TMN: How instrumental was Duke in getting your first issue published?
WP: Well, the president of Duke did suggest that we change the name of mental_floss to Conversations. No lie. But other than that strange piece of advice, it’s difficult to imagine this publication existing without the early support from Duke. It wasn’t just the administration, but professors and others on campus who advised us and pointed us to successful alumni for additional advice. The first two issues of mental_floss were published and distributed on Duke’s campus before we ever distributed an issue to bookstores. That couldn’t have happened without all the resources available to us as students. Mangesh and I are still very close to Duke and spend time each semester there talking to classes and giving back to the school in any way we can.
TMN: Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings has written for the magazine. Have you ever challenged him to a game of trivia?
WP: Yeah, I destroyed him at Trivial Pursuit. Turns out the whole Ken Jennings thing was a hoax. Kidding. I have not played him in a game of trivia, but my guess is if we played a game called Let’s see who answers these 100 questions the quickest, he’d answer at least 95 of them before I could. Ken has a remarkable ability to access information in his giant brain much more quickly than anyone else I’ve ever known. Whereas I’m the kind who hears a question, grabs a bite to eat, hops in the car, turns on the radio, and then BAM!, Eudora Welty! That’s the answer I was looking for.
TMN: What is your favorite object in your office?
WP: Our brand-new pizza boxes. We decided to make care packages for parents and friends to send to college students, and had our own pizza boxes printed so that we could deliver the flossy items in a very dorm-friendly package.
TMN: What’s something you’re not good at but wish you were?
WP: Sprinting. I hate running but I’d love to be really fast just to show off my speed every once in a while. Our art director, Winslow Taft, and I have an ongoing Who’s better at sports? competition going. So far we’ve only bowled, played pool, and thrown a tennis ball at a cup on the other end of the office, and I’m in the lead. But I’m nervous what will happen if we ever play anything that involves actual athletic skills.
TMN: Some have argued that increasing internet use is a threat to general knowledge.
WP: I’m not sure it’s as much of a threat to general knowledge as it is a threat to our ability to do individual tasks really well. But there’s no question that someone with a little discipline can make use of the internet as the greatest research tool ever created. I do think we run the risk of realizing that we can now do 100 things in a day instead of five, but end up not doing those 100 things very well because we’re zipping through everything and always multi-tasking. Even as I’ve been typing the answer to this question, Outlook has told me 5 times that I have new emails and I have to check them. Okay, I’ll stop and focus on this. I find myself jumping back and forth between tasks all the time, and it takes real focus to make sure I do each thing well rather than rushing through each one just to get on to the next.
TMN: What’s in the future for mental_floss?
WP: I’d be pretending if I told you I knew exactly where I want this company to go. I like the fact that we’re small enough to be able to come up with new ideas for products or web projects and jump on them immediately. We don’t have to have a 20-year plan to decide we want to start on something like our In-A-Box series (Law School in a Box, Med School in a Box, MBA in a Box). But being a small company also creates challenges because there are a million projects we’d like to test, but we can only tackle a few at a time.
TMN: Are you currently involved in any non-mental_floss-related projects?
WP: I’m always kicking around other business ideas and enjoy helping friends work through the early stages of a business launch, but most of my non-mental_floss, non-family, non-leisure time is spent working with an organization called Magic Moments. We grant wishes to children in Alabama who are suffering from life-threatening or life-altering medical conditions. They, like many organizations, are struggling to bring in enough money in this recession, so I’m working to help them find creative ways to fundraise.
TMN: What makes you irrationally angry?
WP: Talk radio. But I’m not sure it’s irrational.