or something. With us, it’s more of a psychographic: busy professionals who have 10 to 15 minutes a day, where they want to learn something new.”
The lack of a set demographic also meant that Mental Floss would not be able to rely on advertising for revenue. And it couldn't afford an expensive direct mail campaign ahead of the launch. So instead, Pearson and company built word of mouth by partnering with fellow content providers, such as HowStuffWorks.com. This gave the new magazine a platform for free cross-promotion. Soon, Mental Floss had deals with the Discovery Channel, Reader's Digest and CNN, where it provides a segment that airs each Wednesday at approximately 9:56 p.m. Eastern, during CNN Headline News Tonight.
The strategy mushroomed in a surprising way. Actor David Arquette became a fan, and a copy ended up in Courtney Cox-Arquette's hands on the set of Friends. By a happy coincidence, the scene in which her Monica character is reading the magazine also appeared in promos for the show.
“We were getting calls from people who saw the magazine in the promos, but we never saw them ourselves until the show came on,” says Pearson. The cameo led to pieces in Entertainment Weekly and built even more buzz, all of which was free publicity, since the original Friends “product placement” was entirely unpaid.
Pearson, in fact, is an adept spokesperson for the company, and often travels for media interviews. When we spoke to him, he had just appeared on Dennis Miller's show on CNBC. "Mental Floss could be cheat sheet for Dennis Miller's routines," he jokes.
With just 20,000 subscriptions, the magazine depends heavily on newsstand sales, so covers try to catch people's eyes. Mental Floss had adopted Albert Einstein as its mascot, and the famous physicist appears in unusual guises on every cover. He's even appeared topless on the magazine's "swimsuit issue," which assured us that "you don't have to love them for their minds anymore."
As Pearson explains, "The swimsuit issue was our way of poking fun at other magazines that are obsessed with celebrity and beauty."
Why Einstein? "Because he's our hero," explains the Mental Floss Web site. "He is the wind beneath our wings."
So, although the circulation is just 60,000, the cunning Mental Floss marketing strategy has produced a sell-through rate of 60%. This means that 60% of the magazines on newsstand shelves get sold. The industry average is 30% and for new magazines the average is just 20%. This, remember, is despite having no demographic or easy-to-shelve niche. Pearson credits the amazing success in part to the enthusiasm of the major book chains, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.
This burgeoning success led naturally to one of the first expansions of the Mental Floss brand, a book called Condensed Knowledge. As a kid, Pearson devoured books like The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and An Incomplete Education. The Mental Floss book is heir to those general reference books, but it's infused with the magazine's quirky personality. "We wanted the book to be full of the kinds of information you don't know but think you're supposed to, but at the same time we wanted it to be playful and fun, the kind of thing where you can flip to any page and just dive in and learn."
Pearson sees the book as just a beachhead for the Mental Floss empire. "We don't just want to depend on the magazine for our revenue. We want to expand the brand into other venues that make sense. We've been approached by TV, for example, but the timing just isn't right for that, yet."
Next up is a board game to be released in fall 2005 by Pressman Games, the third largest games manufacturer in the US. Although board games are a natural fit for Mental Floss, they are an even more brutal marketplace than magazines are. But Pearson is confident he can produce a winning product there, too. "We didn't just want to transport our brand into a new medium. We wanted to focus on making it a great game, too."
But the focus on the site is on the business of selling subscriptions … and back issues. In some months, they sell $10,000 in back issues alone. "We hadn't realized it, but each magazine is pretty much timeless. The back issues are as interesting today as they were when they came out. So, many people come to the Web site, subscribe, and buy the full set of back issues at the same time."
Pearson is also working on syndicating a Mental Floss Minute for radio, but the magazine is still the brand's cornerstone. From its Birmingham HQ, it now employs eight people around the country and comes out bimonthly. "Basically, people want to feel smart but at the same time they want education made simple."
On that score, Mental Floss delivers.