Polina Marinova, former editor at Fortune Magazine and Founder of The Profile , joins Stew Fortier to discuss quitting her 9-5 job during the pandemic, the pitfalls of imitating other writers, and why there’s never been a better time to write online.
The interview summary below was prepared for Compound Writing, a paid invite-only community of online writers. Apply here
1. Build trust with your audience before going paid.
Polina published her newsletter consistently for three years before leaving her job at Fortune to focus on it full-time. She encourages other writers to establish a reliable cadence before asking their audience to pay.
“I don't think The Profile would have ever become a viable business if I hadn't done it consistently, week after week. People can trust me. I built that trust with the reader over three years.
They knew that I wouldn't just create a paid layer and run off to Mexico with their money. They knew that I would continue to produce quality writing every week.”
2. Think of your product as less of a subscription and more of a membership.
Polina prefers to think of The Profile as a membership product rather than a paid subscription content product.
“When you become part of The Profile, you become part of a community. We have a chat where all of the readers talk, we do virtual meetups (back in the day we used to do in person meetups), you get access to things like The Profile Dossier, I respond to literally, every single email I get in response, etc.
So to me, you're not just the subscriber, you're a member of this community. That is the difference between being a member of The Profile and being a member of the New York Times”
3. “One of the biggest mistakes you can make is imitating someone else’s voice.”
Polina warns other writers to avoid the temptation to copy the writers they admire and lose your own voice in the process.
"I know that from experience, because when I started writing for Term Sheet at Fortune, I knew it was an important newsletter. I knew I had to be very professional, and that it was going out to the most important investors and CEOs in the world. There had been two authors before me who were really good at what they did and really understood the space.
I was extremely insecure about my knowledge, and it also didn't help that I had all this pressure around having big shoes to fill. So when I started writing, I tried to imitate the previous editors’ voices, and it wasn’t so great because...I'm not them.
So finally I was like, I'm just going to write how I like to write. It resonated.
That is the biggest lesson I've learned writing for both The Profile and Term Sheet. You have to find your own voice, something that's authentic to you that nobody else can copy or do as well as you can. Trying to imitate other people will never work.”
Polina’s commitment to her own personal voice and writing style is unwavering, even in the face of an audience that's growing quickly.
“I never actually think about anybody that’s reading it. It’s strange. Most of the time, I find that my best writing is when I’m writing solely for me. Then people really like it.”
4. There’s a difference between doing something scary and doing something dangerous.
Polina understands how unnerving it can be to leave a reliable salary and benefits to launch a new business. She recalls a profile she read about Jim Koch, the founder of Samuel Adams, that helped her deal with this feeling.
“He said that when he was working at Boston Consulting Group, making $300K a year, he really struggled with indecision around starting a brewery.
Then he realized that there's a difference between a scary decision and a dangerous decision. Yes, it's scary to make the jump and start doing something on your own, but you will get over it. It gets better over time.
Dangerous decisions are, well, dangerous. And if he had stayed at BCG for another 15 or 20 years, he would always live with the regret that he could have done something else, so he built Sam Adams.
When you're looking to make decisions, that framework is a good one. Is this just scary? Or is it actually dangerous?”
She also reminds aspiring writers that building your own media company can actually increase your financial security by diversifying your possible revenue streams.
“When you work at a job with a steady income, you have to remember that no job is that safe. They can lay you off or fire you or something happens to the company and you lose your job. Suddenly you lose your entire source of revenue, right?
When you have something like The Profile or any other project, you're able to diversify your revenue streams. In the beginning, I only had subscriptions, but now I also do licensing deals with other media companies where they pay me to use some of my content. Then there's also advertising and freelance. There’s a lot you can do.”
5. Going all-in on something can reduce risk.
When Polina revisited her growth metrics for The Profile, she noticed an interesting trend.
“If I show you a chart of The Profile, starting in February of 2017, it’s pretty flat. It looks like a very flat staircase. Once I left Fortune in March of this year, it really accelerated. Sometimes you fail to account for the fact that when you put 100% of your time and focus into something, the growth will probably accelerate.”
6. Tell the world what you're working on.
When Polina decided to quit her job at Fortune, her exit strategy centered around asking others for support.
“I knew that leaving Fortune would be kind of big news in some small circles, but I really wanted to punch above my weight with my departure and the launch of The Profile.
So I made a list of all the things that I could do to help myself get more subscribers and introduce more people to the newsletter.
Fortune was kind enough to let me say what I was doing on my final Term Sheet, so a bunch of people subscribed from there.
I also talked to The Hustle and Morning Brew about doing link swaps, so I could be in their newsletter, and they could be in mine.
I also sent a Special Edition to all of the profile subscribers saying, ‘Hey, guys, I'm leaving my full time job to do The Profile full time. If you want to support me, here's how,” and tweeted it.
I literally texted a bunch of friends that subscribed to The Profile and asked them to share on social media that day. Unfortunately, I was competing with Governor Cuomo and his announcement that New York City was going to shut down for Coronavirus, but still, even with that, a lot of people subscribed. It was great.
I think it was James Clear who said ‘You can attract more luck simply by telling people what you're working on.’ “
7. One challenge for independent writers is finding top-notch editing and collaborators.
When asked whether Polina has any regrets in her decision to quit her job at Fortune pursue writing The Profile full-time, she said:
“I do not regret the decision at all, I have not regretted it a single time since I left. The one thing I will say that I really miss is having an editor and people who consistently make my writing better.”
8. It’s never been a better time to be a writer.
In 2020, the world can feel very uncertain, but Polina believes that there are incredible opportunities for writers.
“The passion economy is on the rise, and you don't need that many true fans to make a good living as a writer. I'm so happy to see that people are valuing content in the same way as a product.
I am not a big risk taker. I'm very anxious and very type A. I want things to be certain, but 2020 has taught me that nothing is certain. So I did the math, I backed into how many paying members of The Profile I needed to match my salary at Fortune, I found the number and I was like ‘You know what, this is not an unrealistic number. I can do this.’”