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  • Polina Pompliano interview: how she got in Morning Brew and The Hustle, lessons from the world's greatest builders, and much more

Polina Pompliano interview: how she got in Morning Brew and The Hustle, lessons from the world's greatest builders, and much more

Hi, and welcome to a Special Weekend edition of the Bay Area Times. Today, we're trying something new, an exclusive interview with one of the world's most influential authors and journalists, Polina Marinova Pompliano.

Polina writes The Profile newsletter. She sends two emails per week: one containing the best links to long-form articles, videos, and podcasts of the week, and the other with a unique profile on someone, many times covering leaders in business and tech.

Polina Marinova Pompliano.


  • She got a free promo from The Hustle by offering to write an article for them (which she was even paid for).

  • She got a free promo from Morning Brew by pitching them that her (at the time) 10K subscribers were highly engaged and influential leaders, including CEOs, venture capitalists, etc.

  • She has high 10s of thousands of subscribers and thousands of paying members.

  • All organic growth, and she writes all the content (except for the occasional freelancer when she was writing her book).

  • Her book Hidden Genius comes out on June 20. It is a case study on the mental frameworks that geniuses use to solve problems. The book's goal is not only understanding, but also practical, to help the reader unlock their inner genius. You can pre-order it now.

Full interview

Could you tell us the backstory of The Profile? We're really curious about the year-to-tear details: how many subscribers you had, what you did to grow, etc.?

Okay, so actually, this week is the sixth year anniversary of The Profile. I started it on February 20, 2017.

I was still working at Fortune as a tech reporter. I started writing The Profile just on the side. I would write it on weekends and evenings. And it began at the time when some of my co-workers had personal newsletters, which they used to promote some of the work they were doing at whatever publication they worked at.

But what I did differently was, I was like, I'm going to start this email for family and friends. But instead of promoting my own work, I'm going to curate the best long-form profiles of other people. And maybe if I wrote a profile, I would include it, but it was mostly other people. And it was seven to eight links every Sunday, and it's grown from there, but that's essentially the foundation of how it started.

How many subscribers do you have?

I don't share how many subscribers/paying subscribers I have publicly.

But I can tell you I have high 10s of thousands. And then thousands of paying members.

What platform did you use to start?

So actually didn't join Substack until 2018. So from 2017 through 2018, I used Tiny Letter first, then I maxed out of that and went on to MailChimp. But MailChimp was so clunky, and it wasn't getting delivered. And it was also expensive. I'm just doing this as a hobby. I'm not going to be paying for this. So then I went to MailterLite, which was also paid but cheaper than MailChimp. But it was even worse. The newsletter just wasn't getting to people.

And then, I joined Substack on April 16, 2018. And I was really impressed with it, how it ended up in people's inboxes every time. I don't know if that's because they were new, but I enjoyed that aspect. So it took me one second.

How long did it take for your subscriber count to grow?

I started The Profile in February 2017. It took me until January 2019 to get my first 5,000 subscribers, and I got 5,000 subscribers in the last 90 days. So it just shows how it just compounds over the years.

And the start, it was all organic, word of mouth.

It's still organic. I don't do any advertising — my only marketing is word of mouth. I've done newsletter swaps and Twitter -- that's what I used to grow.

How did you get into The Hustle and Morning Brew, given these newsletters have very large audiences?

So when I talked to The Hustle, I did it in exchange for an article. So I said, I will interview Josh Wolf, a venture investor. And that Q&A, I can do it for The Hustle.

And I believe they paid me for it plus, they included a link to subscribe to The Profile in one of their newsletters. So that was a swap.

And then with Morning Brew, the way I positioned it is, yes, you have a lot of subscribers, but it's more of a general audience. I may have less, around 10K, but they're all really high quality and very engaged people. I had people from venture firms, startups, tech journalists, and some semi-celebrity subscribers — I knew that because they had emailed me.

I wrote an article that showcased who The Profile subscribers were. I just went to these people. For example, the first CEO of Uber, I saw he reads it, and I said, hey, what's your favorite Profile?

I then wrote an article with their favorite profiles, highlighting who The Profile subscribers are. That was appealing to Morning Brew, and they included me in one of their sections. I believe I recommended them a few times in my newsletter as a swap, but I actually believed in it because I read it every day.

So I've only done it with Morning Brew, The Hustle, and 1440, all three newsletters I read every day.

About your newsletter: do you have a team? How do you produce the content today?

It's just me, or it's been just me for the most part.

I work on the Sunday email all week.

Basically, I'll save articles to Pocket, and I'll read them. And as I read them, I write a little summary in the newsletter. In the last three to four months, I hired someone, just on a freelance basis, to help me with the multimedia section, which is the videos to watch and audio to listen to.

That section is only for Premium members, with podcast and video recommendations. I just didn't have enough time with the book I'm writing, so she helped me with that.

And then, I work on the Wednesday email, The Profile Dossier, which features one individual profile. I work on that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I have a mini library built up, so if I don't have one this week, I have something to publish.

Basically, if I go on a run, I listen to a podcast. I read this stuff all the time. It's just my life.

I'm sure you've tried ChatGPT. Have you found it useful at all?

I tried to have it summarize one article. And it was plain wrong. It made stuff up. I thought: that's not even in the article. So I don't know why it did that.

The way I see it is that there are essentially three sections to a Sunday newsletter. There's the top, which is a mini-essay, then there are the seven to eight profiles that are curated. And then there's the multimedia section, which is the podcasts and videos.

Now, I could completely outsource The Profile section that shows the curated seven to eight profiles. Somebody else could do that, somebody else could read them, somebody else could summarize them.

That would be challenging, by the way, and to me, that's doing your homework. I can't sit here and talk to you and say I love profiles, and I never read them. I have to read.

How do you choose who to profile? Do you check people who are not well-profiled by Wikipedia and other sources?

Sometimes I think of The Dossier as a more human-focused version of Wikipedia.

I started this project with the idea of learning something. Depending on the topic, I can look for the best person to teach me. For example, if I wanted to learn about confidence, I could go to Sara Blakely of Spanx.

If I wanted to learn about big-wave surfing, I could go to Garrett McNamara. I also try to look for people who aren't as well-covered by the mainstream press, and shine a light on them. But getting the right information can be tricky, so if there isn't enough coverage out there, I'll try to get the interviews myself.

What are your plans for the future of The Profile? Are you planning to build the brand bigger than yourself with a large team?


The Profile is a lifestyle. This is what I would do even if I weren't making money in any way. I just really love learning from people. I don't think I want it to be this massive big business. Probably the future is writing more books. I really enjoyed that process, and then continuing to develop the community of The Profile. I would love for The Profile to be much bigger than it is today in terms of community, so we can do events and certain things you can't when you're smaller.

Most large newsletters have done a lot of advertising to grow, especially Facebook and Instagram ads. Is that something you have explored?

I thought about it, but I haven't done it.

To me, when you grow organically, the level of engagement is crazy. People trust you more, they respond more, and they actually trust to click on the links that you offer.

About your book, Hidden Genius, what are some of its most important lessons about business and tech?

Oh, there's so much in this book because I come from a business tech background. A lot of the book is written through that lens, and I interviewed a lot of business people who make an appearance in it. But there's everything from super practical takeaways on leadership to creativity and business.

I featured the co-founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull, who talks about the creative process within an organization that has to make money and turn a profit.

How do you clarify your thinking in a world where there's so much bias and emotion? How do you clarify your thinking to get your point across, whether it's to customers or users, or an audience? That's the whole point of the book - how do you find your hidden genius? Hidden genius is defined as the differentiator that makes you exceptional. At the end of the book, I explain why it's important to bet on yourself - whether that's to start a business, lead one, or scale one - you need that.

People in business and tech will find this very valuable, even though there's a section on relationships that initially may not seem applicable but examples from it, like Charlie Munger & the concept of "compound interest of trust", will likely be understandable for them.

Can you talk a bit more about Charlie Munger?

He's mentioned a few times in the book, but one instance that comes to mind is he talks about how in any business negotiation or relationship, you need what he calls "deserved trust." How do you deserve somebody's trust? He uses the example of the Mayo Clinic - just a bunch of people doing their jobs, completely trusting each other.

He has been through a lot in his life and explains that the best business negotiations and deals he ever struck were with just a handshake; no further agreement was necessary because the level of trust was so high. The entire chapter explains how you get there.

He once said to get what you want, you have to deserve it. Any other investing advice?

I talked to Steve Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone, when I was at Fortune. He made his name by investing in alternative assets, and when I asked him about Bitcoin, he said he didn't have much interest in it because it's hard for him to understand - he was raised in a world where someone needs to control currencies.

This story shaped an entire chapter on how to clarify your thinking when making good investments or decisions in business, life, and marriage by removing the biases you carry with you if you want to go in a new direction.

How do you see the future of media, the rise of newsletters, and the new role of mainstream media?

I first noticed this when I was writing Term Sheet at Fortune, which is that people trust people. I think you're seeing this fracturing of trust in media because of that.

At Fortune, whenever the email would come from me, more people would open it than if it came from Fortune because it's just a faceless media organization versus an individual person. Over time, people got to know me, and they knew my weaknesses, biases, etc.

Whereas it's really hard when it's coming from the New York Times to know what the New York Times believes – you can't put it in one certain type of box. Now a lot of people are leaving traditional media to start independent newsletters or independent media companies. I do think that in the future, there will be a real bundling of individual people and individual brands, working together under one organization. But it'll still be people focused instead of faceless-media-organization-focused.

Haven't we seen the growth of huge news organizations like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal over the past years?

Yes and no.

I do agree that the top brands, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, will continue to be around. They'll continue to grow.

I think it's the people in the middle that just don't really have a chance. I mean, we've seen a lot of media organizations start doing newsletters, and they attach it to a person.

I often subscribe to newsletters not knowing it's the Wall Street Journal or another big media organization behind it. Then I'll find out and still think I'm subscribing to the person.

What about changes that are happening in the U.S., with the Bay Area, New York, and Boston losing power to the Floridas and Texas?

I don't know. I mean, I live in Miami, but I do not see cities like New York, San Francisco, LA dying. They'll continue to be media hotspots.

But I do think there will be a rise in places like Miami and Austin, or wherever else people go. The question is: Will talent continue to go there and continue to start businesses there? Or is it just a fad and everybody that came to Miami is going to move right back to New York in a year or two?

Thank you, Polina, for the interview. Is there anything else that you would like to add, say about your book?

The book, Hidden Genius, launches on June 20. And it's basically just a compilation of everything I've learned from The Profile in the last six years.

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