Why a Fortune Magazine writer left her job to focus on her newsletter

Polina Marinova had the kind of media career that many journalists dream of. After a brief stint at a media startup, she landed a job at Fortune Magazine and eventually got the role of head writer for Term Sheet, its daily newsletter on deals and dealmakers. After six years there, her resume and experience probably could have landed her any mainstream media job she wanted.

But instead, she left that steady job in March -- in the beginning of a massive recession -- to focus on her Substack newsletter full-time. The newsletter is called The Profile, and though she was running it as a side hustle while working at Fortune, she didn’t debut the paid version until after she left.

I recently interviewed Polina about why she decided to make the jump during such uncertain economic times, how she differentiates the free from the paid content, and her strategy for growing the newsletter’s audience these past six months.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Why Polina launched her newsletter

Polina actually launched and grew her newsletter long before she left her job at Fortune. “I started my newsletter The Profile in February of 2017. I never thought about newsletters as an income stream, but the reason I started it was because I was a little bit bored. I had a little bit of time on my hands and I liked long form journalism. And instead of just texting links back and forth with my friends of really interesting profiles we've read, I thought, ‘why don't I just put all the interesting long form profiles I read that week in a single place and I'll send it to family and friends?’ It never started with the idea that this would become any sort of business.” She began publishing on Tinyletter and then migrated to Substack after one of the platform’s co-founders reached out to her. 

Running it required a delicate balancing act, since her bosses at Fortune weren’t psyched that she was writing for a competing media outlet. “So this is 2017. There were a few people who had started personal newsletters on the side. I knew a few people who had done it, but then when I went to my editors to ask them if I could do it, they first asked why I would waste my time with this, and they suggested it could be a conflict of interest. I asked, ‘how could it be a conflict of interest?’ And they said, ‘you cannot create original content and publish it outside of Fortune.’ So I came back to them and I was like, ‘okay, but what if I curated content but didn’t actually create any original content on of my own? I will only curate interesting articles and I'll bring traffic to Fortune.’” 

To her surprise, the newsletter took off anyway. “I still haven't done any proper marketing and advertising of it. It took off based on word of mouth and Twitter, where I would share it or other people would share it. And then, one day, without me knowing at all, [bestselling author] Ramit Sethi included it in his newsletter. And that has a ton of subscribers. So one day I was literally sitting at my desk and I was getting thousands of email signups. I didn’t even know where they were coming from, but it was really cool.”

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Why Polina left her job at Fortune

Polina loved her magazine job, but she decided to leave it earlier this year to pursue the newsletter full-time. “I started thinking, ‘I've been at Fortune for five years. I literally learned everything I know there. I was 23 years old when I started.’ So I thought, ‘is there anything else I want to do?’ And with Substack, I saw that it was getting traction. I saw that more and more people wanted to read it.  And I had all these ideas. I just couldn't do them because I was only working on The Profile in the evenings and on weekends and on the subway. So I asked myself, ‘what would this thing look like if I gave it a hundred percent?’ I also asked myself whether I wanted to give my job up for something where I could completely fail. And the question that I couldn't get out of my head was, ‘will I have learned more in five years if I stayed at Fortune in my exact same role versus doing The Profile for five years?’

This line of thinking started in January 2020. “I gave notice in the beginning of March, before COVID was super, super serious. My last day at Fortune was March 20th when [New York Governor] Andrew Cuomo said everybody had to stay home in New York. That's when it hit me. This could become a depression.” But in some ways it ended up being great timing, since people were hungry for longform content to consume. 

How the newsletter evolved

Freed from Fortune, Polina could increase the amount of original content in the newsletter. She also rolled out a paid version. “I charge $10 a month or $50 a year. The Profile currently has two products. The first is a free weekly email that comes out every Sunday morning and it curates the most interesting long form profiles on the internet, with eight or nine recommendations. They're all deeply reported profiles. The second product is basically a premium offering, which includes in the Sunday email two additional sections with audio and video recommendations. It's a documentary or a TED Talk or an interesting podcast I listened to. And then on Wednesdays paying subscribers get the Profile Dossier, which is a weekly deep dive on a prominent individual. It ranges the gamut from business to entertainment to sports. I start with an idea, and then I find the person who is the best embodiment of that idea that I can learn from.”

Polina added other perks for paying subscribers as well. “I have an exclusive group chat with all the people who are in the premium membership who can come together and talk about ideas or interesting things they've read. We do a monthly lunch and learn where I'll teach the group something, and other members get to ask questions.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.