Polina Marinova Pompliano, former Fortune Magazine editor and writer on what she’s learnt writing over 1300 articles, dealing with self-doubt, and how she launched, built and monetized her writing through her newsletter The Profile, growing her income from from 0 to six figures.
How might we launch our newsletter and build a loyal following for our writing? How can we monetize our newsletter to six figures and beyond? In this episode, we interview Polina Marinova Pompliano who quit her job at Fortune in 2020 to focus on building her weekly Substack newsletter The Profile, where she profiles interesting figures like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York. We talk about tactics for growing a loyal and paying readership, how she develops ideas for her newsletter and the importance of feedback to improve our writing.
Polina Marinova is a former Fortune Magazine editor and writer, and founder of newsletter The Profile where she studies the world's most successful people & companies. She’s written for CNN, CNN Travel, Business Insider, Yahoo Finance, Boston Herald, Food & Wine Magazine, Odyssey, The Hustle and more. Polina is part of an emerging trend of writers who are looking ahead to the future of media and content and considering what it might take to start a media company on their own terms.
[02:39] Polina shares what gave her the courage to quit her job at The Fortune and dedicate her time to The Profile despite the pandemic and why you only need 100 true fans
[06:42] Polina shares how she's become good at time management over the years, and how she stays productive
[09:06] The importance of sharing your work with the public and opening yourself up to criticism and feedback as a writer
[11:56] How Polina deals with feedback today versus how she dealt with it in the past
[13:00] What Polina learned from writing articles and getting feedback, and how she used them to get more readers
[15:33] Polina talks about her relationship dynamic with her husband who's also a writer, and how their differences help her get a business perspective for her newsletter
[21:07] Polina shares the tools and systems that have helped her to be better at writing
[27:42] The challenges Polina encounters in writing newsletters and what keeps her writing
[29:15] Polina shares some newsletters that inspired her, including James Clear's blog
[30:51] The business side of The Profile: how Polina grew her newsletter, and how she focused on quality content
[31:58] Monetizing The Profile, and what made Polina’s readers convert to a paid subscription
[34:09] Polina shares some of the ways she earns from The Profile
[37:07] Why you don't need a massive following to monetize your work
[37:33] Polina talks about her future goal of building a human interest company
[38:32] The future of newsletters and why it's the perfect time to be a writer right now
[41:30] On dealing with self-doubt and criticisms, and why patience and consistency is important if you want to start a newsletter
“So I think a lot of times people think they need this massive, massive following to monetize anything. It's not true. As long as you can prove that the audience is really high quality and really engaged and they actually click and they actually open, and they actually read it.”
“The best piece of advice I heard was from Kat Cole, who's the president of Focus Brands. She said that every time you get a piece of feedback, the first thing you should do before you reject it—before you think it’s stupid is accept it and try and be like, okay, if this is true, then what can I do about it?...Accept it as truth before you outright dismiss it. Because after a while, that was not the only email I got like that. I got a number of them that were very critical, but it made me have thicker skin. It made me evolve in my writing. And by the end of my time there, I'd like to think that my voice, my tone, how I wrote, [the] people really liked because it was me and I wasn't trying to be somebody else.”
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[Intro] Matt: Hello, and welcome to season one of the London Writers’ Salon podcast. I'm Matt.
Parul: And I’m Parul. And each week, we sit down with a writer that we admire to talk about the craft of writing and the arts of building a successful and sustainable writing career.
Matt: These interviews are recorded live with our global writing community. If you would like to join us for the next recording or write with us at our daily Writers’ Hour writing sessions, head to londonwriterssalon.com for more information.
In this episode, we interviewed Polina Marinova Pompliano. Polina started her professional writing career at Fortune Magazine, where she wrote a daily column on entrepreneurship and business. And over those five years, she went on to write 1300 articles. But in March 2020, a few weeks before New York went into COVID lockdown, Polina put in her notice at Fortune to focus on building her weekly newsletter, The Profile where she writes long-form profiles on interesting people and companies, and moreover, she gets paid to do that.
Matt: And this conversation with Polina is a deep dive into the business and the craft of creating newsletters and also writing profiles. And Polina is the perfect person to talk about all of those things. She shares with us how she develops ideas for her newsletters, how she uses criticism to improve her writing. Something I think all of us can learn from, and some specific tactics and techniques that she's used to grow her newsletter from zero to now providing her a sustainable income equivalent and probably beyond now to her old job at Fortune.
Parul: It's such a great interview. [I] really loved speaking with Polina. We also talked to her about the power of learning in public, and we dig into the monetary side of creating newsletters, including how and why she decided to charge for her newsletter and the breakdown of her income. It’s such a great episode for anyone building an audience through newsletters. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Without further ado, here is our interview with Polina Marinova Pompliano.
Parul: You know, I'd like to start at that moment that we touched upon in March when you decided to quit writing for Fortune. The way I see it, from an outsider is that the world was exploding outside and you decided to lean hard into your entrepreneurial career as a writer. Can you take us back to that moment and maybe talk through why you made that decision and what the mindset was.
Polina: Yes. A lot of people think that I just left my job and I started the newsletter from scratch in March. That wasn't the case. I have been writing the profile since February of 2017. So roughly three years. And in January of this year, after being at Fortunate for five years, I started thinking about, like, what would The Profile look like if I dedicated a hundred per cent of my time to it, not just evenings, not just weekends or when I'm on the subway. Like, what would it look like? I didn't even think of it as a business. And if you had told me that, you know, one day it would make so much money that I could replace my salary at Fortunate, [I’d] probably like start crying, but I still remember where I was. I was on the subway going to work and I read this article that was written—It was Andreessen Horowitz’s blog. And it said, “A thousand true fans? Forget that, like you only need a hundred true fans to start a business.” And so I started reading it and everything in my head was like, yes, like, this is exactly what I—where I think the future of media is going.
And it just seemed to confirm a lot of the things I had already been thinking about. But because like I told you, I'm incredibly risk-averse, like my parents and I immigrated from Bulgaria when I was eight, and from then, my goal in life was to have a stable job, a stable career, a stable paycheck. I never wanted to be in that place again, where we were when we first moved here.
So in my mind, I just always thought I would be at Fortune for life. And then when you spend all day writing about entrepreneurship and other people's ventures, you kind of start thinking about your own, right? And I started thinking about it. Just a thought experiment. What would it look like if I dedicated a hundred per cent of my time to this? I was like, I think I would do this and this and this, but the reason I wasn't doing that is one, I had a full-time job at Fortune and two, there were certain things I couldn't do that would be a conflict of interest while I was still writing for a publication.
I've called it a mental seesaw of misery. It's like you wake up in the morning and you're like, I'm going to do this. I'm so excited. I'm going to go all-in on the profile and then you go to sleep and you're like, absolutely fucking not. I'm not going to do that. Are you crazy? So I started listening to these things and I was like, I asked myself the question, “If I stay at Fortune for another five years, will I learn more or less than if I go do The Profile for five years and fail completely, like miserably failed. Which one would I have learned more from?” And the experience that is obvious is The Profile.
I've done a lot of jobs at Fortune and I didn't see myself growing in a way that was so uncomfortable for me in the future to make me learn that much. Finally, I kid you not, when I tell you one morning, I woke up and I was like, this is it. I'm going to do it. It was March first or second. It was that first week of March. I went—I told my boss. I made it official. I gave them like three weeks' notice. March 20th was my last day. And when I made the decision, Coronavirus was—it was kind of a thing, but it was not anywhere near lockdown, stay at home, the economy's collapsing or anything like that. So then March 20th was my first day, as you know my last day at Fortune, my first day of the Profile. And I just was like, I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm excited.
I'm not more safe staying at Fortune because I could always lose my job there if there was some kind of pandemic recession. So let's see what happens with The Profile.
Parul: Yeah. That's a really interesting insight.
Matt: And hearing you talk about this, I don't know if you've—or you're familiar with Scott Belsky He has a book called The Messy Middle, and he has this chart of entrepreneurship and I think it can be with writing and anything. And it's like, hooray! Oh shit. Champagne. WTF. And he's like the elusive positive slope is as good as it gets. I love that. Digging into The Profile, I mean, one thing that a full-time job gives us, I guess, safety and security and income, but another thing is a schedule and a team and accountability. And so I'm curious as you transitioned from Fortune to doing The Profile on the side, to now The Profile, have you been able to manage your time in a way to stay productive during this time when it's all on you?
Matt: You’re gonna do it instead of someone you're reporting to.
Polina: So that's one thing I will say I've gotten really good at over the years, is time management. Because even at Fortune, even though I was working for a publication, I had a lot of autonomy and freedom to do whatever I wanted with my time. So there wasn't a boss or like an editor constantly yelling at me, like, “Did you do this?” and “Did you do that?” I would go in the morning. I would write the newsletter. It would go out at the same time every day, then I would work on some other long-term projects or things like that. I got really good at managing my time, but another time that taught me this lesson, when I graduated from the University of Georgia, I came out and I was like, I'm going to get every job offer ever.
Like, I was not worried at all about getting a job. Uh, you know, I had interned at USA Today, CNN. I was the editor of my college paper. I was like, of course, like who wouldn't want to hire me? And then nobody wanted to hire me. So I moved back in with my mom in Atlanta for about a year and I lived on the couch and I literally all day, I was just emailing every person I knew.
And I was like, do you need help? Do you need help? I'm free. Like, I can help you. I can freelance, whatever. Eventually, like my old bosses at CNN and USA Today let me freelance during the holidays because they were all on vacation and I was like, perfect. But that required me to manage my time. During the day I have to do CNN from seven to four. I have to do USA Today from six to eleven. And like, that's it. But it's just when you know that there's a certain—I started the day with what needs to get done. I don't care what you do during the day as long as you get that done. It usually drives like your hours, how they're spent. And the only thing I do now is, in the middle of the day, I make sure to work out or do something or go on a run just so I can get away from the desk and writing.
Matt: That's great. Going back to when you were at Fortune, hearing you talk about this on other podcasts and reading about it, it sounds like those—I think it was five years you were at Fortune, is that right?
Matt: It sounded like a Navy Seals training for writing and finding your voice because you were publishing daily, right? Your term sheet, publishing daily in a subject you weren't well-versed in, I think at least at the beginning, to an audience of very smart, influential tech entrepreneurs and people in the investing space. So basically you're thrown into the fire and you'd said you would get feedback. You would write daily and you would get feedback daily from these very smart people.
Can you talk a little bit to that period of time in your life, as far as it helping shape your voice and also helping shape your craft as a writer?
Polina: Yes. Okay. So my biggest piece of advice for people who claim that they want to be a writer is you are not a writer until write something and you make it public, or you send it to a bunch of people to see because, at that point, you open yourself up to criticism and scrutiny and feedback, and it makes you so much better, right? Like I think we are all, as writers, very protective of our work and of our words and sentence structure, and then to have somebody completely destroy it? It's great. It's great because it makes you better, even though it sucks. So I'll never forget, for example, when I first started at—I was writing the Term Sheet, this is a newsletter that I inherited from two very talented people.
There were only two writers before me. One of them was Dan Primack. He was amazing. And people really, really liked him. Then, Erin Griffith, who was also a really great writer and people really liked her. So when I came in, I had these two voices of people that came before me. And I was like, well, you know, nobody knows who I am and I don't really know too much about this, so how do I establish authority? Here's a tip. You can't ask people to respect you without earning their trust. So I made the mistake of—I started writing. I started copying my predecessors” voice and tone. I was just bad. It was bad. Frankly, objectively bad.
For example, in the beginning, I got an email from someone and they were like, “Polina. I did not sign up for this newsletter to read something written by like a high school gossip columnist,” or something like that. He meant like my tone was condescending and kind of crappy. And at first, I was like, who is this clown? And I would go to look him up. And it was like [the] president of Coca-Cola North America. And I was like, never mind. Okay. So, I think that even if you're really offended, even if you don't like the feedback you get, the best piece of advice I heard was from Kat Cole, who's the president of Focus Brands. She said that every time you get a piece of feedback, the first thing you should do before you reject it—before you think it’s stupid is accept it and try and be like, okay, if this is true, then what can I do about it?
Like accept it as truth before you outright dismiss it. Because after a while, that was not the only email I got like that. I got a number of them that were very critical, but it made me have thicker skin. It made me evolve in my writing. And by the end of my time there, I'd like to think that my voice, my tone, how I wrote, [the] people really liked because it was me and I wasn't trying to be somebody else.
Parul: Does it still hurt when you get feedback today? If you get feedback on your work now, do you deal with it in the same way? You accepted and then try—
Polina: Yeah, it's not as hard. I used to be very sensitive about my writing. And now it's honestly like if I'm asking you for feedback or if I'm writing something and it's getting delivered to your email, you have a right to criticize my work. I try to look at it as like this person wouldn't be taking the time to write in if it didn't mean a lot to them. So a lot of times when you're critical of someone or something, it's because you care, right? Like you wouldn't actually take the time if you didn't care. I tried to look at it from that lens and it's a little better. And sometimes it still stings, but it's better.
Parul: I wonder if there's a number, cause you've written so many articles that I feel like there's maybe a tipping point. I wonder what that number is. I mean, maybe it's hard to discern. Maybe it's a thousand. I don't know. Maybe it's 500.
Polina: Yeah, it's a lot.
Parul: You've written so many different types of articles. And what I'm curious about, some of the trends you've seen in terms of, it could be, to do with structure, it could be to do with content, about things that worked well. That helped you understand [that] okay, so if I do this, this actually works for me when I'm composing my next article.
Polina: Yeah. So based on the feedback, so if you look at, for example, The Profile and the very, very beginnings of it, I wrote it in a way where it was—in my head, I was writing it for my friends and family. So the tone is very clearly like, “Hey, guys,” like, “This is what I did today. And my lunch was…” It was very, very casual. The second that I saw that there were people signing up outside of my circle, I began to kind of professionalize it a little bit more and my tone got a little bit more serious. Like I'm not writing this for my mom and her friends. And then over time, I try to keep myself out of it, but there was one thing I wrote where I included myself in the story and I kind of piece it together.
And it's the most-read story in the history of The Profile. And then I got a lot of feedback that said, “I actually like to get to know you behind just the objective stuff you write in the newsletter.” Over time, I’ve tried to include a few experiences here and there that are more personal, that aren't necessarily like here are all my issues and ambitions and whatever. But I've learned to include a personal touch because I think when you're a journalist writing for a publication, that's a no-no, like, you do not include yourself in the stories. But when you're writing a newsletter, it is a little bit more intimate because your writing is in people's inboxes and they want to get to know the person behind that.
Matt: Great advice. Anything I've written, when I've injected a part of myself and what it means to me, it's the same thing. Really. Yeah, it's a connector tying it to the work. When you first started writing, you said you were writing for friends and family. Do you want to take it a little bit closer to home and talk about love and writing and in particular—because I know that you're a newlywed, fairly newlywed
Polina: COVID wedding.
Matt: Really? COVID wedding. Wow.
Polina: Well, it wasn't much of a wedding. I mean, it was just me and my now husband and the photographer and the officiant, but it was great.
Matt: Wow. So, Anthony, your husband, so he's also a writer and he runs a very popular newsletter as well about investing. I'm just really curious about either when couples do things that are totally different, like someone who's an adventurer and then their wife's an accountant or couples that actually do something that is very complementary and very similar. And I'm curious, what's that relationship? You and Anthony. And how has it affected both your writing and his and each other?
And I guess maybe anything you can share around how you help each other. What has that done for your career as a writer?
Polina: Yes. Okay. So this is a very good question because I always said that I never want to end up with someone who is a journalist or a writer because I've seen situations where people get weirdly competitive and things like that. I didn't want that.
The way this is different is that Anthony's not a writer. Like he’s not naturally—like he doesn't enjoy sentence structure and talking about a semi-colon, but he writes a newsletter about investing, but primarily he's in like the tech world and more entrepreneurial business stuff. To me, my brain works as a writer.
And I think the biggest thing I've learned from this is that it's really cool to brainstorm with him because our brains were completely different. Like there is no similarity in the way you kind of see the world. Like sometimes, what he helps me with is okay, that is only, you know, the writer, what are you doing for The Profile, the business, right? Like, I think it's two different skills that you have to acquire as a writer who's also going to be an entrepreneur because the creative side is great, but a lot of times it can only solely think like a writer. I’m only going to do things that don't really scale and don't really grow your business.
They're going to be high quality, but they're not going to be at a point where other people can look at it and be like, “Oh yeah!” The point of having a newsletter is to have people read it, right? Like it's to have people see it and learn about it. So I wasn't thinking that way. So he kind of pushes me to think like, okay, and how does that translate into growth and more subscribers and things like that that I never think about. But yeah, it's cool. Sometimes, we'll be walking. And like he’ll say something and I'll get super defensive like, “You don't understand. And this is like from a journalist's perspective,” and there's always like heated debates like that, but it helps because it pushes your thinking a little bit.
Parul: I really like that. You've made me realize that of course, we find it hard sometimes to separate the creative side. You do need sometimes an objective coach, mentor. And that's what you have with your husband.
Parul: Matt, I suppose, is my work husband and, uh, is the person—I've never said that to him. I may have freaked him out. And so he's the person I get to bounce off the similar sort of ideas. I'm interested about your choices, the choices you've made because you know, writing for Fortune versus writing for Vogue is—it's a lifestyle choice. You've decided to throw yourself into specific areas, a specific niche, and even with The Profile and focusing on this idea of success and entrepreneurship. I'm wondering why like in the Simon Sinek sort of sense, what does this mean to you? Why this? Why these topics?
Polina: Oh, okay. So, when I was in college, business to me was the most boring thing. I literally—like I had to take, I think it was [an] intro to business class or something. It was terrible.
I hated it. I was like, this is dumb, but I was double majoring in journalism and sociology, which now I wish I had double major[ed] in something like business. But to me, business, like, meant numbers and meant accounting and things that. If you're an entrepreneur, that's not necessarily what you do. But I had no sense. I didn't know what venture capital was when I set foot at Fortune. Before that, I had worked at a media startup, like I had nothing to do with business. It was interesting because I found myself really enjoying books, biographies, memoirs, profiles of business people. I don't know why. And then I started realizing that it's because, in business, things are very measurable, right?
In business it's very like, you failed, you did this, you succeeded again, and you can measure that stuff versus me telling you what I think I failed at and what I think my weaknesses are, right? So it's easy to learn from those people. And when I got to Fortune, my job was like doing the social media, but I, of course, like took it over the top.
And I was like, well, if I’m gonna do this, I want to better get to know the process of reporting the story. And I would go talk to the reporters and be like, okay. So when you were interviewing Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos, like, what was that like? And what did you ask her? What did she say? And I tried to learn about these people indirectly.
At the end of the day, like I never asked to write [a] term sheet, like, I didn't know what venture capital was, I didn't know what startups were, but when they asked me, “Do you want to do this?” I was like, “Sure, I'll Google it.” Like, I'll learn it. And you'll find like with anything in life, it’s like when you start doing something and you get into that world, you quickly figure out there's the characters, you figure out the drama, you figure out like these weird relationships between people. And it gets super interesting. And at the end of the day, like entrepreneurship and business and profiling, it's just all about people.
Parul: And that's the bit that speaks to you. You just want to learn about people.
Polina: I love learning from people.
Matt: Yeah. And this idea of curiosity and the love of learning, it sounds like coming out and why you do what you do has led you to do a lot of reading, a lot of study, and in particular, I think you said you've read 8.9 million words last year, the equivalent of over 120 books. As someone who really struggles with—I'll read things, and then I'll forget about it. I don't really have a great system for capturing it, what I'm learning. And I'm curious, have you settled on or found any practice or system or tool that helps you capture everything you're learning and everything you're reading to help you do your work.
Polina: Yeah. This is very meta, but to be totally honest, like I used to read a lot before I started writing The Profile and sometimes I'd write a quote down that I liked or a story down that like, kind of made me think, but I never had a good system.
And now, my system for doing that is The Profile. So, you know, every Wednesday I have something called The Profile Dossier where, um, I pick one person and I do a deep dive on everything they've done, and some of the lessons you can learn from them and it kind of gets to the essence of who they are as a person and why they choose to do what they do.
But to me, like, that's how I document all that I've learned because I do it every single week, so I'm able to easily go back and see it. So I think, honestly, if you're that passionate about something, why not start a regular newsletter where you can document everything you've learned, because I have found that the things that are interesting to me tend to be interesting to other people. And it's probably similar with you guys. Like you talk to so many interesting writers, if you were to compile those lessons somewhere, it would be so fascinating to somebody like me who—I haven't been there to listen to those writers live and I can take away things and, you know, retroactively.
Matt: That's so true. I mean, when I think of anything I've learned when I've had to share it with someone, you double the learning plus, you know, it's—in record, it reminds me a lot of—I’m sure, you know, of Maria Popova, she's—is she from Bulgaria?
Polina: She’s also from Bulgaria.
Matt: I love the way she describes her blog. “It’s a documentation of my own becoming.” And this idea of learning in public, I'm just a huge fan of it. So it reminds me why it's so important hearing you share that. Going back to—so you study a lot of people, a lot of profiles. You learned from so many people and you share it on The Profile. As it relates to your writing practice and career, has there any—has there been one anyone in particular profile that you've studied that's really dramatically shifted the way you think about writing or the way you think about building your writing career.
Polina: Yes, I recently did one. Have you guys seen Chef's Table on Netflix? It's like—
Matt: I’ve heard of it. I've never watched it.
Polina: Yeah, I had never seen it either. And I was actually writing a column on creativity and the creative process. So the way I kind of develop ideas is by asking all my friends like, “Hey, like who's the most creative person, you know,” and all this stuff just so I can start thinking and shape my ideas from there.
So one of my friends, he said, “Oh, if you haven't watched The Chef's Table episode on Grant Achatz make sure you watch it.” And I was like, I don't know who that is but I'm assuming it’s a chef. So, I started—I watched it and like I had to pause a few times, because it was one of those things where he kept saying things and I was like, “Ahhh, um,” and I took notes on my phone and like send it to myself so I could have it for the next day.
And what he said, even though it's [a] completely different field than journalism or writing or anything like that—he's a really original thinker. And a lot of us think that we're very original until you watch this. And you're like, I'm not original at all. He will go to museums and he'll see the art on the wall. And he's like, “This is so beautiful. Like, why can't I eat off of this?” So then he basically integrates art into his cooking. He has this restaurant in Chicago called Alinea. Alinea is that backwards P symbol that signifies a new paragraph and the way he describes it is it signals a new train of thought.
So basically he started asking questions of why do we have to eat off of plates and bowls? And why do we have to use silverware? He said that this notion is so ridiculously old. He wanted to completely change that. And it's like, how do you change this notion of eating, right? But because he started asking questions like that, like, why are we constrained to plate manufacturers?
And why do we have to eat like this? He was able to create this insane experience that is a story, essentially. So when you go in to eat, it's like chapters in a book, the way he describes it. So he takes you through an entire story. So basically what he did was he created food that you could eat off the table cloth.
Then he was like, why can't food fly? Like, why can't we eat food, like, from air basically? So him and his team created a balloon, like a helium balloon made out of sugar, so it would float as it came to you and you could eat it like that. It's not like this, but it's just all these things that make you ask very basic questions that you've always taken for granted.
So for me, that question was, why does a profile look the way it does, right? A profile of a person as of right now is—it has been for hundreds of years—is that it used to be in a magazine. You would open a magazine, you would read a 2000-word story on matte. Suddenly, though, the internet came around. So suddenly we took that story on matte that was in a magazine.
We plopped it on a page, on a webpage, and maybe we included a small sound bite or a small video of him talking, but largely those 2000 words were texts. So I've been trying to think about the idea of like, what does the future of The Profile look like and why does it have to be constrained to text? I've been doing some really interesting thought experiments.
But I think asking questions like that in your own writing makes it better. Like, why do I have to start like this? Like journalism, very strict formula. Start with the lead. You have your middle. In the lead, you explain everything that already happened. And then the rest is just additional details. And then you have a kicker at the end. It's the same exact formula for every article. How can we innovate that? Sorry. That was a really long answer.
Parul: I love it.
Matt: Yeah. It's so important to ask these questions though. So I'm excited to continue to monitor what the equivalent of eating from the air is for learning from a profile.
Parul: I can see that applying to just lots of different writers we have who are running different types of newsletters or ideas like I'm thinking of Nicola in the audience. And she runs something called Single Supplement, which I believe is about women who are single, in relationships, I believe. I was curious to just think about how you can help people consider a topic differently. It sounds like you get a lot of joy and passion from exploring not only the person but actually how you deliver it, how you can be creative with it for your newsletter. What else might there be that's wonderful and easy to do that you get a lot of joy from? And what are the sort of tougher parts for you in creating a newsletter? What challenges you?
Polina: The challenge is just writing so much and trying to produce high-quality content while also having time to think about the bigger business questions of like, what do I want to do in the next few months? How do I want to evolve this? But the thing that gives me the most joy is that when you think about why you do the things you do, there was probably something in your past and both of you where you were like, I really love writing.
And like, there was a moment where you would do it, even if nobody knew, even if you couldn't share it with the world, you would still write. For me, when I moved to New York, I was 23 and I was alone in New York City. I'm living in my tiny studio and I was like, I want to learn from really interesting people.
Like I always picked a person and admired their path. Like the first time I learned about Sara Blakely who invented Spanx, I went on a deep dive and I just watched everything with her and listened to everything she's done. It was cool to surround myself with people that I didn't even know, but like I would go through great lengths to learn about.
I think that the thing that brings me the most joy is just seeing how crazy and winding people's paths are, but your passion kind of drives that. And eventually, you end up in the place you're supposed to be.
Parul: Ah, I like that. And we were talking about this earlier, even just before we started, just how, in a way we don't know what the future holds, but we can only experiment and be creative and explore. Are there any newsletters that you look to as role models in terms of either numbers or just content?
Polina: The one that initially inspired me—because in 2017, like there weren't that many people starting newsletters, Substack, I think started. The company started around that time, but I didn't even know about it until a year later.
It wasn't the crazy universe of newsletters that it is today. My original inspiration was Shane Parrish of Farnam Street. I really liked the way he thinks. I like the way he writes. And I liked the way that Farnam Street is about learning from people that you admire. That was my original inspiration. And then also, I really enjoy the writing of James Clear, Atomic Habits.
He's incredible because you can tell his thinking translates well into writing. And I wish I could write with such precision, but when I read—like sometimes if I'm stuck, I literally go read his blog because I'm like, he writes so substantively and there's zero fluff. There's no cliches. There's no—it's just like, here's how it is. And that kind of helps me get at that kind of mood.
Parul: Yeah, we were big fans of James Clear as well. I must do that. I'm going to take your advice on that and spend a bit more time looking at some of his art—his emails and articles.
Matt: Riffing on that, I'm curious about the business side. So around the creation side and the word side, is there anyone—you know, cause we know there's different strategies for launching a newsletter.
And is there anyone that you're studying on the business side of how they started or how they're rolling out paid models? Anything that you're taking on board or that maybe you would impart wisdom on to anyone who's thinking about starting a newsletter, the business side of it?
Polina: Good question. Because this is relatively new. There haven't been a ton of people who have monetized like insane amounts insanely fast. So I think we're all kind of figuring this out together. So I actually got to meet James Clear once and I asked him about the business side. Because I was like, how did you do this? You wrote a book. You did this. And basically what he said to me was like focus on the quality and you don't have to build something overnight over time. Like, as you get this audience, for example, he already had a massive following by the time he launched his book Atomic Habits. When he put that book through that massive distribution of readers, it was an instant hit because they already loved his writing already.
So I think it's more about getting a lot of people to love your work and then creating a really high-quality product for them to consume. And that will help them.
Matt: You started the profile [in] 2017. Now you have a paid model where people can pay or they can get free content, and that's the Substack model. At what point did you activate that paid? Was it early on? Was it not until this year? When did you flip the switch on?
Polina: Yeah, so that's a great question because it goes back to exactly what James said, but the profile was free for three years and in January I wanted to test it. I just wanted to see if this is truly something people found so much value [in] and they were willing to pay for it.
So I always say, I don't think it's a good idea to launch a paid newsletter with no readers and just be like, pay me. Usually what I find is it takes people four to five weeks of reading the free version to convert to the paid because they see enough value and the quality and whatever. And I don't blame them.
Like I would never just immediately sign up for a newsletter without knowing anything about it. So it's like proof of work a little bit, those four to five weeks. And when I started it—this is the importance of feedback—I turned on paid. I added two new sections in January and I said you can pay either $10 a month or $100 a year.
The people who paid those very first weeks were like the hardcore, super loyal people who loved The Profile, which I was so grateful for, but it wasn't seeing the type of growth I thought I would see. But I got a number of people giving me feedback. “Um, a hundred dollars is way too high, but like I would pay fifty.”
So once I heard that I lowered it to 50 and it exploded. So it's just a little bit of trial and error. You don't know what people are willing to pay for. And my thought right now is I appreciate the people who pay so much. I'm going to continue adding more and more value for that premium membership so that the price doesn't rise over time, but they get more and more things.
Parul: Hmm, this is really interesting. And I think the money side of things is the topic that we often don't get to hear a lot about. I wonder how much—I mean, it's all based on how comfortable you are sharing. I have a few questions around money, you know, are you able to make a full-time income from this? And are you able to provide any sort of breakdown of where your revenue comes from? Whether the subscriptions are the only place you get money from or is it from somewhere else?
Parul: Anything you can talk to us about maybe your ambitions for growth. If you can't tell us where your—
Polina: No, totally. Yes, to a full salary. I'll end up making more money than I have in any salaried position in the past. So that's good. So basically the bulk of it, let's say 85%, comes from subscriptions. Another 5% is licensing deals, which is not something I thought about going into this, but I've done a number of licensing deals where there was one, for example, that's an educational organization. It wanted to use The Profile Dossiers to have their class learn.
So they licensed that for me for X number of dollars, I forget. But then there was another one that was a media startup just starting. And they were like, “Hey, could we use some of your things?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” I did a syndication deal which is no money exchange hands with Business Insider, but it was cool because I got to be in front of all of those people, which inadvertently then led some people to come and pay through subscription, right. Let's say another 5% is freelancing. I didn't do that much. I did a few things where I wrote, but in exchange, the publication I wrote for, for example, I did a Q&A with Josh Wolfe who's an investor. He's fascinating for The Hustle. In exchange, The Hustle paid me but also agreed to include a link to The Profile in their daily newsletter, which has like 2 million subscribers.
Again, that's like kind of the growth engine that again, brought people back into the funnel and over the next four or five weeks, a percentage of them convert it to paid. And the other 5% is through advertising or sponsorships. So I've done a few things where for the free list, like the Bessemer Venture Partners was one of them, they paid me a certain amount of money to have a link to their new podcast. And I would say before you consider doing something like that, like a sponsorship deal or an advertising deal, make sure you genuinely like the products. There's so many people I've turned down because it's not high quality. I would never want to recommend and risk my reputation to say like, “Hey guys, go check this out. And I'm only recommending this because they're paying me money.”
I would have included their podcast in my newsletter anyway because it was that high quality. Therefore, that was a no brainer, but there are some things where I'm like, no, I will not include your product because I don't agree with it. And I would never use it.
Parul: This is really interesting.
Matt: Yeah, it is. And we could go so deep into this. I guess with the sponsorship deals, are you actively seeking them or are they finding you or is it some combination of both?
Polina: So for the two that I've done, they both found me because they were readers of The Profile. They were like, “We want to sponsor it.”
The first one that I did, I only had like 5,000 people because I did the Term Sheet on The Profile. A lot of those people also followed me to The Profile. So I'm able to say like, yes, it's only 5,000 people at the time, but they're really, really engaged. They're really high quality. Here are some of the investment firms and, uh, in large companies where they work.
So I think a lot of times people think like they need this massive, massive following to monetize anything. It's not true. As long as you can prove that the audience is really high quality and really engaged and they actually click and they actually open, and they actually read it.
Parul: That's really interesting. And looking forward to where you want this to go. Say in a year's time, what would success look like for you? What are you hoping for, whatever that means to you? Success is so subjective.
Polina: Well, I want to build a human interest company. I don't like that people in the creative field think that they shouldn't be paid for their work just because it's creative.
I want to have something called like The Profile School or something like that, where you come and literally learn from the most successful and interesting and fascinating humans, no matter what you do, you can learn anything. I don't care if you're an athlete or a politician, you can get something from Grant Achatz's story.
And my goal is to—right now, I'm kind of working on basically collecting their wisdom, but not necessarily interviewing them. I want the future of The Profile to look like my readers will have direct access to these people.
Matt: Love that.
Parul: I do have a question, which is fairly broad. Many of us operate in the space where we try and guess what's coming up because that's how we try and project in the future. So newsletters are obviously on the rise and there's a trend. What are your thoughts around where this newsletter sits in the future of a writing business?
Polina: My best guess, based on what we've seen, is that there's never been a better time to be a writer than right now. The whole idea of like the starving artist is no longer going to be the case because as machines take all these jobs, creativity and writing is one thing that's gonna—people are gonna be willing to pay a premium for. Another trend that I absolutely like, well, bet all my money on is that people subscribe to people and they trust individuals, not institutions or large media organizations. I mean, we're seeing it right now. Like I may love one reporter at Fox News. I may not want all the Fox’s content, but I'm willing to pay for that one writer to bring me their take because I trust them.
And it's so much easier to trust people than faceless institutions because there's accountability, right. If you screw up, I know you and I'll be like, “Oh my God,” like “What have you done?” And it's just able—you're better able to empathize and just understand where that person's coming from than this large faceless institution. We're seeing it in writing. We're seeing it in investing rolling funds. That new thing that everybody's doing right now, rolling funds are one person, you were subscribing to their fund and you're giving them money every quarter. I think the people-based economy is here. And it’s like up to you to become a brand and capitalize on it. What we're seeing now is people don't subscribe to the Washington Post.
They subscribe to a bundle of individual writers who came from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. And you're seeing a rebundling, but the rebundling is around individual personalities rather than just this mass of content.
Parul: That makes sense to me. I feel like we're also in a time of great loneliness where many of us feel very isolated, and individuals, we can at least connect with one-on-one. Even just this, even just being able to actually speak to each other.
But that leads me to another question. Just thinking of the room here and thinking of all of us, many of us may have the aspiration to do this, to actually try and create a following for ourselves. Our tribe that we communicate with and lead. I want to talk a bit about patience here and self-doubt because it's wonderful.
The idea is wonderful. The reality is it’s quite tough. And you can be putting stuff out there and like hating on yourself or doubting yourself. And perhaps the feedback you're getting is maybe crickets, nothing. How do we deal with them? In that stage. Either nothing or critics.
Polina: Yeah. I'm not going to lie to you when I first started The Profile, I had 200 people and a lot of whom I already knew for a long time. Like it took me a long time to get to my first thousand subscribers.
Parul: Is that years?
Polina: I think it took me a year to get to a thousand if I'm not mistaken, but then over time it accelerated, right. Because as more people got it, they began forwarding it to each other. So I want to talk about patience and consistency because they go hand in hand. If you want to start a newsletter, but you say, I don't really know if I have time for it, or I might send it now and then in a month and a half, and then in two weeks, and then in a year. Basically, what you want to look at is look at it from a psychological view, right?
So there's people—you want to create their habits around this thing that you create. So The Profile comes out Sunday morning because Sunday is probably the day where people have time to read these long articles, but they also know no matter what is going on in the world, Polina will send me this email.
And there are so many times where I was like, oh, this week is so busy. I don't know if I can do it. I always did it because I'm writing in public and those people trust me. And I don't want to break their trust. There was one time, it was like, maybe year two and a half, somebody sent me a link and I clicked on that link and it was someone else copying The Profile, literally exact same structure, exact same premise, exact same everything.
And at first, I was like, oh my God, I have a competitor. They're going to steal everything from me. And the truth is I'm not worried about competition because I know that I will outlast that person. I will outwork that person. And the taste that I've developed over doing this week after week after week, they will never have, right? So the beauty of being an individual creator is that people trust you for your taste and your writing and your personality and your insights. It's really cool. So for tomorrow's Profile Dossier, I'm doing one on Brandon Stanton who's the photographer of Humans of New York. And he said that the question he always gets is like, “How do you approach strangers in the street and ask them these crazy intimate questions that make them so vulnerable or whatever?”
And he's like, “There is no formula because I've interviewed more than 10,000 humans. So you learn something after every interaction. If I walk up to you and I'm like, what was the saddest moment in your life?” You’ll be like, “Get the hell away from me. You're insane.” If you lead with like, “Cool,” like a little bit—he's six-four.
So he has to like slouch a little bit and be like, “Heyyy,” his voice goes really high. Like he tries to make people comfortable. That's a skill that only he has because he's interviewed so many people. So I think like, no matter what you're doing, you're inevitably going to get better over time, but you require patience and consistency.
Matt: That’s a wonderful note to end on, Polina. This has been such a joy and so inspirational. I love your energy, too. Writing and creating. It can be very—it can be a lonely journey. It can also be a pessimistic one if you let it be. And I think part of your taste and your style is your positivity and your energy. So, yeah, I'm just really grateful for this. Anything else that you'd like to leave us with or any asks?
Polina: I want to come to the next writing session.
Parul: Please do. We would love that.
Matt: Come to our Writers’ Hour. We’d love that.
Polina: Writers’ Hour. There it is.
Matt: Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Polina.
Parul: I'm just left with this, like, general sense of happiness and hope so I'm very grateful. Thank you.
Polina: Yeah, of course. I think we need—I think to be an entrepreneur, you need a little bit of like, a little bit of delusion, some optimism and hope.
Parul: A little bit of delusion. Yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Matt: Thank you so much for your generosity and kindness and your positivity, Polina.
Polina: Thank you, guys.
Matt: We'll be rooting for you as you continue to grow The Profile.
[Outro] Parul: Thank you for tuning into the London Writers’ Salon podcast. If you'd like to join these weekly interviews live for the chance to ask our guest writers your burning questions. Well, you can become a member at londonwriterssalon.com forward slash pound membership. You'll get access to our library of salon interviews and workshops, our private online community, where you'll find world-class resources on the craft of writing and find creative friends.
Honestly, we think it's the best writing community in the world, and we would love for you to join us.
Matt: And if you're a writer struggling to find time to write like so many of us, you're welcome to join our free virtual hour-long, silent writing sprints called the Writers’ Hours. We hold them four times every Monday to Friday.
And all you need is something to write with, a hot drink to cheers us with, and the desire to write. We think it's the world's best virtual co-writing space for writers, creatives, and, frankly, anyone who just needs to get something done. You can sign up for free at writershour.com, and we hope to see you there until we write again. Cheers, everyone.