How a middle-aged media junkie helped two college students launch the hit magazine Mental Floss
By John Ettorre ’80
They were two college students with the kernel of an idea for a new magazine. Around the turn of the century, Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur bumped into each other in the cafeteria at Duke University and began talking about how the world needed an interesting and educational magazine, one that might emulate the vibrant classroom lectures of their favorite professors.
“What if there was a magazine that came to your doorstep every month, and it was filled with all these great, fascinating topics, and you could learn just by skimming it,” Hattikudur says, describing the founding vision. “It never talked down to you, it wasn’t pedantic, it was just approachable and smart.”
Pearson and Hattikudur scoured the magazine rack at a local chain bookstore in search of such a publication and, finding none, decided to start their own. Eventually, they took their idea and enthusiasm to the university’s president, who liked it and offered to help.
But ideas and institutional support aren’t enough to build a national magazine from scratch. Done right, magazines are enormously costly enterprises, and like restaurants, they’re notorious burial grounds for eager novices. The pair needed investors – they knew that much. But at the time, they didn’t know they also needed business mentors and seasoned operational support, though they’d soon come to learn that as well.
“We were a couple of 21-year-olds trying to start a company,” Pearson says. “And while that’s all the rage now, people back then treated you like you were crazy.”
But the Maloneys didn’t.
Toby Maloney ’70 was a Pittsburgh native who almost followed an academic track after completing an English degree at John Carroll University and a master’s in English at Case Western Reserve University. Instead, he eventually traveled down the corporate path, becoming head of communications for the global pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham, now GlaxoSmithKline. There, he met his future wife, Melanie, a native of New York’s Finger Lakes region who specialized in organizational training and development but had a special flair for day-to-day operations. They were alike in one key way: Each had a preternatural warmth and a much-remarked-upon talent for earning trust from and bonding with others, especially young people.
Toby Maloney met Hattikudur through his former teaching connections. The magazine debuted in May 2001, soon after the founders began discussing how the Maloneys might help them. Less than a month into that conversation, the Maloneys flew to Birmingham, Ala., to meet Pearson and Hattikudur, and the quartet felt an instant affinity.
“We hit it off,” Pearson recalls. “At a gut level, we felt it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
The Maloneys decided to quit their lucrative day jobs and turn their full attention to building Mental Floss.
“Thinking back, I’m struck by how bizarre this was,” Pearson says. “Why in the world would a couple of seasoned executives leave their jobs to join these two college students?”
But that’s not all they did. While the founders were tentatively feeling out interested parties for relatively small, early investments – perhaps $5,000 – the Maloneys boldly wrote a six-figure check, the ultimate expression of confidence in this fledgling venture. They were now senior managers, mentors, and investors all rolled into one. The odyssey was about to begin.
Toby Maloney grew up in a boisterous, Irish-Catholic family that encouraged learning and debate.
“What I’m eternally grateful for is the dinner table conversations,” he says. “You were expected to report how your day went, and you were allowed to have opinions. You were allowed to learn.”
Maloney’s mom was a librarian, so he started reading the Sunday New York Times as a kid. His dad, who owned convenience store franchises, introduced him to the Wall Street Journal while he was still a small child.
“I bought stocks with my paper-route money,” he says.
His life would be changed forever when he was accepted into a summer journalism institute for high school students at Northwestern University in Chicago.
“There were heavy hitters in terms of newsmakers that came through there, and it was probably the best six weeks of my early years,” he says.
Maloney was hooked for life. He chose his undergraduate major almost by default.
“I decided to be an English major just because I liked to read,” he says. “I had no career plan in sight.”
Like many Carroll students of his era, Maloney was dazzled by the whirling dervish that was English professor Richard Clancy, Ph.D., ’54 who became his freshman advisor.
“He treated me as an adult, intellectually,” he says. “I will be eternally grateful to him for learning, not only about writing, English, and literature, but as a human being, just growing up. I can still see him running around the classroom, this tiny little guy, engaging, drawing you in, and giving you a chance to express yourself, to learn. He helped me in ways he would never know.”
Outside class, Maloney learned plenty more.
“Some of my favorite memories of school involve sitting around talking with my equally unfocused friends,” he says with a broad grin, recalling those long-ago bull sessions. “And for me, it has been a lifelong bias in hiring.
I would always argue, give me the kid who’s intellectually curious, in whom you see a spark. You can train for skills. I’m just a believer in liberal arts education, even as we become more career focused.”
Maloney might have been describing the ideal Mental Floss reader.
More than just a magazine
Mental Floss is now a celebrated institution with almost a cult following among the intellectual and curious. It’s not just a magazine, but an international multimedia platform for all sorts of eclectic information and products. At airport kiosks, the flagship print magazine appears next to the register with such heavyweight publications such as Time, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan, all of which have been around for almost a century but struggle to remain viable in the digital age. Mental Floss is barely a dozen years old and thriving in various formats: print, online, video, and branded merchandise.
Maloney was perhaps the most instrumental person crafting its original business plan. To this day, he’s especially proud that his early vision came to fruition, though in a bigger way than even he could have imagined.
“They were multiplatform before the word even existed,” says Samir Husni, Ph.D., founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi.
Calling himself Mr. Magazine, Husni first became involved with Mental Floss during its early stages as a consultant.
“I immediately thought they (Maloneys) adopted those two kids and the magazine,” he says. “So they really adopted three kids.”
Husni compares Mental Floss in its early days to the Little Engine that Could.
“They knew exactly their size and operated accordingly,” he says.
But as it caught on with readers and advertisers, it also caught the eye of a larger player in the industry, British-based Dennis Publishing. In 2011, the founders agreed to sell the company. But the new owner, however, recognized the secret to the magazine’s success lay in the fertile minds of its still-young founders, so it asked them to stay on.
The Maloneys also stayed around for a year of the transition and remained close to the founders. As they slowly returned to their life in Novelty, Ohio, word quickly spread about this unusual couple who helped engineer one of the great American start-up success stories of the decade. And they were inundated with inquiries from other entrepreneurial hopefuls.
“We never said no to anyone,” Maloney says.
While the couple freely shares their advice with anyone who asks, the angel investors and restless teachers/entrepreneurial coaches also were quietly scouting for the next thing that might inspire them. Recently, they discovered BoxCast while Toby Maloney trolled the aisles at a start-up convention. BoxCast is a promising young company that streams video content, and the founder is only slightly older than the Mental Floss pair.
Not knowing his full backstory at first, BoxCast founder and CEO Gordon Daily thought Maloney was just an unassuming guy asking interesting questions. When he learned about the Maloneys’ role in Mental Floss, he pressed them to serve as advisors. It wasn’t too long before the couple had invested in the company and became full-time contributors at BoxCast’s striking offices at Burke Lakefront Airport in downtown Cleveland.
“Toby is instrumental for us,” Daily says. “He’s at the core of all the business decisions we make. He sees everything as an opportunity to articulate our story.”
And Melanie Maloney, as always, keeps everyone on track with her patient, linear approach to the daily management of all the details.
“It’s similar to Mental Floss in that you’re making order out of chaos,” Toby Maloney says. “To be an entrepreneur, that irrational attachment to your idea has to be there because I’m not smart enough to be an overnight success.” JCU
Ettorre is a former editor of this magazine.