Read This, Get Smarter

It was the best of times for seasoned trivia geeks.

“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” ruled the airwaves four nights a week and peo­ple widely asked whet­her your response was indeed your “final answer.” Will Pearson and his friends soaked in the Regis-mania huddled around a television at Duke University.

“There was something to that show that indicated to us people want to feel smart, people want to know a little bit of everything,” Pearson recalls. “But there’s a real block to this in our society, because most textbooks and most other forms of education just aren’t that interesting.”

So, Pearson and his friends went in search of an entertaining source that could teach them a little bit about a lot. When they didn’t find one, they launched a campus publication that would. They called it “Mental Floss” and asked professors to contribute articles to their funny and irreverent take on learning a little bit about everything.

Five years after that campus newspaper made the jump to the newsstand, Mental Floss has grown into a media brand with a glossy publication printed six times a year, three books from HarperCollins with four more on the way, a recurring segment on CNN Headline News, a trivia board game and a deal with Westlake’s McVay Media to develop a syndicated radio show.

Toby Maloney of Chagrin Falls, a former vice president of internal communications for KeyCorp and self-proclaimed “media junkie of the highest order,” became the company’s vice president of business development in 2002 after a friend mentioned Pearson and co-founder Mangesh Hattikudur were looking for investors.

“She told us some young kids had a magazine that they wanted to get off the printing press and they were looking for a very modest investment,” Maloney recalls. “When Melanie [Maloney] and I saw the quality of the thinking — starting with the name, which I think is brilliant for a brand — we were intrigued by it.”

And last year was a good one for Mental Floss, with holiday sales leaping 300 percent. To Maloney, it proves the company’s cocktail party fodder keeps readers coming back.

“The challenge isn’t how to craft our message, it’s letting people discover our product,” Maloney says. “Someone who labored through graduate school might see a headline like “Farewell To Arms” and think, Oh Hemingway. … Then, you read about five famous amputees. What can you do but laugh?”

Going "Mental"

A quick shot of knowledge, courtesy of Mental Floss' line of products:

1.  On Saddam Hussein: "In his last rather ignoble residence -- the 'spider hole' where he was finally apprehended...American soldiers found a refrigerator filled with Mars and Bounty candy bars and 7 UP." 

2.  On Space: How many planets in our solar system were discovered by American astronomers? (A: One, Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh.)

3.  On the snooze bar:  "Reports indicated 10 minutes was too long, since it allowed people to fall back into a 'deep' sleep, so clockmakers chose the nine-minute gear, believing people would wake up easier and happier after a shorter snooze."

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