John Mitchinson is one of the "Two Johns" behind hit TV show QI. Starring celebrity clever clogs Stephen Fry and comedian Alan Davies, QI - or Quite Interesting - is a game show of sorts (the scoring system is somewhat impenetrable) exploring random facts and trivia.
"I asked Peter Jones how many of his clients' kids had requested his corporate literature for their bedtime story"
Co-founder John Lloyd floated the idea for the show to
Mitchinson back in 2002. His opening gambit? "Did you know that
kangaroos have three vaginas?" As it happened, Mitchinson didn't.
"We went on to discuss the notion of 'interestingness'," he says.
"It took five hours and many, many pints."
The business plan for QI ran to a single sheet of A4 and Lloyd, now sober, went to pitch it to BBC1. "I held his coat while he went into battle," admits Mitchinson. However, the channel was, somewhat ironically, totally uninterested. "They couldn't understand the scoring system, apparently," says Mitchinson, with a smirk.
Luckily for the Two Johns, BBC2's controller, Jane Root, loved the idea. She commissioned the show on the spot. Lloyd and Mitchinson launched QI Ltd, formed a joint venture with Talkback Thames and, the piece de resistance, recruited Stephen Fry. "John had worked with Stephen on Blackadder and he'd been a mate for years," says Mitchinson. "He was originally supposed to be a team captain. Michael Palin was scheduled to be in the chair. John persuaded Stephen to stand in for Michael for the pilot and within the first ten minutes everyone realised he was born to play the role."
The first series of QI aired in 2003. It went on to pull in the highest viewing figures on BBC 4 and subsequently, Dave. Now in its eighth series, QI has made it onto BBC1, pre-watershed to boot. However, the bulk of revenue comes from the QI book series - the first edition sold 1.5 million copies and has been translated into 32 languages. But Mitchinson and Lloyd are also currently working on an iPhone App, a search engine - "it will be a sort of interesting version of Wikipedia", and even "QI: The Movie".
Mitchinson believes he has enough fodder for a genuine blockbuster: "For three years we had a members club/bar and bookshop in Oxford. Huge fun, but we sold it at a loss in March 2007, poorer but wiser and with lots of great stories. Radiohead and Philip Pullman were members, as well as most of the regular QI guests."
With credentials like these, it's little wonder that Mitchinson is now an authority on how to be interesting and memorable. He has just brought out his Book of the Dead, profiling 68 of the most interesting people on the planet. He has these three top tips for entrepreneurs looking to stand out from the crowd.
1. Pretend you're an eight year old
"Children love to ask questions," explains Mitchinson. "After the age of eight or so, we decide that it is better to assume knowledge than to ask 'why'. If you get out of that 'grown-up' mindset and start to ask questions, that's when things get interesting. In fact, the simpler the question, the more interesting things get."
QI was born out of two men's passion for asking questions. From "What's a tardigrade?" to "Can we find anything interesting to say about Chelmsford?", questions formed the foundations of the show - and indeed the business.
2. Never dismiss the value of trivia
"The origin of the word trivia comes from the seven liberal arts, which were divided into the trivium and the quadruvium," says Mitchinson. "The latter was more about the hardware: arithmetic, geometry, harmonics and astronomy. The trivium was grammar, rhetoric and logic. These are real trivia, not what people mistake for trivia these days, like being able to recite train timetables or who scored what goal in a football match. It's about how we perceive the world and how we communicate with others."
Ling Valentine, founder of LINGsCARS, tapped into the power of trivia by repurposing BBC news stories for her car leasing site. By picking out trending news items, and translating them into Chinese English: "Chinglish", she boosted traffic to her site, with some headlines pulling in over 1,000 hits.
"Everything I do should not be about cars, as that is a fairly limited area and frankly, the same cars can be found everywhere," says Valentine, who founded her £390,000-turnover business in 2001. "What I do is provide additional emotional reasons for people to use my service and grab a new car from me.
"The "Chinglish" news feeds give a constant flow of new visitors who may not have encountered my business, and if they already know about me it brings them back to see a funny take on the latest news. By repeatedly putting LINGsCARS in front of people, I build recognition and trust."
3. Be a storyteller
"Interestingness is impossible to define but we are all hard-wired to share interesting information," says Mitchinson. "Human beings are such a young species. What made us evolve is our ability to tell stories."
Some of the UK's most successful entrepreneurs have used a story, be it about humble beginnings, or triumph through adversity, to win the hearts and purses of their customers. From Will 'King of Shaves' King, who suffered from terrible shaving rashes and took a punt on his razor and shaving foam business, to Sara Murray, who founded Buddi, a manufacturer of small tracking devices, after losing her daughter in a supermarket. But there are even smarter ways of using stories.
Dan McGuire is MD of Broadbean, a £4.5m-turnover job posting firm. "We came up with a concept a few years back that explained what our products did in the form of a children's book," he explains. "It was called 'The Boy and the Magic Bean'. We got a professional children's illustrator on board and featured a wizard, an orphanage and a flying bean that the boy used to get around. Our clients went nuts for it and we had to get extra copies printed as they'd take one home and their other children would kick off and demand their own copy.
Not everyone understood the business relevance of the publication. Even a Dragon was confused by the idea that a story book could help boost sales. "Peter Jones asked me if I'd been smoking something when we came up with it," says McGuire. "I asked him how many of his clients' kids had requested his corporate literature for their bedtime story."
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