Polina Marinova Pompliano is the author of The Profile, a newsletter written about (and read by) thousands of the world's most successful people. Her subscribers include The Rock and legendary investor Jim O'Shaughnessy.
Polina quit her job as a reporter at Fortune in 2020 to write the Profile full-time. Here, she shares her tips, strategies, and advice for building a newsletter business. Her answers have been lightly edited and condensed.
How did you get started writing newsletters?
“I spent five years at Fortune. I started there in October of 2014, and I did everything from social media to tech reporting, to magazine writing. In 2017, I found myself with a little bit more time on my hands on weekends and in the evening. So I was like, ‘What do I actually enjoy doing?’ In my spare time, I really liked reading long-form profiles and studying interesting people. After I would read an article, I would send it to my friends and family and discuss it.
At the time, there were a lot of reporters starting personal newsletters. I didn’t really love the idea of just sharing my work every week. I wanted to link to other people's work that I enjoyed, and then use it as a topic of conversation with family and friends. So that's how The Profile was created.
I still remember the first time somebody signed up that I didn't know. I was like, ‘How did they find it?!’ I started to professionalize my voice because in the beginning it was very, very casual. I started The Profile in February of 2017, and then in August of 2017 I started writing Term Sheet, which is Fortune’s daily deal-making newsletter. At that point in time, the only day I wasn’t sending a newsletter was Saturdays.
I was getting into the office at Fortune at 6:00AM every morning, because the newsletter had to go out at 10:00AM. Meanwhile, I was thinking about topics for The Profile during what I call, ‘the edges of time.’
When we say, ‘Something’s important to me, I just can’t find the time to do it,’ it’s probably not that important. You probably aren't as passionate about it as you think you are. So I would find the edges of time, which for me was on the subway going to work in the morning and coming home on the subway at night. I would read profiles and put notes in the notes app on my phone, then compile it into a doc. That’s how it started.”
How important is writing consistently?
“I don't think that you can have a successful paid newsletter without trust, and trust is built on top of consistency. What I noticed when I was at Fortune, writing this newsletter every single morning, is that certain readers developed a very sincere relationship with me. They would respond, and I would reply to their emails.
I realized over time that to get their news, these people weren’t going to Fortune.com or CNN.com, they were opening their emails. And there I was, in their inbox, in this very intimate way.
I understood that people trust people, and people trust individuals. When I went full time on The Profile, I really had that in mind. I told myself, ‘I will respond to every single person who emails me, whether it's good things or constructive feedback or something totally negative and unnecessary.’
By doing that, by being consistent week after week after week, since February of 2017—I still haven't missed a single week. I did The Profile for free for three years from 2017 to January of 2020. When I added a paid layer in 2020, it wasn’t as hard of an ask as it would have been if I hadn’t been consistent. My readers knew that if they gave me their money I wouldn’t run off with it. Consistency builds trust in the long term.
Do you focus on growth? What strategies do you use if so?
“I do focus on growth. I think it's one of my biggest weaknesses, because I come from a world that's heavily, heavily editorial. All I think about is the quality of the writing and the quality of the product. I haven't been trained to think about growth and distribution and things like that.
Early on, I did link swaps with Morning Brew and The Hustle, and that really helped me. I also do something a little more creative where, on Twitter, every few months I play this game where I say, ‘Give me a topic or an idea that you want to learn about, and I'll respond with a profile.’ People give me topics like red solo cups or computer science, whatever they want to learn about. I respond with links to profiles.
The reason that always does so well is because you get to show off your expertise and knowledge, and it's personalized, right? You're getting a response from me directly. Thinking of things like that, ways you can get out of your own network on Twitter are really, really helpful.”
What’s your No. 1 piece of advice for someone trying to get their first 1,000 subscribers?
“For the very early days, you can increase your luck just by telling people what you’re working on. Tell people about what you’re writing. And ask your early readers for help. In the early days, I would tell my readers, ‘Hey everyone, here’s what I’m working on, I’m trying to grow this to 1,000 readers. I would really appreciate it if you would tweet The Profile.’ You’d be surprised by how many people are actually willing to help.
What’s funny is it took me two full years to go from zero subscribers to 5,000 subscribers. I was just looking at the analytics and I added an additional 5,000 subscribers in the last 90 days. So it does compound on itself. It's just the initial momentum is so hard.”
Subscribe to The Profile here.