Taste-Maker Mark Mangan on the Relaunch of Flavorpill

Mark Mangan, co-founder of the popular culture website Flavorpill. Photo by Mike Mabes

“Culture is a broad, broad word,” says Mark Mangan, 40, co-founder and Product Chief of Flavorpill, the hugely popular events listings website. “Some early definitions of culture refer to the evolution of the self.  ‘Culture,’ by one definition, is the shared understandings and learning of a people… the ability to learn and evolve the self, whether it be through books or films or performances.”

It’s a philosophical concept to take in early on a Saturday morning on only one cup of coffee. We sit on the rooftop deck of Mark’s Williamsburg apartment on N.6th St., overlooking Tops Grocery. Mark says, “Flavorpill has always been about helping you to live a more enriching, fulfilling cultural life.  And I hope that it can help to spread good ideas and log those good ideas and allow for people to communicate and collaborate.”

For a brand that operates in seven U.S. cities (8 if you count Brooklyn and Manhattan) and also London, Flavorpill does a decent job of “spreading good ideas.”

Flavorpill.com, the local events listing site, and Flavorwire.com, the national blog, together receive 1.5 million unique visitors each month.  And 500,000 people subscribe to the Flavorpill email newsletter, which is how this whole business got started. And now, more than a decade after its founding, Flavorpill is transforming, transitioning into an open source events listing, lead by its Co-Founder and Product Chief, Mark Mangan.

Mark Mangan, 40, was born in Queens and raised in the suburbs outside Philadelphia and attended The Episcopal Academy where, Mark says, “I wore a coat and tie and went to chapel three days a week and studied Latin and Greek and all that.”

He went to college at UVM in Vermont where he studied English, Philosophy, and French, spent a year studying in Paris. After graduating, Mark returned to Paris and worked for a year as a bartender. “A young man in Paris,” Mark says with a glint in his eye. “I recommend it.”

But compared to the United States, Mark says, “France is like a socialist country. In New York you can create a company for, like, $100. But unlike Paris, where you can get by living in a chambre de service, living in a maid’s room and eating baguettes… here, if you want be to close to the center, you have to make it work. You have to make it happen for yourself. You have to make enough money or you’re going to be ejected. There’s no little cheap maid’s rooms in New York.”

Jump cut to 1993: Mark lands in New York City and rents an apartment on 13th Street and Avenue B.  While walking around one day Mark runs into a friend of his from UVM. “I remember he was rollerblading down the street,” Mark says, “And he showed me this report, which talked about this new thing called the world wide web and Mosaic web browser created by Mark Andreeseen.”

Mark was intrigued. “I went looking for it,” he says. “I took my dad’s old computer out of Philly and plugged it in. It didn’t have the capability to go on the web but I found, like, Archie and Gopher and these other services.”

Very quickly Mark began to simultaneously navigate the World Wide Web and New York City. That same UVM friend got him a job working at a software recruitment company where he worked to make their first website, which was to help people get jobs.  “Hell, they could’ve been the first Monster.com,” Mark says. “But they were so focused on their core business, which was humans on phones recruiting people.”

After that, Mark worked at Agency.com and as the company grew and eventually went public, Mark incubated his first company: NetSet, NetSetGoods.com, an e-commerce website, which, for 1998, was pretty novel. “It was like Fab.com,” says Mark. “I started it with a friend of mine who’s a stylist to billionaires and an amazing character, Jason Campbell. He would go around the world and curate all these amazing things… I stitched [it] together, hunted down a merchant account. These days you can just use Shopify.  But back in 1998, it was hell.”

And that’s when Mark first cut his teeth as a businessman. He figured out how to balance a P&L, learned how retail works, inventory, shipping, raising capital. “I raised my first $10,000 for the business and I thought I could put that in and convert that and go from there,” Mark says. “I was naïve.”

That first influx of cash to the business came from the childhood best friend of Mark’s best friend from college. That friend of a friend was a man named Sascha Lewis and this business venture would be the beginning of a long, continuing partnership.

The two men ran NetSet out of Sascha’s apartment. They shared one computer to manage the site and used Sascha’s extra bedroom for inventory and shipping.

“We shipped to all 50 states and 15 counties and got written up in all the magazines,” Mark says. “But retail is hard; particularly if you’re going to try and hold the inventory.”

The whole operation was exhausting. Sascha, running the marketing for the company, was tired of sending emails advertising free shipping and other hooks, so to keep himself happy he started another email, once a week, listing just three great electronic music shows in New York City.

“No pitch, no sale,” Mark says, “Just something to keep the community going and people dug it. He’d write it, I’d edit it, and we’d push it out.”

This was 1999, the end of an era, and, as Mark put it, “the nuclear winter of the first .com meltdown. We couldn’t raise any more money, we were a couple months behind rent, just looking down the abyss… Those last few days I just grabbed anyone who was left, pulled them into a corner and asked them if we were to reinvent, what would we reinvent as?”

And that was when the idea gelled together: instead of curating and filtering product, why not curate community and content?  The name they came up with was Flavorpill and decided to christen Sascha’s electronic music email as such.

“There was Daily Candy and that was it,” says Mark.  “We just keep sending out this email.  It was text and there was no money to be made from it, but as we built it, more people were into it, and more people asked to be signed up for it, and that’s what drove us. People dug it, so we just kept doing it.”

Through this digital newsletter, which was very innovative at the time, they taught themselves how to send, deploy and track their emails. And that was how they first made money: operating and analyzing email programs for companies like The Tribeca Grand and The SoHo Grand.

“It took us about a year and a half to make money with Flavorpill,” Mark says. “The first ad to pay was Bloomberg.  They gave us $20,000 for a month of newsletter advertising.  We took that money and launched Flavorpill San Francisco.  That was 2002. And we just kept launching new cities.”

As co-founders, Sascha Lewis and Mark Mangan ran Flavorpill “like a two-headed beast,” Mark says. But at one point, their advisor recommended one person take the reigns and so Mark held the title of CEO until last year. Sascha is now the CEO and Mark is the Product Chief, responsible for a team of six who are working hard to continue to cultivate the network and product that is Flavorpill.

And this new Flavorpill is a big change from what Mark and Sascha raised and developed, not unlike a child, first as an email and then in adolescence, a blog and events company.  But even as big as Flavorpill has grown, it’s still very much a closed circuit of tapped curators with specific aesthetics and preferences selecting only a few events each day. It’s limited. And that balks at the very nature of the freedom and versatility of the World Wide Web as we know it today.  And Mark understands this.

“We provide a trusted list, and people trust Flavorpill,” says Mark.  “But at the end of the day, as good as we’ll ever be, we can only ever hope to be second best.  We can only be number two.”

Who’s number one?

“Your friends,” Mark says. “I want to create an open tool that leverages the audience we have already and the aesthetic we have already,” says Mark.  “We’re re-launching all of our products, re-launching the emails, doing a full redesign of the blog and re-launching that.”

The new product, currently in beta, is called Flavorpill G.E.L., which stands for Global Events Log. “The core of it is based on your interests,” says Mark. “You can follow certain curators, topics, and venues. Anyone can add anything to it but the only things that will surface are the events that are relevant to you.”

Talking with Mark about this change for the company and the brand, I can’t help but compare it with the changes that I’ve witnessed in Williamsburg.

“In New York you have to just embrace the change and hope that people do it right,” says Mark.  “Apparently the Empire State Building was put over this magnificent, amazing hotel.  Transformation—it’s part of New York.”

Having moved to N.6th Street in 2008, Mark said some of his friends told him the neighborhood was played out.  “No way,” Mark says. “This thing, this neighborhood still has so much juice in it. I think that Brooklyn, in particularly Williamsburg into Greenpoint into Bushwick is the most creative part of the most creative city, arguably in the world. And a lot of the reason why I live here is to be part of that, to be in the center of that.  In creating this new Flavorpill I brought my team out of the office and into my apartment here.  Because I wanted it to start here.”

And not Paris?

“Ya know,” Mark says, “Paris is great.”  And while looking around from his roof at the steel structures of rising, neighboring buildings, he adds: “but it’s a bit of a musty museum—nothing ever changes.”