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Get Ready to Feel Smart Again: Floss Your Brain With Mental Floss Magazine… The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With the Magazine’s Co-Founder Will Pearson

August 22, 2014


“I think there is an incorrect belief that younger readers aren’t reading print. And I think that belief has largely been because so many people are watching the shifts in the industry that are happening that have made it more challenging for some of the huge mass market titles to be successful in the same way they were in the past.” Will Pearson

mental floss-2 Do you want to know how to start a magazine? Just ask Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur, two young men, who while still in college, decided to Google that very question.

The result was the birth of Mental Floss – a magazine that makes its readers “feel smart again” by informing them of just about anything they might want to know – from the sublime to the ridiculous.

And 14 years later, the magazine is still flossing its readers’ brains with content so original, it’s as though the words themselves had just been born.

I spoke with Will Pearson, one of the magazine’s founders, recently and discovered the passion and fire he had for Mental Floss as a younger man, when he and his buddy Mangesh came to see me at Ole Miss in 2000 to ask me about the magazine start-up, was still burning bright after all these years. From a YouTube channel, to games, from the print magazine to a children’s line of products; Mental Floss and its creators are the epitome of innovation and zesty delight.

So get ready to “feel smart again” as you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Will Pearson – co-founder of Mental Floss.

But first the sound-bites…

will-pearsonOn the current status of Mental Floss after 14 years: The current status of Mental Floss is good. Fortunately, we’ve seen tremendous growth over the past three years.

On how they’ve managed to maintain their younger audience:
I think there is an incorrect belief that younger readers aren’t reading print.

On the increase in frequency of the magazine:
We’ve been able to maintain our growth and with a profitable circulation have found that it was profitable to go one issue higher, from six to seven to eight and now nine and looking at going beyond that potentially and we’ll continue to do that as long as the numbers make sense.

On whether the brand could exist without the digital component:
Can the brand exist without a printed magazine? I think it can exist, but I don’t think it would be as strong without the magazine.

On where the majority of their revenue is coming from:
An increasing percentage of our revenue over the past couple of years has been coming from advertising on the digital side of the business and that’s now representing probably about half of our business, to be honest with you.

On anything for children on the horizon:
We’ve definitely been dabbling in the children’s industry. There is a great company that’s called Melissa & Doug that make children’s products and we’ve started a line with them called Smarty Pants and we’re expanding that line.

On what keeps him up at night: I think weighing the opportunities that we have is constantly what keeps me up at night. Trying to think of what we should be doing next and that constant battle and balance of making sure that we’re doing the things that we’re currently doing very well, while also looking at new opportunities.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Will Pearson – Co-Founder, Mental Floss…

Samir Husni: A lot has changed since we visited some 14 years ago and also with the recent death of Felix Dennis. So considering all that’s happened, what’s the current status of Mental Floss?

Will Pearson: The current status of Mental Floss is good. Fortunately, we’ve seen tremendous growth over the past three years. You know, one of the main reasons we sold to Felix was not just for own wellbeing, but knowing that the brand would be in good hands. We’d admired Felix from a distance for years, the way that he approached business and the way that he had successfully grown so many businesses. And had managed to do so while not always following the rules of the industry, which was kind of exciting for us. So we knew that in selling to Felix we would be able to continue to grow Mental Floss in the spirit in which it was launched and not have to follow the rules of some corporation or just become a number within a bigger corporation.

Really nothing has changed with Mental Floss since Felix passed. When Felix knew that he was not well and a few of us also knew that he wasn’t well, he put the pieces in place to make sure his companies in the U.S. and around the world would remain strong and would continue funding the planting of the trees in his forest in the U.K. and that would remain his legacy.

It’s in many ways such a fitting thing with it being somebody as eccentric as Felix, that after he passes we’re now working for a bunch of trees, which is very funny and also I think for our employees a kind of fun thing to know that it’s not some giant corporation that everybody is reporting to, that we’re actually doing this for a really fun and interesting cause.

Samir Husni: What would you tell someone who would say to you, “But Will, you’re cutting trees to continue with print, yet you’re planting trees…

Will Pearson: (Laughs) This is very true. And it is one of those things – there’s nothing that replaces the experience of reading a print magazine for a lot of people. Obviously the industry has tried to make moves to move to a more sustainable source of paper for printing, but really until the day comes that something feels as good or replaces that experience of reading a print publication, there will still be those of us that enjoy holding and reading paper. It’s a very different experience and I know you fully understand.

And so we’ll be doing that as long as there is an interest there. It’s not the biggest portion of our audience, but it is by far the most loyal, those 150 to 200,000 people that read every issue are by far the most engaged members of our audience.

Samir Husni: So who is your audience? You started this magazine 14 years ago; you and Mangesh were the digital natives, you were both finishing school and the Internet was just coming onto the scene. How have you managed to keep the same audience as you both are?

Will Pearson: I think there is an incorrect belief that younger readers aren’t reading print. And I think that belief has largely been because so many people are watching the shifts in the industry that are happening that have made it more challenging for some of the huge mass market titles to be successful in the same way they were in the past.

But there is no evidence that smaller titles, or titles that find a very core audience, can’t be successful. So fortunately, we really had no choice but to start this brand on a shoestring budget and to grow it organically. We didn’t have the deep pockets to blow this out in a huge way. If we had, we would have burned through that cash quickly and probably have gone out of business.

I think the same would have happened had we decided to launch Mental Floss as a digital-only property. But what we did instead was in a very organically-grown way, we started to find this core audience. And in many ways it was more of a psychographic, our audience is a younger audience, many of them are in their 20s and 30s, but at the same time it’s really more the lifelong learner. So we have a decent percentage of our readers who are retired and just looking to continue their education or return to their education.

We have a number of readers who are teenagers that are interested in these kinds of topics and looking forward to the things that they may learn in college.

Unlike many lifestyle titles or titles that are really focused in on a very narrow group, Mental Floss is really reaching more of that psychographic of the lifelong curious learner that’s out there.

Samir Husni: I’ve noticed that recently the frequency of the printed magazine is increasing. You went from six to nine times…

mental floss2-3Will Pearson: Yes, that’s kind of unusual right now in the industry. But the reality is because of the circulation model that we have, because we refuse to spend a fortune to kind of artificially grow the circulation and because we don’t give the magazine away, which much of that goes to your credit of advising those of us who were starting up magazines over the past decade or two, we know the value of our product.

Magazines have real value. So much work goes into producing these and readers get great joy out of reading each issue and it almost seems criminal to try and sell a subscription for $3.99 or whatever, because it doesn’t lead to a sustainable model.

What we really had to do, out of necessity early on, but have continued to do so, and it was certainly a belief of Felix’s with The Week or any of his other publications, charge the value of the magazine. So people are paying $24 or $25 for a subscription to Mental Floss, which on a price per copy basis is really high across the industry right now.

So we’ve been able to maintain that growth and with a profitable circulation have found that it was profitable to go one issue higher, from six to seven to eight and now nine and looking at going beyond that potentially and we’ll continue to do that as long as the numbers make sense.

Samir Husni: You referred to Mental Floss as a brand, not just a magazine; do you think the brand can exist if there is no printed product?

Will Pearson: Can the brand exist without a printed magazine? I think it can exist, but I don’t think it would be as strong without the magazine. Again, it’s almost intangible to try and explain it, this connection that people have to print magazines that deliver to them in the mail with whatever frequency it is. That establishes such a strong connection and when we think about the other things we do as a brand, whether it’s publishing books or creating games or building an e-commerce division or trying to build up awareness of our YouTube channel; just anything that we’re doing, that core magazine audience are the first ones to know about it and are the first ones to rally behind it and spread the word about the existence of whatever that new project is.

I do believe the brand could exist at this point without the print product, but I believe it would be existing as a weaker brand than it is now.

Samir Husni: Where is the majority of your revenue coming from: the games, YouTube or the print magazine?

Will Pearson: You know, an increasing percentage of our revenue over the past couple of years has been coming from advertising on the digital side of the business and that’s now representing probably about half of our business, to be honest with you. The subscription revenue or circulation revenue is becoming a smaller piece, but still a very important component and the good thing about the way we’ve been trying to build this is the advertising revenue is being built on top of the sustainable business because what we don’t want to do is fall into the trap of being so reliant on advertising that the company could not survive if there were a significant downturn in the advertising industry.

We’re in a fortunate time now though where we’ve seen such explosive growth on the digital side of the business; the video side of the business and on social media and so many advertisers are moving there rapidly that it’s given us the opportunity to capitalize on that and we’d be crazy not to capitalize on it, but it’s just a common additional, strong component of what we’re doing now as a brand.

Samir Husni: After 14 years, do you feel smart again, or did that smartness never leave you?

Will Pearson: (Laughs) It depends on what day you’re asking me. Actually, I think part of the fun of this business to this point and the reason that we’re still doing this 14 years later is that is does still feel that there is so many things for us to learn. Every day we wake up and we try to think how can we advance the business one additional step and it still feels very entrepreneurial and that’s a very exciting part of being able to do this. I think the day that it feels like we’re either on auto-pilot or just trying to maintain an existing business, it would probably be time for Mangesh and me to move on to something else. But fortunately we’re not at that point. We continue to learn every day and we continue to grow the business. I know we’ve learned an enormous amount over the past several years, but with just how much the industry has changed and how much the world is changing on a daily basis also makes it obvious to us that we have that much more to learn.

Samir Husni: Since you’re both parents, are we going to see a special issue such as Mental Floss for Kids?

Will Pearson: We’ve definitely been dabbling in the children’s industry. There is a great company that’s called Melissa & Doug that make children’s products and we’ve started a line with them called Smarty Pants and we’re expanding that line.

And we are evaluating what the possibilities might be, both in print and digitally, for how to expand that line. Because so many of our readers are either becoming parents or grandparents and it’s something that they’re thinking about.

Part of the spirit of Mental Floss from its beginning was being able to celebrate knowledge in a way that children do or in the way that many children’s products do and that we weren’t really seeing happening with adult products. So I think it would only make sense for us to extend in that direction.

Samir Husni: Anything else you want to add?

Will Pearson: It is still fun after all these years, especially when people are constantly asking us: how did this happen? How did this come about? It’s just funny to be able to tell them the story and your involvement in the story and to be able to say, you know, we wanted to know how to start a magazine, so we Googled it and Google was a pretty young thing at that point, and ended up finding someone who would become a longtime mentor and friend. And it’s just been a lot of fun to be able to go on this ride and have so many people who were such a big part of the early start of the magazine to still be cheering us on.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Will Pearson: (Laughs) Well, if it’s not my children, which they unfortunately are Pearson’s, which means they don’t sleep much, we don’t sleep much by nature. Which is both a good and a bad thing, I guess.

But I think weighing the opportunities that we have is constantly what keeps me up at night. Trying to think of what we should be doing next and that constant battle and balance of making sure that we’re doing the things that we’re currently doing very well, while also looking at new opportunities. And it’s easy to go too far in either direction, like not exploring new opportunities, but it’s also very easy to go in the direction of trying to do too many things at once and diluting the brand and not doing any of those things very well. And that’s the battle that I’m constantly fighting and trying to think through internally.

But it’s also why whenever we approach a new project, we tend to experiment a good bit and be able to survive early failure by those experiments, rather than just sinking millions of dollars into some new project. The YouTube channel, for example, is something that we decided, you know what, for a year let’s test this, let’s do a show, see how it goes; if it does well, we can expand it beyond there. And it’s been a huge success; there’s over a million subscribers to the channel now, thanks to our partnership with John Green, who’s been a big part of that and so we’re going to be expanding that, launching a couple of new shows this year.

But those are the kinds of things that are constantly keeping me up at night and just asking myself, are we focusing on the right things.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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