14 min read

Who I am: my goals, motivations, and history

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This writeup is also available on nicksaraev.com/biography.

Writing your own biography is a useful exercise. It gives people who want to learn about you an accessible look into your personality, while helping you organize the various chapters of your life.

As part of a recent effort to be more public, I spent a few hours earlier this week sifting through my journey and turning it into a short writeup.

Here it is.


I would consider myself:

  1. A techno-optimist: I think that salvation lies in technological growth, and that continuing to build on the advancements of our forefathers will solve most of our problems (including the environment, our current political enmity, etc).
  2. A socialite: I'm great at meeting people and building relationships. I'm usually referred to as "outgoing", and my friends are often impressed at how easily I strike up conversations with strangers.
  3. An opportunist: Although I like to think that my career choices have been deliberate and well-planned, most of my successes involve me stumbling on, and then taking advantage of, short term opportunities. I have yet to build anything particularly noteworthy.

A brief history

How did I become the above? Here's a walk through my 27-odd years, with an emphasis on my career.

My early life

My family immigrated from Eastern Europe during the fall of communism, and they struggled greatly when they first arrived. The abrupt transition in economic systems, combined with unfortunate personal circumstances, led them to declaring bankruptcy when I was a baby.

Money was tight for most of my childhood. But my parents were gracious enough to never let me know it. They worked several jobs, often fourteen or fifteen hours a day, yet still found moments to spend with me in the evenings or early mornings. I can't remember either of them ever complaining.

Because of that work, they were able to claw themselves out of debt. They eventually purchased a modest apartment at the beginning of a real estate boom in Vancouver, B.C, which helped cement us firmly in the middle class. After I was ten or so, money stopped being the major pressing concern.

School

I was precocious as a child. When I was 7, my teacher recommended I skip the fourth grade. The next year, she suggested I skip another, but my parents relented, saying that it would stunt me socially. I think they were right.

All I did in primary school, really, was read. I didn't get along with most of my classmates, and although I was reasonably friendly, I spent the majority of my lunches in the library.

Secondary school was mostly similar. I came out of my shell graduation year and made a few friends, a few of which I still communicate with regularly.

Early adulthood & university

When I entered university, I initially wanted to become a psychologist. Then a surgeon. Then a world-famous neuroscientist. These were certainly ambitious goals, but most of them were idle fancy—I had little clue how hospitals or laboratories really worked.

I discussed this with several advisors, and they recommended I work in a lab (and later volunteer at a hospital). So in my third year I applied to a handful of grants, and was lucky enough to win a little under $5,000 for peripheral nervous system research. This was the beginning of my disillusionment with academia.

During the grant, I performed a handful of common "research assistant" tasks, like artery dissections and chemistry, for a paper on the vesicular nucleotide transporter (which we later published).

But during my time, I couldn't shake that the work felt, for lack of a better word, pointless. It was an extremely small iterative improvement on a body of knowledge that had no immediate applicability. I wanted to make a larger impact.

After that, I stopped pursuing research as a career. I also began questioning the value of academia more generally, and started resenting it as an institution. I began missing classes, and I would eventually skip the majority of them (excepting exams).

Promotions company

A few months later, I started my first company with a few friends. I would consider this an entrepreneurial awakening, of sorts, and it occurred mostly through happenstance.

It was a promotions business; we held events at nightclubs in downtown Vancouver, and received a cut of liquor and ticket sales.

To make a long story short:

  • After my grant ended, my friends and I threw a few successful parties on-campus.
  • Initially, they were free. But after the first few hundred people showed up, we began charging $5 for entry.
  • Our parties were well-liked, and, given their popularity in the university, word eventually got around to faculty as to who was responsible.
  • The school didn't like this, and threatened us with expulsion.
  • One of my friends had a very bright idea. He asked "Can't we just do this legally? I mean, we're of age. If we threw it at the local pub we'd even be making the university some money".
  • Faculty agreed, and we threw our first university-sanctioned event the next month.

That friend became one of my best, by the way. I think, if he hadn't spoken up when he did, I'd have chosen medical school and grown up to (mostly) hate my life. Here's us at a wedding:

Jono on the left, me on the right.

My friends and I called the company Savage Entertainment. We made around $30,000 over ~eighteen months—in hindsight, a pretty paltry sum of money.

But I was deeply drawn to the impact that I made while running that business. In contrast to my time at the lab, I could spend just a few hours per week and touch thousands of lives. In addition, how I used my time was entirely up to me. The freedom was both exciting and a little bit scary.

Online courses on Udemy & Skillshare

The next year, I made a friend at a lecture, and he randomly asked me if I'd ever read The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. I said no, and he gifted me a copy.

Like many young men who have read Tim Ferris' work, I was hooked instantly. We met up the week after and started discussing business ideas that satisfied the Four Hour constraint.

One of them was an online course company. My friend had a cousin who was making a few hundred dollars each month selling videos on Udemy. I was reasonably confident on camera at that point—I'd filmed a few promotional videos with the prior company—so I told him that sounded like a grand idea, and suggested we film our first course the next week. He would be the cameraman/editor, and I would be the scriptwriter/speaker.

We ended up producing around twenty courses over the course of two years, and hosting them on Udemy along with a few other platforms. They made us over $80,000 for an investment of ~$2K and a few hundred hours. It was another clear sign to me that you could generate outsized results if you wandered off the beaten path.

Me on the left, Soma on the right.

Door-to-door sales

A few months after the course business, I graduated. My dabbling in entrepreneurship had made some money, but it was insufficient to build a life with and I was starting to realize my career prospects were thin.

I had a friend who was selling B2B software door-to-door at the time. Over lunch, he wowed me with dollar-figures and explained how easy it was if you just "never stopped hustling". He said I'd be great at it, given my social nature, and invited me to come with him the next time he canvassed. I was flattered.

The next day, I pretended to be his partner and joined him as he booked meetings with a variety of small business owners. It was exhilarating. He didn't make any money, but seeing him convince several complete strangers that his service was valuable enough to book a meeting for was so impressive I started a business within the week.

I sold local marketing services. Most of the companies I was canvassing were brick-and-mortar locations with scant technical knowhow, so my pitch of $200 to put you on the map! was surprisingly effective.

Eventually, my friend joined my company. With his experience (and, frankly, confidence), we began selling larger marketing packages that included comprehensive SEO plans, ads, etc. Within the year, we'd generated well over $150,000, and even started hiring.

It was my first taste of what I'd consider a real company. We hit ~$20,000 one month, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

Me on the left, Gurinder on the right.

My partner and I would end up splitting up over conflicting goals. In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor issue. We're still great friends to this day, and I consider leaving to have been essential to my career growth.

Videography

After that, I started a videography business. It was my first solo venture, and I leaned heavily on the experience of my previous company. We shot weddings, corporate videos, and real estate properties.

Initially, I found leads by cold calling. When this proved ineffective, I built an SEO funnel and had some success with paid advertising.

I worked with a variety of contractors, many of which were friends, and in the last month made a little over $10,000.

That's when COVID-19 hit. Our local government put a hard cap on events where more than 3 people gathered, which naturally included corporate shoots and weddings. Our revenue dropped to $0 overnight.

One of the last shoots I did before we were forced to shut down.

I was crushed. Many days were spent wandering aimlessly, wondering if I was in over my head. My roommate was the only thing that kept me sane—and I am forever grateful to him for helping me through that time.

Freelance software

At some point, restlessness overpowered my melancholy and I started thinking about what to do next.

Looking back, choosing software was a natural response. My videography company had been location-dependent and was at the whims of my municipal government. In contrast, a software business would be location-independent and provide me both safety and freedom.

I was mostly interested in machine learning, since I thought it had the highest chances of a disproportionate impact in the next few years. So I began playing around with a few toy models, and eventually decided I would take programming more seriously.

Initially I was going to do a bootcamp, but I worried about gaps in my education. I eventually elected to self-study using resources like Teach Yourself CS and OSSU.

It took a little over five months. During that time, I created an Upwork account and began working as a freelance developer, building frontend apps and sites for clients.

An early app I developed for a local optical store. It let you try on frames virtually using LIDAR-scanned 3D models.

1SecondPainting

Then, one late night, while reading a forum post on programming, I stumbled on Gwern's This Anime Does Not Exist.

To make a long story short: Gwern, a prolific hacker, had put together a way to generate thousands of high-quality cartoon characters in moments with AI. Each one of these cartoon characters would have previously taken hours (or days) to draw by hand.

I didn't understand all of his post, but it seemed clear to me that image generators would soon disrupt design. Programming was both top-of-mind, so I decided my next step was to create a software application that could generate impressive-looking images, and then sell them on the Internet.

Initially, I chose to make an architecture generator. I forked one of the base models—StyleGAN—and attempted to fine-tune it on a dataset of buildings, skyscrapers, and then drawings. I showed one of my gens to a friend of mine, and he said something like "that looks nothing like a building, but it kind of reminds me of the sort of abstract art you'd see in a museum". Crushing.

Art datasets were much easier to acquire, so I fine-tuned a fourth model on abstract artists like Kandinsky and Pollock, just to see what it would look like. On a whim, I made a small web app and posted it on Hacker News before I went to bed that night.

I went viral, hit #1 a few hours later, and by the next afternoon, I had several dozen requests from labs, journals, magazines, and companies to discuss the project. Keep in mind that AI art, at that point, was an oxymoron—no one had ever seen, nor appreciated, that machines were capable of producing such feats—so anything even remotely expressive was considered magic.

"Roaring Sea", one of my first generations back in 2020.

My dev skills were not strong enough to implement a sign-up mechanism in time for the traffic spike, so I missed most of the virality. But I did eventually add the ability to buy generated art using my platform. It peaked at ~$2,200 per month. I sold the site to a private investor in the US the next year.

1SecondCopy

Given my relative success commercializing AI, I started looking for other opportunities. Like many, I had explored GPT-3, and was already using it infrequently to write copy, or document changelogs. As I began using it more often, I found myself wondering whether it was possible to automate my freelance job.

It wasn't: GPT-3 was mediocre at code. But it turned out to be great at writing longer form content, like website copy and blog posts.

So, on another whim, I set up profiles on a variety of freelance websites, like Fiverr, PeoplePerHour, etc, and began offering content writing at bottom-barrel prices ($0.02/word). I received a handful of gigs, which led to me investing more time into it, and I later developed a script that would take an outline and turn it into a rough article. This continued for a few weeks.

At this point, I started pricing higher—around $0.05/word—and my more discerning clients were beginning to notice quality issues. Due to limitations of the model, it was difficult to coherently weave paragraphs together into a larger narrative; you could generate a paragraph or two at a time, but usually those paragraphs didn't make sense in context. I spent weeks on a solution, and eventually gave up on solving it with technology.

My first attempt at fixing inter-paragraph consistency issues involved a "rolling context window". It failed to solve the problem, but worked surprisingly well as a general editing tool, so I built a SaaS wrapper and started selling subscriptions. We made $157 before I canned it.

Instead, I hired a handful of editors, and tasked them with connecting the paragraphs manually. I made less money up-front, but found I was able to charge significantly more. My rates continued increasing until they were ~$0.10/word. At one point I was making ~$3,000/month, after which realized it made sense to pursue this as a business.

I discussed this with a handful of friends. One in particular—an intelligent fellow who was manufacturing USB-chargeable arc lighters—made a brilliant suggestion on project management infrastructure, and I decided to partner with him.

We began hiring, building the sales funnel, and, pretty much, putting together the rest of the company. The first few months were rocky, but we figured out growth. My partner, Noah, also built a better staffing model that distributed work to writers & editors, and we were able to scale the company to a little under $100,000/month.

Me, Noah, and some of our team at a company offsite.

A little later, ChatGPT was released publicly. When it went mainstream, many of our clients became skeptical about AI-generated content. This forced us to increase the proportion of manual output : AI output, which impacted margins considerably. But on the flip side, it led to scaling our team, which has been one of the most meaningful things I've ever done.

Today, the company continues to operate successfully (although in a less automated fashion than before). I am deeply thankful for the relationships I've built here.

LeftClick

I knew that 1SecondCopy was essentially knowledge arbitrage, and at some point it would have to come to an end. ChatGPT gaining mainstream attention implied that our best-before date was probably arriving soon. So I began thinking about alternative business models to hedge against the rise of LLMs in content writing.

One of those business models was selling AI and process automation to digital services companies similar to 1SecondCopy. I figured that, given the inevitable proliferation of AI and related technologies, it was akin to a gold rush—there was plenty of money to be made selling shovels.

Plus, I really like systems design. Architecting a business is probably the most enjoyable part of building one, and showing clients a fully automated solution to a problem they're currently spending tens of thousands on is fun.

After a few weeks, I settled on an AI consultancy called LeftClick. I hired a few contractors, and the company has since seen modest growth. This is what I'm currently working on.

Goals

To be frank, a lot of my life has been pretty aimless. I'm not sure what I want to do with it, and this is something I'm trying to change.

I know, absolutely, that I want to have a major impact. Whether it's out of a desire for legacy, or it's just some animalistic need to accrue resources, I'm not sure.

I think most people feel similarly, and are just unable (or afraid) to articulate it. But coming to terms with your feelings seems necessary to satisfying them, so I'd rather put it out in the open.

Technology

There are many ways to achieve impact, but the most likely is probably something to do with technology. You don't have to be a genius to see the transformative potential of technologies like GPT-4.

I don't like academia, or research, so it's unlikely I'd make meaningful contributions on the theoretical end. I do like entrepreneurship, and I'm pretty good at it, so I'm leaning towards "starting or joining a company that revolutionizes X", where X is some important process or facet of our culture.

I have no clue what that might be as of yet, though.

The near-term

In the next few years, money will obviously be important, so I'm acquiring more of it. I set a realistic goal of $2M in annual profit (~4x greater than my current all-time-high), simply because selling a company of that size guarantees retirement. It would also let me take care of my family and my close friends.

I may hit this with LeftClick, or another vehicle. I'm not beholden to either, though.

Wrap-up

I hope you now know a little bit more about me and why I do the things that I do! This list wasn't exhaustive—I've began a variety of other businesses, and had a handful of temporary jobs—but none were particularly remarkable and I wanted to keep things brief.

It goes without saying, but omitted here are a tremendous number of personal and professional relationships I've made that have shaped my worldview considerably.

One important thing I learned about myself while doing this exercise is how much each of my career milestones have revolved around specific people. My most successful companies were ones where I partnered strong and early. So I'm going to make it a goal to consciously build those kinds of relationships as often as possible, and put myself in situations where serendipity is more likely to occur.

If you'd like to contact me, for career-related reasons or otherwise, send me an email at nickolassaraev@gmail.com. Please follow up if I don't get back to you (I get a lot of spam).

Other miscellaneous facts about me

  • I don't drink, smoke, or do drugs. I used to (about as heavily as your average teenage degenerate) but I feel I've gotten it out of my system.
  • My Myers Briggs personality type is ENTJ-A.
  • I'm agnostic. I think that whether God exists or not is, by definition, unknowable, and that any evidence for God can equally be understood as evidence that humanity doesn't yet grasp a scientific process.
  • I think radical life extension is possible, and maintain a rigorous diet and exercise routine to maximize the probability of achieving it. I was featured in Popular Mechanics for my beliefs on the subject.
  • I haven't been in a committed relationship in over half a decade. I'm ambivalent on marriage.
  • I love electronic music. At the events I promoted, I'd routinely perform. My music taste is probably best described as orchestral electronic (example).
  • I grew up in Vancouver, B.C.
  • My favorite book series is the Sun Eater Sequence. The cover art is lame, but don't be fooled—Christopher Ruocchio, the author, has the best prose I've ever read. Every chapter is like poetry.