The History of Mental Floss in 20 Facts for Its 20th Anniversary
Over the past 20 years, the curious-minded writers, editors, and creators on Team Mental Floss have endeavored to dig up and share with our readers some of the most amazing stories and little-known facts we can find. But it's also worth noting that Mental Floss itself—from its beginnings as a print magazine to the launch of our Webby Award-winning website—is also filled with its own fun bits of history. Like the fact that it was conceived of in a Duke University dorm or the unexpected roles that both Ralph Nader and Courteney Cox played in bringing the publication some national attention. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary throughout 2021, here are things you might not have known about the very site you're reading right now.
1. Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur came up with the idea for Mental Floss as students at Duke University.
Mental Floss’s origins go all the way back to when Mangesh Hattikudur and Will Pearson were freshmen living in the same hall in a Duke University dorm. “There were just a bunch of really fun, smart people in that hallway, and every evening, after our classes, we'd come back and get into ridiculous discussions,” Hattikudur says. They would talk about what they’d learned that day and have “bellyachingly funny” arguments over things like which dinosaur was the sexiest. “We would find a way to both argue about it and come out smarter at the end,” Hattikudur remembers. “And often, we wouldn't stop hanging out until like 2:30, 3 a.m.”
Many of those conversations were fueled by the one-off classes Pearson and Hattikudur were taking. Pearson, who was a huge fan of making lists, kept binders of facts and things he wanted to know, and aspired to one day write his own great list of knowledge in book form. Later, they found themselves in the cafeteria talking about the book Pearson wanted to write, and the futures that were in front of them. “We were talking specifically about how, once we left college, we were just going to be on this path to try to be successful at whatever we were doing,” Hattikudur says. “And you come home tired from you're like just working long hours. Where's the space to learn? And that’s when we stumbled into this idea: What if we send a magazine to your house, and it was just there for you—and you'd welcome it, like a friend? That joy of learning from each other, and hearing the stories that your professor would tell you at a bar instead of in the classroom—that entire feeling was what we wanted to capture.”
“Really the conversation started around: It would be so fun if you could just take a little bit of everything and feel like—even as a non-major or a nonspecialist in that category—that you could learn some of the most interesting things from each of those different disciplines,” Pearson says. “And you're in the best spot to do that in the world—you're at a university with all these smart professors and grad students and people who have dedicated their lives to these subjects. And so part of it was also just inspired by this idea of being able to learn a little bit of everything, knowing you may never be an expert on any of those things.”
It was the end of their sophomore year, and the idea for Mental Floss magazine had just been born. “We hadn’t taken any journalism classes, but I’d had a great experience on my high school paper, and we were just cocky and naïve,” Hattikudur says. “I think if either of us had known anything about the magazine business, we wouldn't have thought twice about it, but it was purely like, ‘Oh yeah, we can do this. Why not?’ It also came up at a time when we were trying to figure out what our majors were. Law school was my backup, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. And then I thought, if we could get away with this, like, scam of trying to package information and delight ourselves and just make ourselves happy, it would be worth indulging in.”
They began going around to professors and grad students, recruiting them to write for the magazine; their fellow students John Cascarano and Milena Viljoen also stepped up to help. (Lisako Koga would later come on board for the first official issue and serve as art director.) Pearson served as editor-in-chief, with Hattikudur taking the role of executive editor.
2. The name Mental Floss came from a poster on Hattikudur's cousin's wall.
Pearson recalls that they were trying to come up with a name for a month before Hattikudur uttered the phrase mental floss, which he recalled from a poster he had seen in his cousin’s room when he was a kid. “My cousin was into punk bands and stuff like that,” he says. “I think he had some sort of cartoon on his wall that said 'mental floss.' And I remember thinking it was funny and interesting, and as we were trying to figure out what [the magazine’s name] was, something triggered that."
Says Pearson, “We needed, in either one or two words, to be able to say that something was smart, but also that something was playful. And from the very beginning, we wanted to create this spirit that it didn't take itself too seriously. And so to me, that name kind of accomplished all of that. As soon as he said it, that was the end of the debate. I know that were dozens of other names we sort of jotted down, but nothing really gelled. There was nothing that was ever even close to being the name until this one came up."
Which is not to say the name was a hit with everyone else. When Pearson and Hattikudur went to meet with the president of Duke to tell her about the magazine, she loved the idea. “But the name is way off,” Pearson recalls her saying. “I really think that you should consider calling this magazine something like Conversations.”
“Obviously she was a brilliant woman and a great university president, from everything I can remember,” Pearson says. “But I'm so glad that we were like, no—we're not trying to create the predictable university interdisciplinary journal. What we're trying to create is something that feels, as Mangesh sometimes describes it, like culture meets pop culture, trying to find some way to create this little bit of hybrid of entertainment and education.”
Still, it wasn’t the last time they would hear criticism about the name Mental Floss—more on that in a bit.
3. Ralph Nader helped create early buzz around Mental Floss on the Duke campus.
Planning for Mental Floss’s debut “campus issue” began in earnest their junior year. Hattikudur was studying abroad, while Pearson stayed on campus to drum up funds and recruit people to write for the magazine. Hattikudur recalls doing as much brainstorming and recruiting as he could remotely, and when he came back to campus, he talked about this magazine that he and his friends were going to start. “And people were like, ‘You mean Mental Floss? Ralph Nader was on campus. And he was talking about it.’”
Nader, then contemplating a presidential run, had come to Duke to make a speech. “Apparently Will snuck up to the podium before he got on, wrote a little note about what Mental Floss was, and then just … peaced,” Hattikudur says. “And Ralph Nader, for the first, like, 10 minutes of his speech, talked about this new magazine that was coming to campus. So there was all this buzz about it. It was incredible.” (Says Pearson, “I tried to do the same thing with Jane Goodall, but then somebody was like, ‘Jane Goodall doesn't have time for this.’”)
4. When the campus issue of Mental Floss was done, the team cracked open some grape soda.
The learning curve for making the campus issue was huge. “Nowadays anybody who buys a Mac can design a magazine,” Pearson says. But that was not the case in the early 2000s. Duke had a limited number of computers with the programs necessary to design a magazine (in this case, Pagemaker), so they often found themselves putting together the issue in “a dungeon room in one of the student buildings,” Pearson says. “Most of the time it was in the middle of the night, cause we didn't usually get one of the official time slots that the other magazines would get.”
The team relied on Microsoft Encarta images for the campus issue. “We could never show it anywhere else because we truly did pull Microsoft Encarta images for the campus issue,” Pearson says. As for the cover: “It’s brutal. It was bad, but also great. Cause it was so bad.” Headlines included "What the Funk?!? Learn to Dig James Brown," and "Giant Heads Galore: What's the Deal with Easter Island?" It came out in Spring 2000, and the team distributed 3000 copies.
When the issue was done, they celebrated with a grape soda and Cheetos party because "a wine and cheese party just felt too sophisticated for us," Pearson says.
5. "Mr. Magazine" provided an early assist to Mental Floss.
Mental Floss got an early boost from "Mr. Magazine," a.k.a Professor Samir Husni. “First, we Googled ‘how to launch a magazine’ and then ordered his book, Launch Your Own Magazine,” Hattikudur says. “Will somehow found his address, and when he responded, we were so excited and danced around the room singing 'Husni Husni Husni! Husni Husni Husni!' He was such a huge help and supporter.”
When they sent him the campus issue, Hattikudur says that "he basically took a pen and slashed every page and said: 'This is boring; this is boring; this is boring!' He told us he believed in us and our idea, but that we’d have to prove we could make something interesting. Then he’d make some intros to help us get into bookstores. It was really humbling, but an incredible education. He told us we had to sell the concepts better, and punch it up and give every page a million entry points—captions so good it would make you want to read the articles. And we spent our entire senior year trying to make something we could be proud of ... with Lisako and Cascarano’s and a bunch of our friends’ help."
After the magazine launched in 2001, Husni listed Mental Floss in his roundup of “What’s New What’s Hot.” From Mr. Magazine’s description, it’s clear that some things remain the same at Mental Floss nearly two decades later: He celebrated the magazine’s inclusion of “every type of trivia you could possibly need or want to know” presented in “an odd yet interesting fashion.”
6. Pearson and Hattikudur created the first official issue of Mental Floss during their senior year.
With the campus issue under their belts, and their senior year on the horizon, Pearson and Hattikudur set their sights on the newsstand. “After the campus issue, I don't know why we were like, ‘Oh yeah, we should take this national right after this, like, embarrassment of an issue that was all Encarta images,” Hattikudur says. But they were determined, and began securing resources and help from organizations like Big Top Newsstand Services, which helped introduce the magazine to bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders.
“That was a huge part of it for us, because those kinds of newsstands were looking for what they saw as like independent or even oddball publications of all different kinds,” Pearson says. “They gave us a shot—they said, 'Let's print these and put them out there and see how they do.' Books-A-Million was another big early champion for us.”
Creating the issue wasn’t easy. They often found themselves at Kinko’s when they couldn’t get access to the school’s computers, and spent all night working on the issue after classes during the day. “I was basically nocturnal that semester,” Hattikudur says. “I'm a night owl anyway, but I would work until, like, 7 a.m. I had an 8 a.m. class that I'd go to, and then I'd sleep from 9 a.m. to whenever. And that’s just how we functioned to get the issue to the newsstand.”
Once the issue was completed, they sent it, on zip disks, to RR Donnelley to be printed—only to be told they hadn’t properly linked the files. They went back for forth with the company three times before getting it right. (Thankfully, the printer was patient.) “When we finally got it printed, we were so thrilled and so happy,” Hattikudur says. “But we didn't know to put any authors' bylines on the table of contents. And so people were mad about that. We also didn't realize that you had to put the price by the UPC code, so all these magazines got sent back to Will's dining room table, where he and his family put sticker prices on these magazines so that they could go to newsstands.”
It was a bit of a bumpy road, but ultimately it paid off: 8000 issues were distributed nationally, and sold 60 percent of copies available on newsstands. “We had no idea what it would do, but it was such a perfect fit for that bookstore audience,” Pearson says. “A lot of people discovered it. And part of what I'm so thankful for from those early issues is that I think readers saw it. I think they loved the idea and loved where we were trying to go, and I honestly think they were like, ‘I know this isn't a great magazine yet, but I love the promise of it, and I'm willing to support it.’”
Suddenly, people were subscribing. “We were handed $20, and we were like, ‘Oh, well, this can help us produce the next magazine,’” Pearson recalls. “Not that it was a great business strategy, because if it didn't work, you then owed these people their money back. But fortunately, it did work out. That allowed us to then start building a little bit of cash to start producing future issues.”
The Pearsons’ dining room table served an important function at this stage, too: “My parents' dining room became the subscription fulfillment center,” he says. “I would get a couple of interns from the local high school. We were literally putting the magazines in envelopes and mailing them out, because we didn't know how to do it any other way, and we would ship these things off from there.”
The magazine wouldn't get its first real office, in Birmingham, Alabama, until issue five. "It was in an old dentist office, and the Muzak was never turned off," Hattikudur says, "so it was always at a low level hum in the background, which we’d have dance parties to late at night." According to an issue of the magazine, the office "effectively function[ed] as a clubhouse, fully equipped with yapping dog ... make-your-own-work hours, and no rules."
7. Albert Einstein became Mental Floss's mascot—but he wasn't an intentional pick.
The first newsstand issue of Mental Floss magazine features the iconic, tongue-out photo of Albert Einstein on the cover. From there out on, the scientist appeared on many a Mental Floss cover, becoming kind of a mascot. But that wasn’t necessarily what the co-founders had planned. “We were trying to find a way to communicate the spirit of this magazine and just racking our brains on what to do with it,” Pearson recalls. “There was an article on Einstein in the issue, and we found that classic image of Einstein sticking his tongue out. Here's one of history's greatest geniuses at a moment where he's not taking himself too seriously. So we decided to use that.”
For the second issue (which featured the first appearance of the classic mental_floss logo, designed by Christine Hoover), a.k.a. the Genius Issue, they spoofed the cover of the Beatles’s Abbey Road, with the musicians replaced by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Mark Twain. “We decided to throw Einstein in the mix again,” Pearson says. “And that sort of became a thing where we were like, ‘Oh, maybe we could do this. That could become like our Playboy bunny or our Newman or whatever it may be to be able to put on every issue.’” (For the record, there was an official mascot, drawn by Hattikudur, but he didn't last past the third issue.)
8. The magazine came out at a challenging time for the industry.
Pearson and Hattikudur put the first issue on newsstands in May 2001 with plans to publish quarterly. They believed in their idea, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t experience moments of doubt. It wasn't an easy time to be in the print business. The dot-com bubble had just burst, “so all the money that had been flooding into print, and all these bad ideas that had been backed by easy money, suddenly all of that vanished,” Hattikudur says. “And then on top of that, we put out our first real issue, finally like scrounged up the funds, sent the second issue to the printer, got on newsstands, and 9/11 happened. I just thought, like, ‘I don't know that this thing is going to succeed in this time.’”
At that time, Hattikudur was a habitual watcher of Charlie Rose, “because it was the only place you could hear editors talk about how they made their magazines,” he says. He recalls seeing an episode featuring Oliviero Toscani, the creative director of Talk magazine—an interview that left Hattikudur in "total angst." His takeaway was that no magazine would succeed in the new world of the internet without things like millions of dollars in funding, huge backers like Miramax, or a superstar editor, "and that's what we were competing against on the newsstand and in trying to get any press for our print product," he says. “I remember thinking, like, ‘We are f***ed. How are we going to pull this off?’”
Not long after, Felix Dennis—the guy behind lad mags like Maxim and FHM, as well as the periodical The Week—appeared on Charlie Rose. Dennis had a much different take. Rather than a superstar editor and getting funding by selling a ton of ads, Dennis believed that a small team who created a product they believed in and had a genuine connection with an audience was what would make a magazine successful. “That actually gave me a lot of faith that we were onto something,” Hattikudur says. “It is strange that 10 years later we sold Mental Floss to him.”
9. The staff worked part-time jobs—and put in their own money—while making early issues of the magazine.
A lack of traditional funding meant that both Pearson and Hattikudur had to work part-time jobs—Hattikudur waiting tables, Pearson substitute teaching—while making the early issues of Mental Floss. Hattikudur recalls working six-and-a-half days a week. “I'd go from my waiting tables job to working at a video store, just being on my feet all day,” he says. “And at the end of the day, I'd come home and work on the magazine. The energy that you have at that age for something you really believe in and want to do is remarkable.” The precious half-day he had off was devoted to studying up on other magazines and brainstorming for Mental Floss: “I would go to a falafel place that was at Duke, this place called International Delights. The one meal I got to treat myself to was falafel and this really sweet Coke, and I would just read magazines and study and brainstorm.” They put their own money into the magazine, too.
“The number of ‘nos,’ and ‘this is a terrible ideas,’ and ‘it's just too hards’ that we got along the way were not insignificant,” Hattikudur says. But still, they kept at it—and according to them, there was no one big moment when they knew that Mental Floss was going to succeed.
“Every day, we would get up, and we loved this so much that it was all we wanted to work on," Pearson says. "It was all we wanted to think about. And every day we just sort of inched this whole thing forward. And with each issue, it would get a little bit better. We worked at it for a year or so. We looked back and realized how far we'd come. There was no moment that made it leap in any direction.”
Instead, he describes “little jumps”—like The Washington Post covering Mental Floss, or the magazine appearing on Friends (more on that in a bit)—that “would give us a little bit more exposure, a little bit more credibility.”
For Hattikudur, those little moments included people who'd been at other publications coming to work for Mental Floss. “When Neely [Harris] came on, she'd actually been an editor somewhere," he says. "When every person who came on after that had like some actual training or some actual reason for being there. Once you get people who are more talented than you believing in you, and joining your team like that, each one of those felt like a vote of confidence.”
10. Mental Floss's early investors left their jobs to take an active role in the magazine.
A year into making Mental Floss, Hattikudur and Pearson began searching for investors, and they created a proposal that emphasized Felix Dennis's take on the magazine industry. “It talks about The Week, and how it was a magazine that at the time said they'd have six pages of advertising,” Hattikudur says. “Because restricting the ad number to six pages made the pages more valuable—it was really about the connection between the user and about creating something that felt like service.”
The duo found Toby and Melanie Maloney, who believed in their vision. “When Toby and Melanie came on as investors," Hattikudur says, "that was a really big moment for us." Most investors stick to investing their money into a new venture, but the Maloneys gave Mental Floss a lot more than cash: They left their corporate gigs so they could have a more active role in the magazine's management and ramp up its production. "When I saw the product and the business plan, I got very excited," Toby Maloney said at the time. "We're excited about its potential. We're realists, too, and we know that this will take a lot of effort. But we're entrepreneurial at heart and look forward to doing something different." The Maloneys played an active role in Mental Floss until it was sold to Felix Dennis in 2011.
11. A personal approach helped the magazine succeed.
Hattikudur and Pearson really cared for the people who subscribed to Mental Floss. Early on, they would do things like send personal notes back to readers who had written in. But sometimes, they went above and beyond what anyone at a typical magazine would do. “There was a woman from like a senior center who wrote to us and said ‘I love your magazine, but the print size is too small—when are you coming out with a large print edition?’” Hattikudur recalls. “Will and I looked at each other, like, ‘We can barely make a magazine. How are we going to come up with a large print edition?’ So Will started sending her Word docs of the articles so that she could print them out at whatever size she wanted. And that Christmas, she gave 25 gift subscriptions to the magazine.” He says their personal approach helped create an audience that “would evangelize the product for us,” which was “a big part of like why we were in business two years, five years, 10 years down the line.”
On the subject of reader mail, Hattikudur says that "The notes from readers, even when they were correcting us, were so gentle!" But that wasn't always the case. Neely Harris Lohmann, who served as editor-in-chief from 2001 to 2011, recalls trading words with some fervent defenders of Sasquatch. "In our cover story for The Hoaxes Issue (Volume 2, Issue 6), we included things like the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, naturally," she told us in an email. "Well, that really irked the folks at the Bigfoot Believers Society of America. I got my first piece of hate mail in response, which led to an online exchange (such a rookie mistake!), which led to more hate mail." One subject line read, "You can be wrong, but do you have to be so smug about it?”
She also recalls when a subscription was denied to an inmate at a Texas prison because it apparently contained “material on the setting up and operation of criminal schemes,” Lohmann recalls. "Our nerd crew back at Floss headquarters rode that street cred for a while."
12. Mental Floss was purchased by Felix Dennis's Dennis Publishing in 2011.
In 2011, London-based Dennis Publishing, founded by poet and philanthropist Felix Dennis, bought Mental Floss. Dennis expressed one particular concern about buying Mental Floss—its name. “We were so excited to meet him,” Hattikudur says, “and the first thing he told us was: ‘I read four of your magazines. I've got to say, Mental Floss is the worst f***ing name in the history of publishing.’” The reason, Pearson recalls he told them, was because "‘nobody else in the world knows what the f*** floss is,’ talking about other cultures and people not flossing. And we did discover that with translations of our books.”
Dennis did ultimately decide to purchase Mental Floss, and was a great supporter of the magazine until his death in 2014. Mental Floss became a digital-only publication when the print magazine folded in 2016; Pearson and Hattikudur themselves left a year later. "At some point, we were hiring people who liked reading Mental Floss growing up," Hattikudur says. "It was like, 'I think we aged out of this.'" Says Pearson, "Somebody that was like, 'Yeah, I loved the reading this in middle school.' And I was like, 'Oh God—it's time for us to move on.'" They went to How Stuff Works—whose CEO was an early supporter of the magazine—to make podcasts. (Pearson and Hattikudur are now COO of Podcasts and SVP of Podcasts, respectively, at iHeartRadio.)
Dennis Publishing owned Mental Floss until 2018, when it was bought by Minute Media.
13. Mental Floss launched its YouTube Channel in 2013.
In 2013—the year people were doing the Harlem Shake and asking "What Does the Fox Say?"—Mental Floss debuted on YouTube with John Green (who departed the channel in 2018) as its primary host. Following two short previews, Mental Floss uploaded its first true video—a List Show video titled 50 Common Misconceptions—on March 13. "It was one of the 100 fastest growing YouTube channels that year," Hattikudur says, "and we got invited to an event in LA where it was honored." After The List Show (which is still going strong!), the channel launched series like Big Questions, Misconceptions, Scatterbrained, Food History, and Throwback.
14. Mental Floss magazine appeared on a number of TV shows.
Mental Floss has had the honor of being the preferred reading material for a number of fictional characters on television. The magazine had a breakout turn on Friends when Monica Geller (Courteney Cox) was spotted with the magazine in Central Perk during the 2003 episode “The One With the Soap Opera Party.” (She was given the magazine by her then-husband, David Arquette, who told Entertainment Weekly, "I got the magazine from a friend. I thought it was so interesting, I passed it on to Courteney." She, in turn, gave it to the show's publicity team.) On a 2011 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David displayed his questionable taste for finer periodicals when he picked another magazine out of a pile that contained one of our issues. We’ve also appeared on The OA (leading to at least one fan theory), The Magicians, and an episode of The Affair, where Dominic West collapsed near an issue just after being stabbed. "It’s also been on 30 Rock, Bored to Death, Nip/Tuck," Hattikudur says, "and that Jodi Picoult movie [My Sister's Keeper] where the kid decides to divorce her parents based on an article in the mag (I haven’t watched it, but got a lot of texts about it). Among other places …"
But there was one Mental Floss magazine movie cameo that didn't happen. At one point, it was common practice for films to request permission to use a magazine on-screen. Hattikudur recalled one request for a movie with a scene featuring comedian Bernie Mac, who would be getting a pedicure and complaining about all the out-of-date magazines at the salon. “It was Bad Santa,” Hattikudur says. He eagerly watched the movie hoping to spot the magazine, but sadly, the scene got cut.
15. Mental Floss has had many notable contributors.
When perusing the bylines of some of your favorite Mental Floss articles, you might just stumble across a few familiar names you’ve seen in books, on TV, and at plenty of other distinguished outlets across the web. Among the notable writers who have contributed to Mental Floss over the years include The Fault in Our Stars author John Green (who had bylines on website and magazine before he began hosting the YouTube channel); Hank Green, an early writer for the magazine; Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings, who pens Mental Floss’s weekly Kennections quiz; Jen Doll (Save the Date); Sam Kean (The Disappearing Spoon); Maggie Koerth Baker (Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us); The Year of Living Biblically author A.J. Jacobs, who wrote a column for the magazine called "Modern Problems"; Deborah Blum (The Poisoner's Handbook); chef Alton Brown, who had a cooking column back in the print days; Dana Schwartz (And We're Off); and Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children).
“We saw so much talent pass through this company,” Hattikudur says. “And we felt lucky that we got these people. It was a factor of the fact that we never had money. You had to go after people who were young and talented and ambitious. And the number of big names and industry experts and bestsellers who came through is not small. Kevin Roose published early in Mental Floss while he was still in college. James Hamblin was writing quizzes for us before he had a job at The Atlantic. Caity Weaver. They’re real, significant people in the world who somehow touched Mental Floss and got ensnared by us along the way. And it’s joyous, you know? Most of them don't even know me—I've watched these careers and been thrilled by them. And the fact that like the people who did stick around shaped this thing into like something that was so much bigger and better than we ever could have ... to be able to pause for a second and look back at who we got to work with is such a pleasure.”
16. Mental Floss collaborated with National Geographic to air the first-ever live brain surgery.
In 2015, Brain Surgery Live with Mental Floss aired on National Geographic, broadcasting the first-ever live surgical brain procedure—and the patient, electrician Greg Gindley, was awake the whole time. Surgeons implanted electrodes in his skull for deep-brain-stimulation, or DBS, a treatment that can help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson's and epilepsy. While Bryant Gumbel hosted, multiple cameras peered into the medical team's work and Gindley provided feedback to the surgeons. "The stimulation stopped his tremors, and by the end of the live surgery he could sign his name and move his hands steadily across an iPad on camera—stuff he hadn’t been able to do for years," Hattikudur says. Grindley was up and about just a few days after the procedure.
17. Mental Floss has won a number of awards.
What do the movie Titanic, Michael Phelps, and Mental Floss have in common? They've all won multiple awards. Mental Floss has received four Webby Awards, including a People's Choice Webby in 2020. We were also the proud recipient of three ASME award nominations; a Streamy; some Digiday Awards; and Library Awards, among others.
18. Mental Floss was meant to be a brand from the beginning.
These days, Mental Floss is first and foremost an information portal on the web—and sometimes still in print, as our 2019 special issue shows—but our brand has reached beyond the confines of your browser. We’ve marketed T-shirts, calendars (including a 2021 desk calendar), a few board games, and a lot of books. For a time, we even had a physical store in Chesterland, Ohio.
Having a recognizable style—funny, quirky, and informative—that was available beyond the printed or digital page was no accident. "From the beginning, we knew we wanted to start a magazine, and we wanted to do books," Hattikudur says. "We wanted to do virtual field trips. We wanted to do a website. If you look at the document outlining all the things we wanted to do, those are all things we ended up doing. It wasn't like, 'Oh, we'll start a magazine, and that'll be it.' We set out to make a brand from the start."
19. There were a few strange and incredible ideas left on the editorial floor.
As at any publication, Mental Floss has seen its fair share of products and story ideas that never happened. When Pearson and Hattikudur pitched Mental Floss to Big Top, one included example was a "Fed Up People Issue" featuring "Cannibalism's Who's Who," which ultimately wasn't made. They also made a Worst Issue solely so they could do a Second Worst Issue ... but that Second Worst Issue never got made.
Hattikudur also wanted to create a product called Rational Putty, what he calls “a cousin to Silly Putty, but the most boring version—it would only come in one of four boring colors, like gray and beige, and wouldn't do anything.” ("Never Wacky, Zany, Imprudent, or Childish!" the proposed packaging explained. "Great For Your Inner Adult!") The product went nowhere. Another idea that went nowhere? A bar mitzvah to celebrate when Mental Floss turned 13.
The magazine also did a Fun issue, and the team had an idea that resulted in what is, in our opinion, one of the greatest what-could-have-beens in Mental Floss history.
“We reached out to a young guy to be a Bard for the issue and compose songs,” Hattikudur says. “He said, ‘I love Mental Floss and I love money. I just need to think about it—I'm working on something else right now.’ And … that was Lin Manuel Miranda.” You know, the guy who created Hamilton. “He ultimately didn't write it, but we would have had some raps about that issue of Mental Floss!” The idea ended up going forward with Cadamole, a.k.a. Adam Cole.
20. Mental Floss's founders are not surprised the brand is still around 20 years later.
Twenty years since its first official issue hit newsstands, Mental Floss is still a thriving brand—and that success is no surprise to its co-founders. "Did I know exactly what it would look like 20 years later, or what exactly what that would be? No," Pearson says. "There were scary moments and there were times when we were struggling just get to the next issue and things like that. But there really wasn't a moment where I was like, 'I wonder if this will make it.' I feel like there was always this irrational optimism around the future of it."
"We took $150,000, essentially, from our investors, and then we never really got more money," Hattikudur says. "There was a bit of pocket change along the way, but until we sold it to Felix, we just sustained it. And that sort of grinding it out for that long just gives you the faith that this thing can continue. And the other thing is, we were nimble about this from the start. We always figured, there's a board game, there's a series of books. There's a line of t-shirts. We knew that, whatever we were doing, there was another way to make something work. So I never really like questioned it, though there were lots of times along the way that Will and I would joke, 'Is this the year we apply to law school?'"
No offense to lawyers, but thankfully, for everyone who has worked at or enjoyed Mental Floss in some form over the years—and been so much better for it—law school never became a necessity. "The thing that I learned, going to work for my uncle in advertising the summer between high school and college, writing ads for washing machines, is 'I can use all of this creativity to get people to care about one washing machine over another,'" Hattikudur says. "When Will and I came up with idea of Mental Floss, the fact that we could pour all of that creativity into people caring about learning was just stunning. And that we got to do that as our job was just unimaginable."