Two Duke University students with a penchant for trivia started their own magazine geared towards factoid junkies just like themselves, of course.
As applications for the 2009 Inc. 500 | 5000 arrive, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of the companies that are vying to appear on our ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. (For more information and to apply, go to http://www.inc5000apply.com.) One that caught our eye was Birmingham, Alabama-based mental_floss magazine.
People like to feel smart. This premise is the idea behind mental_floss, the trivia and all-around knowledge junkie magazine formed out of late night dorm room discussions at Duke University.
Will Pearson, a history major, and Mangesh Hattikudur, who studied anthropology, religiously tuned in to "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" at the height of the show's popularity.
"[Through] watching the 'Millionaire' craze unfold, we appreciated that people like to learn through trivia," Pearson said. "We wanted to blur the lines between education and entertainment."
The two launched mental_floss in 2001 after they graduated. And the rest is, well, in this case, historical trivia. But the year proved a tough one for a startup.
Right after September 11, the advertising model of business fell through, requiring Pearson and others at the helm to devise a different way to get revenue. So instead of creating something that was demographically targeted, Pearson said mental_floss was engineered to reach out to a psychographic, a "life-long learner," as he describes the readership.
Now "Jeopardy" fans can rejoice; mental_floss is like a test-prep. Where else could readers learn of a possible connection between Benedict XVI and Benedict Arnold?
mental_floss has tapped even further into nerd culture than just landing in a reader's mailbox. Pearson said the natural extension of a magazine is into books, a genre the company has already covered with prolificacy: its online store provides more than 12 titles. But more rare in the publishing world is the extension of a magazine's brand into readers' closets, which mental_floss has done with its witty ensemble of T-shirts with sayings like, "The Constitution: I read it for the articles." It's also infiltrated the way its followers entertain, a facet the brand has already tackled with an original spin on the classic Trivial Pursuit board game, "mental_floss: The Trivia Game."
From Pearson's perspective, to have a "flossed" mind requires an ample funny bone.