Interview with Will Pearson '01 of mental_floss

Interview by Howie Rhee '04 on August 20, 2012

Before you started mental_floss, what was your time like at Duke?  What'd you study and what did you do with your spare time?
I was really lucky to land in a first year dorm where a group of 15 of us almost immediately clicked and became such a close group of friends. We pretty much lived together all 4 years, spending way too much time crammed in each others’ dorm rooms entertaining one another. Multiple times each week, we’d find ourselves still chatting at 4 or 5 in the morning, and it was actually in one of those marathon conversations where the idea for mental_floss emerged. I was also involved in a couple choral groups and a program called WOODS, where we worked with children from lower income neighborhoods in Durham and provided fun outdoor activities for them.
So mental_floss was started your senior year. Tell us about that.  Do you remember where you were at Duke when the idea was conceived?
As I mentioned, the idea really came from a series of dorm room conversations. These started as early as our first year, actually. But it was in the late spring of our sophomore year when Mangesh and I decided we were going to start mental_floss. We started planning and recruiting over the summer and released our first issue on campus in the spring of 2000. I vividly remember sitting in the Great Hall around exam time in the spring of our sophomore year and Mangesh said “Let’s do it.” He’s pretty convincing so I said “Okay.” I don’t really remember what happened immediately after that. I want to say we stood up at that moment and went to do whatever you do to start a magazine, but I’m guessing we just finished our grilled cheese and Snapple.

A lot of great startups have notable partnerships (Jobs/Woz, Gates/Allen, Page/Brin, Hewlett/Packard), and you have a great partnership with Mangesh Hattikudur '01.  Tell us about the importance of that relationship and why it's worked so well.
It’s kind of funny to be mentioned with those folks. But I do tell Mangesh every morning that I am the Hewlett to his Packard. I honestly can’t imagine having started mental_floss or trying to run mental_floss without Mangesh. The day he decides he’s ready to move on from the company, I’m done too. Our partnership has worked really well because of a mutual respect and because our skills are complementary. He’s the most creative person I’ve ever known and the sweetness that’s key to the brand’s personality is really his personality. Yes, he’s that corny. So I focus more on the strategic side and he focuses more on the creative, but we each have plenty of input into the other’s work. I think it’s also worked because we’re willing to defer to the other person in areas of his expertise, even if there’s a slight disagreement. When our opinions do differ, which doesn’t happen that often on important stuff, those issues are always discussed privately so that we can present a unified front on pretty much all matters.

What was the key thing that happened that helped you know that mental_floss was something you could do after you graduated?

I was a history major and Mangesh was an anthropology major. We were screwed unless we started our own company. I’m not sure if there was one key moment that told us this was what we were going to do after college, but we both knew we loved the idea of this brand so much that we were determined to see it work. The feedback from students at Duke when our first campus issue was published was really encouraging. We felt like we were meeting a need for knowledge junkies.
In the years after you graduated, mental_floss has done well and expanded into other types of merchandise.  Tell us about that progression.

It all happened very organically. The most fun part about the job has always been that we could be opportunistic when ideas popped up, and if we wanted to do something, we just did it. A little over a year after publishing our first nationally-distributed issue, we had an opportunity to meet with HarperCollins, and a book series was born. A few years later, we developed our first board game. A couple years after that we created Law School in a Box and Med School in a Box.
Then, when Pluto was demoted from the official list of planets (I’m still pissed about that), a reader wrote and said “You guys should produce a shirt that helps us all mourn the loss of Pluto together. It should say ‘Pluto: Revolve in Peace 1930-2006.’” We decided to give it a shot and produced the shirt. Our readers loved it and we realized we had an opportunity to allow our readers show off their smarts. So we decided to pay readers $125 every time they submitted a t-shirt idea that we used. We’ve now produced 70 or so different designs, and the t-shirt sales are a meaningful part of the overall business. They’re so wonderfully nerdy.
Later this year, we’ll be releasing 3 more new board games. And we’ve got a children’s series called SmartyPants launching later this fall. That series is actually in partnership with another Duke grad, Melissa Bernstein, of Melissa and Doug fame. (Editor's Note: Check out our interview with Melissa)
While we clearly consider the financials when launching a new product or line of products, we also think about whether it’s something that would be fun for us to work on and whether our readers would be excited to see it. 

Are you still involved in the creation of new products?  What do you look for as sources of inspiration?
Very much involved. In fact, that’s a big part of my job. Sometimes I look at what’s already in the marketplace, and sometimes it’s simply something I’d like to see. Most of the ideas surfaced because of a “You know, it would really be fun to see…” conversation.
A lot of students feel pressure to take a more traditional path, like becoming pre-med, pre-law, or going for jobs in i-banking and consulting.  If they are trying to decide between doing something entrepreneurial and going a traditional path, how would you advise them?
That’s a personal call. I think most entrepreneurs can’t really help themselves and just find themselves coming up with an idea and pursuing it. I was even that way as a kid, starting clubs, events, little companies, etc.

Students often worry that talking about their idea will make it easy for someone else to steal, so they don't talk about it.  Were you protective of your idea?  What advice would you give to students around this topic?
We were really paranoid about someone stealing the idea early on. We then had the opportunity to speak with an expert in the field of magazine publishing and after being incredibly vague about our idea, he said “If you think you’re the first person to ever come up with the idea to do something similar to this, you’re crazy. The main question is whether you’re the right ones to carry it out.” So we relaxed a little and then realized that we could be far more successful if we sought the advice of those who knew much more than us. So we built an advisory board of those far smarter than we were. If there was one thing we learned early on, it was that we should talk to anyone who would hear us out. We learned so much from others and made so many helpful connections that stemmed from some of those earliest conversations.
mental_floss seems to have stayed true to being "an intelligent read, but not too intelligent".  It seems like a fine line to walk. How did you cultivate that culture, and do you still work to actively stay true to it? How do you keep from getting too intelligent, or say too dumbed down? 
You know, it would seem like there was some kind of formula that we follow, but there’s not. This has always been a gut feel for Mangesh and me. We want the brand to be both smart, and fun, but we don’t have an exact way of measuring that. We do try to keep a balance of subject matter in the magazine, and on the web, but it just kind of happens naturally. And in many ways, the magazine and website have always been very selfish endeavors. What works of art do we want to learn about? What scientific topics could be explored in a more fun way? What questions have been on our minds lately? And what are we hearing from our readers?
And part of the key is in the tone. Just about anything can be presented in the right way. As I mentioned before, there’s a sweetness to the tone. We never want the magazine or site to be mean-spirited, or to read as though we’re talking down to the reader. We’re in this quest with the reader, and are just as excited to be learning everything as they are.

Are you a Duke basketball fan?  Is there a favorite memory you'd be willing to share?
Yeah, Duke basketball is great. We camped out for games almost every year. It was really more about the experience of just doing something fun with the rest of the student body, but we were definitely big fans.  Our senior year, our friend John purchased a giant bear costume. There was no specific reason for this, other than the fact that we needed a bear costume. Well after Duke won the championship, John threw on the bear costume, ran down to the bonfire, grabbed a beer funnel from a friend in the crowd and ran around the fire as fast as one can run in a giant bear suit. The crowd around the fire pulled through as “the 6th man” in this event as well, and cheered John on through a solid lap around the fire. Then he got tired. One of our most proud moments in college was seeing the Durham newspaper the next morning with a huge photo and a caption that read “Beer guzzling bear celebrates after Duke’s victory.” It was well worth the $5 each of us had contributed to the acquisition of the costume.


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