Polina Marinova Pompliano is the founder of The Profile, a new media company that features longform profiles of successful people and companies each week. Previously, she spent five years at FORTUNE where she was the author and editor of Term Sheet, FORTUNE’s industry-leading dealmaking newsletter. Polina has interviewed the industry’s most influential dealmakers, including Melinda Gates, Steve Case, Chamath Palihapitiya, Alexis Ohanian, and more. She graduated from the University of Georgia and started her career at CNN and USA TODAY.
Potolicchio: What is The Profile?
Marinova: The Profile is a destination that studies the most curious, innovative, and successful people in the world. We do that via two products. The first is a free weekly newsletter that features the best longform profiles every Sunday. The second is a weekly deep-dive where we study a prominent individual with the goal of learning from their successes, failures and mindset.
Potolicchio: What is an underrated psychological variable that you believe will become increasingly important for the future of learning?
Marinova: Curiosity. I think the biggest fault in the way school has been traditionally structured is that you're taught information and then expected to regurgitate it on an exam. The problem is that it's impossible to measure creativity with a standardized test. As the world becomes increasingly virtual, I think the future of education will become much more democratized and dependent on individual curiosities. As David Perell writes, “Online education inverts the learning process. In school, we start with the basics, and expand towards curiosity. Online, we start with curiosity and expand towards the basics.”
Potolicchio: What is something that you are confident about, but most people would dismiss?
Marinova: The power of consistency. When starting something new, people often focus on the flashier things — great design, beautiful writing, and wide distribution.
Those are the wrong priorities, in my opinion. If you can't make a vow to show up week after week and day after day even during the periods that feel like a slog, then don't even start.
I'm well-aware that I'm not the most talented writer in the world, but I am consistent. Since I started The Profile three years ago, I have never missed a single week. That means that for the last 191 Sundays, readers have been able to trust that this newsletter will be in their inbox no matter what’s going on in the world. Even a global pandemic couldn’t stop it. There's no way you can build trust with your readers, users, or customers if you don't deliver what you've promised on a consistent basis.
Potolicchio: What is the question we are not asking that we should be asking?
Marinova: Look at your circumstances right now, and ask yourself: "Is the situation I find myself in scary or dangerous?" I learned this from Jim Koch.
In 1984, Jim Koch felt suffocated by his cushy but boring corporate job at Boston Consulting Group. He had a choice: Does he stay in his safe role at BCG or does he start a beer company with no money or experience? So he began thinking about two words: "scary" and "dangerous." Leaving BCG would be the scariest decision of his life, but staying would be dangerous because he wasn't happy and he would live a life of regrets.
There are plenty of things in life that are scary but not dangerous and vice versa. He took the risk, left his job, and founded Samuel Adams beer. Looking at your life through this framework can help you make some big decisions.
Potolicchio: What's your all time favorite profile?
Marinova: It's this profile on Justin Bieber. Even though I don't particularly care for Bieber, the profile does something very few celebrity profiles can do: It humanizes him in a way that the reader feels like they're in on a secret. The way the reporter does that is by observing how he acts in various environments and giving us context. For instance, she noticed that Bieber doesn't backchannel, which means he withholds the subtle verbal cues like "mmm-hmm," "right," and "yeah," that tell the other person you're listening. This quality makes him wildly unsettling and difficult to talk to. It's really well done, and it demonstrates just how often we miscommunicate and get each other wrong.
Potolicchio: What is a biography (book) we need to read to prepare for the future?
Marinova: Educated by Tara Westover. Westover was born to survivalist parents in the mountains of Idaho, and she was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom where she learned about world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs,” she writes. This memoir contains so many lessons about the future of curiosity, independent learning, and the state of education.
Potolicchio: What leader most impresses you?
Marinova: Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya. Ulukaya’s “anti-CEO playbook” consists of four components: gratitude, community, responsibility, and accountability. He believes in taking care of your employees first. The profits, the tax breaks, and the financial incentives should always be secondary to the human beings building the business.
In 2015, Ulukaya gave jobs to immigrants and refugees at a time when they needed them most. In 2016, he gifted his 2,000 employees 10% of the company they helped build. In 2019, it was reported that a school district in Rhode Island would be instituting a policy where students who had outstanding school lunch debt would only be served sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches. Ulukaya stepped in and paid the $77,000 to cover all the students' outstanding school lunch debt. If you’re a business leader, Ulukaya believes, you have a responsibility to pay it forward. “Business can and must do its part in the communities they call home,” he says.
Potolicchio: Who is your favorite journalistic profiler? And what constitutes a good profile?
Marinova: I would have to say Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She expertly weaves in her own experience with that of her subjects and gets to the essence of what makes them them. Many of her subjects have been difficult to profile — Nicki Minaj fell asleep during the interview and Bradley Cooper refused to open up — yet she still finds a way to humanize them.
A great profile peels back the many layers of a human being and shows us the complexity and nuance of their character. It's full of details and precision rather than generic cliches.
Potolicchio: What is a trait that will become increasingly important for young professionals?
Marinova: Originality. Too many people are asking themselves, "Why have we always done things this way?" I think originality and the ability to think independently of the crowd will be crucial.
Potolicchio: Where were you raised and what is a can't miss element of your hometown?
Marinova: I was born in Sofia, but I spent a lot of time in Blagoevgrad and Petrich, two cities in Southwest Bulgaria. I would say a can't-miss element is the Rila Monastery. It's a monastery in the Rila mountains that is absolutely breathtaking, and it really puts things in perspective when you realize it was founded in the 10th century.
Potolicchio: You had a standout career as a journalist with iconic institutions. What have you learned running your own business?
Marinova: I've learned how to integrate the two parts of my brain — the creative, writer side and the more logical, business side. The ability to toggle back in forth does not come naturally, but it's absolutely instrumental if you want to create a high-quality product while also making sure your growing the business.
Potolicchio: If you went back to your undergraduate alma mater to teach a course, what would it be called and what would you assign?
Marinova: It would be called, "How to Start a Side Hustle 101." My only regret in starting The Profile is that I didn't start it earlier. If you're in college, the best advice I can give you is to start a newsletter, a passion project, or a new venture that lets you tie your identity to something that actually matters — your own name. Nothing is more liberating.
Potolicchio: I want to become a Profiler. Any prescriptions or regimen that will help me hone my craft?
Marinova: Begin by observing the quirks and habits of the people in your everyday life. Most of us go through the day as if the world revolves around us, our jobs, and our problems. We’re the main act; everyone else just plays a supporting role. If you want to profile people, you need to make others the main act by noticing all sorts of little nuances. What is their body language like? Are they shy or extroverted? How do they react when asked probing questions? What is a characteristic that's unique to them? If you start answering all of those questions, you can write a profile that paints a complete picture of your subject.
Potolicchio: What advice would you go back and give yourself at 18?
Marinova: The advice I would give an 18-year-old me is, "Stop planning so much." I was constantly worried about my "five-year plan." Where would I be in 5 years? Am I applying to the right jobs? Am I making the right decisions? Your plans won't always work out the way you want them to. Growth necessitates risk. We only have two options in life: create or imitate. We make our five-year plans based on the crowd’s opinion when, really, we should live life on our own timelines.
Potolicchio: What question should I have asked you and what's the answer?
Marinova: "What's one lesson you've learned from studying people?"
It's better to be interesting rather than perfect. I learned this from Malcolm Gladwell who says that people are often drawn to things that are done imperfectly. Whether it’s art, movies, or books, people talk more about the flawed things that get stuck in their heads than they do the obvious, perfect things. “You want an aftertaste, and that comes from not everything being perfectly blended together,” he says. “The question is: What is interesting? That’s what has to drive any creative act.”