I quit my job at the start of the pandemic to launch a company. Here’s what I’ve learned in the first 90 days.
You are most powerful when your identity is tied to your own name.
I woke up on Friday, March 20 ready.
It was my last day as a writer and editor at Fortune magazine, and I was ready to go full-time on my media company The Profile. As I was preparing to dive head-first into my new life, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was getting ready for something entirely different.
That same morning, he held a press conference where he announced his executive order that mandated all New Yorkers are required to stay at home in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Over the next two weeks, I had to face the uncomfortable reality that the world was about to change in a serious way. Businesses were shuttering, people were losing their jobs, and the whole country was in collective shock. It felt like my deepest fears had materialized overnight.
Depending on who you ask, it’s either the worst time or the best time to start a business. I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that even in the middle of all this chaos and uncertainty, I still had confidence in my decision. Here’s why: At Fortune, I wrote about entrepreneurship. At The Profile, I’m living it.
Today marks exactly 90 days since I started working on The Profile full time. Here are the 10 biggest things I’ve learned in the last three months.
1. You will underestimate yourself. Do it anyway.
When I was deciding whether to quit my job and go all in on The Profile, it was a months-long battle with myself. One day, I’d be 100% certain. The next, I was an insecure mess. So I made a pro/con list of reasons to go full-time. The con section included points like “the uncertainty and lack of a stable monthly income” and “what if I can’t grow subscriptions fast enough?”
But here’s what you’re unlikely to account for: The raw, ferocious motivation that kicks in when you realize you need to pay your bills. I’m working harder and longer than I’ve ever worked before, but I’m also on track to make more money this year than I have at any salaried job in my career.
(PS: Whenever I’m scared about trying something new, this video of Swedish people jumping off a 10-meter tower is the absolute best example of how to use self-talk in the midst of fear.)
2. Diversify your revenue.
Where does your money come from? I’d argue that people who think they’re in a “safe” job at a large corporation are in a far more dangerous situation than an entrepreneur starting from scratch. That’s because the second your company lays you off, your entire revenue stream evaporates.
So far, I’ve made money from 1) direct subscriptions, 2) advertising, 3) a licensing deal, and 4) freelance writing. Diversification mitigates the risk of losing any single source of money all at once. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but as Malcolm Gladwell says, “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning.”
3. Create inflection points.
You know how sometimes it feels like everywhere you look, people are talking about a certain company, product, or newsletter? That’s because momentum is important.
There were three inflection points in The Profile’s existence as an independent venture. The first: Announcing that I’m leaving Fortune to pursue The Profile. The second: Notifying existing Profile readers about going full-time and explaining the benefits of a subscription. The third: Partnering with large newsletters with like-minded audiences such as Morning Brew and The Hustle to get The Profile in front of their readers.
James Clear recently tweeted, “You can attract luck simply by telling people what you are working on.”
4. Find creative ways to offer (more) value.
Nothing is more important than quality. People will only trust that you know what you’re talking about if you can offer value on a regular basis. For example, The Profile’s mission is to learn from the most interesting people and companies. So when I say I’ve read thousands of profiles, I need to be able to back that up.
So I decided to play a game on Twitter where people gave me random topics or ideas they wanted to learn more about, and I replied with a profile. We’ve got everything from “dyslexia” to “solo cups.” One reader said, “If this tweet thread suddenly went behind a paywall, I would pay a heavy price to get access.” To monetize anything, you first need to make sure it’s high-quality and it continues to add value over time.
5. Surround yourself with people you admire.
There’s a saying that goes, “Show me your closest friends, and I’ll show you the future.” Take Kevin Durant as an example. While he was winning NBA championships, he was also quietly becoming one of the most active angel investors in the league. He has surrounded himself with some of Silicon Valley’s elite: Ron Conway, Chamath Palihapitiya & Ben Horowitz.
As an entrepreneur, you may not have colleagues in the beginning, so you need to become part of communities of like-minded people who can help you brainstorm, get fresh ideas, and stay in the loop. I’m in Telegram groups with other newsletter writers and Profile readers. There’s no better way to learn than to befriend the people whose paths you admire.
6. Consistency is the best way to earn trust.
Name a relationship in your life where you trust someone who is inconsistent. You can’t. That’s because we don’t trust people — whether it’s in work, business or relationships — who constantly break their promises.
Since I started The Profile three years ago, I have never missed a single week. That means that for the last 176 Sundays, readers have been able to trust that this damn newsletter will be in their inbox no matter what’s going on in the world. Even a global pandemic couldn’t stop it.
To me, the vow I’ve made to my readers is sacred. I’ve learned that the only way you can earn people’s trust is by consistently keeping your word and delivering on what you’ve promised.
7. Improve your content diet.
Love Is Blind. Tiger King. Keeping Up With the Kardashians. It’s easy to fall into a spiral of consuming what I call “junk food content,” which plunges you into crazy thought patterns and anxious feelings. A year ago, I made a conscious decision to elevate the content I was consuming, and it had a tremendous effect on my mental state.
We claim we invest in our health, but we neglect our content diet. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Create an environment that facilitates falling into intellectual rabbit holes.
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8. Stand out by building something original.
In this life, we only have two choices: create or imitate. Starting The Profile was the most honest and original thing I’ve done, but it hasn’t always been easy — and that’s normal.
Tim Urban once explained just how hard it is to create original work in the face of conventional wisdom. “When you’re trying to create something truly original, you make a bunch of mistakes,” he said. “Originals are a mess.”
I’ve found solace in that I believe true freedom lies in doing things your way. As the brilliant Anna Quindlen said, “Nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations.”
9. Focus on something bigger than yourself.
Life can get pretty lonely — especially after more than three months of quarantine. There’s an interesting antidote to loneliness, though: One of the most effective ways to break the cycle of chronic loneliness, according to research, is to pursue a goal or a sense of purpose larger than yourself.
I often think back to the profile of ex-NFL player Ryan Leaf. After getting released from several teams, he developed a painkiller addiction, attempted suicide, and committed burglary. What saved his life? A 32-month prison sentence. It wasn’t until he went to the prison library and began teaching inmates to read that he woke up from his haze. “You’ll feel like for the first time in your life that you’re doing something for somebody else,” he writes. “That it’s not all about you. And your narcissism will start to wane.”
If you find something that fulfills you and makes the world a little better, I think you have a moral obligation to give it a shot.
10. You are most powerful when your identity is tied to your own name.
You know when you’re at a party, and someone asks you, “So, what do you do?” And then you respond with your most impressive identity. Like most people, my identity was always wrapped around something external. I was a “student,” a “college newspaper editor,” and later, a “journalist.”
And for the last five years, “Polina Marinova, writer and editor at Fortune magazine” sounded pretty damn good. But I wasn’t in control of that identity. If I ever got fired, there goes my entire self-worth — and losing that is a recipe for psychological disaster. The best thing I did for myself is start The Profile in 2017 because it gave me another identity — one that allowed me to be 100% myself.
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.
A final word.
It may seem insane to quit a great job during a global pandemic that could unleash one of the greatest economic downturns of our lifetime. But you know what’s not insane?
Independence. There is no better feeling than the freedom to decide what you work on, how you spend your time, and who you do business with.
I learned everything I know at Fortune, and I owe so much to the editors who took interest in helping me grow and develop. Now, I’m able to take what I’ve learned and build something meaningful on my own.
As a wise philosopher named Beyoncé once said, “I don’t like to gamble, but if there is one thing I’m willing to bet on, it’s myself.”
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