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7.20.21   4:03 PM

Not every journalist is cut out to become a “creator.” But any writer thinking about building their own content brand would do well to study the success of Polina Marinova. 

Marinova, founder of The Profile, graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in 2013. By 2017, she had climbed the ranks of financial media in New York, becoming a writer and editor at Fortune Magazine. She was not entirely satisfied with that role, however. 

Traditional media was in decline, and she felt it focused too much on shallow “clickbait” stories. At the same time, the creator economy was taking shape, and it was becoming easier for writers and other content producers to develop and monetize their own audiences. At first she took baby steps in that direction, starting a free newsletter devoted to her favorite kind of journalism:  longform profiles.

As it increased in popularity, so too did her confidence that she could one day turn the side project into a livelihood. In March 2020, she finally took that leap, and left her job at Fortune — just as the pandemic closed in on the U.S. economy. Harrowing as that sounds, her risk paid off. The Profile, launched via Substack, now boasts tens of thousands of subscribers. Marinova now brings in six figures in revenue, a "significantly" higher income than she ever did in a media job, through a mix of sponsorships and subscriptions priced at $10 per month or $50 per year. (Some subscribers choose to pay more.) 

We spoke with Marinova (now Marinova Pompliano, after marrying crypto industry investor Anthony Pompliano last year) about how she developed The Profile and why she thinks it has been such a hit.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

  • Testing the waters with a free email roundup


    Business of Business: Can you talk a little bit about how you came to found The Profile? 

    Polina Marinova: Absolutely. So I, my whole life has been in journalism. I was actually the last cohort at my university to graduate with a major in newspapers. They got rid of that afterwards. Now, it's just "journalism." But I spent time at USA Today, CNN, a media startup called Ozzy. And from 2014 to 2020, I was a tech reporter and in a few other roles at Fortune Magazine.

    While I was there, that was like journalism with a capital "J." And I really loved it. But it was around 2017 I started kind of being a little jaded and sad about the the media industry as a whole. There was a lot of clickbait, there was a lot of rewriting of articles. Somebody would come out with breaking news, and they would have all their like sources, and then 10 other legitimate newspaper or news organizations would just take it and rewrite it without verifying any sources. So I wasn't a big fan of that.

    But I was a really big fan of really, really high quality, well-done journalism, and I tended to gravitate towards profiles in particular, just because I think a really well done profile can tell you a lot about a person. It tells you also about how good of a writer the journalist is, and how much they've done their homework, because they get into the nuances. And obviously, like, not everybody's good or bad. There's so much complexity and nuance. And I love those types of things.

    So in 2017, I just, you know, started an email. I didn't call it a newsletter at a time, where I would curate seven or eight really interesting long form profiles. And I would send it to my family and friends. I think my first edition had like 20 people on the list. When you go back and look at the tone, it's so bad, but obviously, it's professionalized over time. The whole idea was like, "Hey, here's an interesting profile, let's talk about it." Like, 'what did you learn," you know, this big, evil person, like maybe they're not so evil after all. You start to kind of dig into the person and have really interesting conversations. So I really enjoyed that. 

    "I never thought it would be a business or that I would be leaving my full-time job at Fortune for it.  But fast-forward three years later, I just decided I wanted to." 

    I never thought it would be a business or that I would be leaving my full-time job at Fortune for it. But fast-forward, three years later, I just decided I wanted was before all these reporters started quitting their jobs to do newsletters. I saw Substack. I was like, "I think this will be a thing in the future." People are losing trust in traditional media institutions. I think it's going to get more niche. So I just want to try it. If it doesn't work, and I fall flat on my face, I'm just gonna go get another job.

    So I left Fortune in March of 2020 to pursue The Profile full time.

    That is interesting timing. Yeah, you pulled the trigger after sort of slowly building with audience like right as a pandemic was falling on all of us. What was that like?

    You know, what's so funny is I was so wishy-washy. I would wake up and be like, "I'm gonna quit today. And I'm gonna do this." I started thinking about this in January 2020, way before the pandemic or anything was on my radar. And then I would go to sleep and be like, "Are you crazy? You have benefits, you have health insurance, like what are you going to do?"

    So because I was a tech reporter, I would speak to all these like VCs and investors, and they all kept saying like, "Oh, every 10 years, there's a recession." And so were nearing that cycle, and it was like, "What if there's a recession, and Oh, my God, and I quit my job." That was the most of my worries.

    And then it was the first week of March, I think I finally decided to put in my two weeks notice or three weeks notice. COVID was still not as you know, as big as it became. So I was like, "Yeah, sure. Last day will be March 20. That makes sense." And then that day was also the first day of nationwide lockdowns and I was just like, "This wasn't even on my radar of risks and pros and cons."

    But it's more proof that you really can't plan. Life just goes, "Huh, that's funny." And and it goes a totally different way. But what it allowed me to do is just see that when I was working at a full time job, I think that my anxieties were misplaced about going independent. So I thought, "Oh my God, if I leave, I'm going to lose benefits, and I'm going to lose my consistent salary and all that stuff."

    What you don't realize is media goes in cycles, as we have seen in the last decade or so. So, you know, in a time of a pandemic, my job is not safe, I could get laid off, I could get a pay cut, like all that stuff. And because my entire income comes from one source, that's kind of dangerous. For example, with The Profile, I've made money via subscription revenue, advertising, sponsorships, freelancing, licensing, syndication, all that stuff. That's like five or six different revenue streams. If one dries up, I have another five, instead of relying on this one thing, and then when I lose my job, I lose like everything.

  • Thinking through the dollars and cents of The Profile


    That is definitely a good way to think about it. Definitely puts things into perspective. I do hear from friends who freelance, and you know, some people who tried to do the creator route, that it's kind of hard to get yourself going. How did you find that in yourself, like that motivation, and how did you get things started?

    Yes. So I do think like, there's risks, and then there's smart risks, right? When I was thinking about leaving my job, I wasn't just like, "Oh, I'm gonna quit. And then I'm just gonna try to figure out how to build an audience." I figured out the distribution aspect first, the audience piece first. And then I was like, "Okay, now I can back into the math of how many people I need to subscribe and pay, in order for me to match my salary at Fortune. To me, that was success. Success was, "Can I match my salary at Fortune in the first year?"

    I already had, let's see, when I left Fortune, I think I only had 10,000 subscribers to my newsletter, which is a lot and it was a lot for me at the time. And so I was like, "Okay, so if only four percent of people convert from the free list to the paid list, how many people will pay?" And I backed into the math of like, how many people do I need to pay per month in order for me to get this amount of money. And once you have that number, you start to you see it over time. Okay, based on my growth, when can I reach this number? What's realistic. And then I just figured, "Okay, it'll take me six months." I ended up reaching it earlier, but I was overly conservative. So it was realistic.  I wasn't just like, you know, throw all caution to the wind. I actually did sit down and did math, and was like, "Okay, this is realistic for me, and I'll do it."

    Okay, so it's like you had to do it. I get it. All right. What are some of the favorite profiles you've done?

    The Profile is a mix of me curating articles on individual people and doing like deep dives without ever interviewing them. And I've also interviewed people.

    Okay, yeah, curated profiles plus your contributions. What was your favorite contribution you've made?

    Let's see. So my favorite one, I think was I did an interview with Brandon Stanton, who created Humans of New York. He rarely speaks to the media. He doesn't have that many things out there on him. It's all about the work. And it was a really interesting interview, because, you know, I got to ask him about his creative process and his idea generation, but what was most telling, and what was most interesting is how uncomfortable he got when I asked him about himself. He's just like, really uncomfortable, which is ironic and interesting, because he spends his day trying to get all these interesting stories out of people. But he's very uncomfortable being in the spotlight.

    Oh, yeah. That is interesting. One of those little nuggets that you find in a really good profile. Was it hard to persuade people to do profile interviews for your own work when you went it alone? 

    Yeah. I think most people say, "Oh, you know, just quit your job and start, like, as long as you have relationships." But the truth is, I'm sure that at Fortune, I got to interview Melinda Gates and Steve Schwarzman because I had "" on my email. I was very aware that when I left and I had "" as my email people would be like, "Oh, I don't know."

    "If you produce good work, and people trust you, you will get access regardless of where you work or what you write for."

    But I do think it's kind of like a double edged sword, right? Like when you work at a place that has a very long history and reputation, it kind of gets stuck to you. So, for example, Elon Musk, when Vanity Fair reached out to interview him, I think he responded with "Vanity Fair sucks." So the reporter who did it may have had good intentions about doing a profile.

    And then [Musk] gave like, a lot of access to Tim Urban, let him follow him around for two months. So Tim Urban wasn't, you know, a well-known journalist, but I think that's the difference between like storytelling online these days. It's like, if you produce good work, and people trust you, you will get access, regardless of where you work or what you write for.

  • Learning how to have a new relationship with readers


    Right, right, once you kind of prove what you do. That's cool. Did Fortune ever give you a hard time or like, kind of sniff out what you were up to? And try to try to dissuade you?

    Not really, because I started in 2017. That was at a time when a lot of reporters had personal newsletters, you remember?  It was like, "Oh, I'm gonna share my work every week. And I don't know why we did that.  So it kind of started as like a personal newsletter, except instead of only promoting my work, I promoted the work of other reporters too. And they were like, "Sure." But I don't think they thought it would ever get as big as it did or that I would ever leave. I I certainly didn't think that.

    But I think now, with so many reporters who have platforms who are leaving to do their own independent thing, I think that newsrooms are probably starting to like, rethink it.

    Yeah, right, of course. And how, since you have experience being both like a journalist or traditional journalist and a creator in this new economy, what's the difference? Is there a different mentality? 

    It depends, right? Because, um, there are some people who like, for example, do what I do, they curate, and sometimes they do original work. There's others who do legitimate journalism just under their own name, like Alex Kantrowitz, and people like that. The difference is that you may not necessarily have an editor or a newsroom or a lawyer to look over your work, things like that, that you have in a traditional newsroom.

    "I am making way more than I ever have in traditional media, which is nice."

    But I think the platforms like Substack, and others, I think they're going to create that support around the individual person. So if I ever want legal support, or for a lawyer to look over my work, I can just turn to them. And it's it's kind of the back end of everything we do. Because right now, being a storyteller or creator on the internet means you're much more isolated. And it's harder, I think, but I do think that the future of media is going to be much more fragmented and much more niche.

    Right, right. Can you talk about economics at all? Where are you at now? Like, can you talk about revenue or subscribers, just to give us some ideas?

    Yeah, I have tens of thousands of subscribers. I think four percent roughly convert. But the beauty of Substack is that, for example, my subscription is $50 a year or $10 a month. Substack has the option to allow people to support you beyond the $50 a year. So some people pay $100. There was somebody who paid $1,000, just people who want to support, like, independent creators, that makes it really nice. And I am making way more than I ever have in traditional media, which is nice.

    I know there's a lot of like, there's a lot of debate about, oh, what platform are you using? And why are you on that and what is happening. You will never hear me complain about writers making money on the Internet. I think it's been far too long where they haven't. So I'm like, the more money that is thrown into this, you know, area, the better.

    And I suppose you've gotten feedback from readers, right? Like, what do you hear?

    Every year I do a survey. I track Google Analytics. I respond to every email so I get a lot of feedback. The one thing that's so beautiful about an email newsletter is that the person feels like they have direct access to you because they do and it's a lot more intimate than if I read an article in The New York Times or on the website. I don't feel as connected to the reporter to send them feedback as I do if I get this newsletter in my email every day or every week.

    So a lot of I get a lot of new ideas from from readers. They tell me when something absolutely sucks. They tell me when they want more of something or less of something. So that's kind of why The Profile has evolved in the way that it has. Because in the beginning, it was much more sarcastic and sassy. And I thought it was funny. And nobody else thought I was funny. And they told me, "I don't want this,  like this tone feels condescending, and I don't like it. And why do you have a gif in here, get rid of the gif." And I was like, "All of this makes sense."

    But the truth is like, I would have never gotten to this version of The Profile if I hadn't listened to the readers in the beginning.

  • Is there a future for traditional media as creators take over?


    That is so interesting. Your relationship is changing with your readership in a sense, because you're no longer in this ivory tower, or whatever.

    Exactly. Yeah. 

    This is probably too big of a question. But like, do you think media institutions, the traditional media institutions, will survive as there's more people doing things that you're doing?

    I think I mean, I think so. I think the big ones definitely Well, I think the innovative ones definitely will. For example, we saw Business Insider buying Morning Brew. I think that was really smart. It's like when you when you see this stuff exploding, when you see the audience being really engaged, either you want to be part of it, or you're going to want to like rebel and rejected until the very end.

    I think there's been this series of unbundling, right? Like all these writers coming out, starting their own independent thing. Now you're seeing kind of seeing like a rebundling of sorts, where some newsletter writers are getting together as sort of a collective and doing a publication together. But it's still focused on the individual.

    And I really do think that when I wrote Term Sheet at Fortune for two years. That's a daily newsletter. The level of relationship that I had with the readers I had never had before just being a writer at Fortune. So I think you kind of see it, you see the trend, you see where it's going. And right now, a lot of people are like, just acting on that trend. 

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