How do you make the road rise to meet you? Rachit Gupta, in conversation with Nuseir Yassin, the creator of NAS Daily, finds out from one of the internet’s biggest success stories
You get billions of dollars and millions of followers, what will you do? Buy an island? Buy a gaudy, over-the-top mansion? Assemble a fleet of the most expensive supercars? Enjoy every luxury on the planet? If you opt for any of these scenarios, chances are you’re an individual with a limited intellect. People on a higher plane, aspire to do more, even when they have a lot. That elite mentality defines achievers, thinkers and eventually changers. People who envisage the next big idea, one that changes the very fabric of civilization, rewrites the equations of society, creates a future worth living in. You don’t end up changing the world because you set out to do so, you manage to do that when you’re dealt a good hand by destiny.
Something similar happened to a young software engineer in his 20s, working in a secure multinational company called Venmo in 2016. He decided to wrap up the 9 to 5 commitment and decided to adopt a new vision. Nuseir Yassin took up the challenge of travelling the world and chronicling his adventures through 1-minute videos, something he resolved to do for a whopping 1000 days straight. At the time, it seemed like an outlandish idea, even to a hopefully optimistic young man. But, it was a journey that was meant to be.
Just over a year later, he became one of the most popular faces on Facebook, with 1 million followers. And that’s how NAS Daily was born. A Facebook video channel that told stories of the most interesting people on the planet in short 1-minute videos. In a world of shrinking attention spans and break-neck content consumption, NAS’s idea was money in the bank. So he got the support of FB founder Mark Zuckerberg and never looked back. Today, with 20 million followers on FB, a swift transition to 2.6 million on YouTube, an ardent fan following, one of the most likeable, effervescent and energetic voices on the internet, Nuseir is one of the world’s biggest influencers. And you know you’ve succeeded when adversity makes a swift entry into your life.
Following his neutral comments on the ongoing conflict between Israel (his home country) and Palestine, NAS has seen a sharp rise in naysayers. There was even a rumour floating on social media that his FB page had lost 18 million followers overnight. In reality, it was the critics manufacturing some old-fashioned slandering, when in fact, Nuseir’s page had surreptitiously managed to get the numbers up from 38 million to 39 million. Love him, hate him, ignore him, deride him, whatever your choice, you can’t change the fact that in 5 years, a seemingly ordinary Muslim-Arab boy has become one of the most influential people on the planet. Today, he’s kickstarted his own corporation, he’s now allowing other young people to realise their passions by working 9 to 5 at NAS Studios and NAS Academy. The guy who once dreamed of creating content has now set up the infrastructure that will allow others to follow in his footsteps. What is his aspiration now? “I don’t want to hang out with people who talk about people and places. I want to meet those people who want more, who have the next big idea, who want to change the world,” says Nuseir with his characteristic energy. Here’s a deep dive into the story and mind of a young man putting his heart and soul into changing the world, one video at a time.
1000 DAYS OF ASPIRATION
Back in 2016, it was a simple piece of sharp observation that led Nuseir to take the decision of creating something new on FB. NAS simply compared his FB posts to that of his friends. He reveals, “I did a simple calculation before I started. I looked at my Facebook status updates. My status would get 60 likes. 60 of my friends would like it. And I looked at my roommate’s status and he got two likes. It made me think why? Why are my status updates getting 60 likes? And his are getting two to five likes and that’s when I realised that I’ve always been like that, a conversation starter. You start talking to people, you make a few friends and then some of them become your best friends for life. I decided to go wide, I wanted a million friends.” If one video could get him 60 likes, 1000 would definitely inch him closer to the million mark. Sure enough, NAS Daily got 1 million friends after just 400 videos.
Being Mr Popular wasn’t always Nuseir’s priority. As a kid, he had more traditional dreams. He says, “I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to go to space. And then I realized that because of my race, because of my religion, because of my community, because of my country, I cannot go to space.” Amidst adversity, his ambition evolved. He reveals, “My second aspiration then was that I needed to be rich enough to afford buying a ticket to space. And then that became aspiration number one. Have enough financial freedom to be able to go to space. Even as a kid, I wanted to be surrounded by people. I needed to figure out a way that would ensure I was surrounded by a lot of people.”
There was a reason the little boy in Arraba, Israel wanted to be social and it had nothing to do with validation. Nuseir reveals, “I wanted my opinion to matter. And I think when you grow up as a middle child, especially in an Arab city, your opinion doesn’t matter. What matters is the oldest person’s opinion around you. I wanted an opportunity to matter, just the way everybody wants to matter in this world. So I would say, NAS Daily was my revenge against injustice or racism or that upbringing, that childhood. It’s my revenge against all these screwed up aspects of society. And we’re using our platform now to amplify the voices of people that matter. I’m just doing to others what I wanted to do for myself. The first 500 videos were about me just talking about my opinions. Now it’s just a lot of videos talking about other people’s thoughts, opinions and inventions.” The angst is unmissable in Nuseir’s animated gestures. Remind him that revenge is a strong word and quick comes his repartee, “Yeah, of course. And racism is also a very strong word, too. Isn’t it?”
Not everything from his foundation days was a reaction to anger, some of it was about dealing with discontentment. Speaking about his parents’ dreams for him, Nuseir says, “I think my parents are like Indian parents. What’s their idea of raising a child? De-risk everything in his life, from playing outside to playing with his career choices to everything else. There was no risk taking when it came to my upbringing. All that my parents wanted was for me to become a doctor or a lawyer and study in Israel and Germany. Probably get married to someone and live next to them.”
ESCAPE TO THE WEST
Nuseir was not one to be tamed. He had a strong urge to move out. “The first risk I took was to escape that environment. Not like my parents were not supportive. In fact, they have watched every single video that I’ve ever made. But they never said I should quit my job. They also never said I should build a company. In fact, my parents have never hired a person. They never paid someone every month. The idea of having a teammate or an employee is crazy, risky, dangerous to them. Starting a video channel or building a company, both of those cases I took a risk against the traditions of my parents and what they wanted for me.” But, he is quick to point out that he feels lucky to have parents that let him be free. He adds, “They’re not as controlling as your average parents. They say, ‘we are really scared about everything you do, but you’re on your own’. I’m happy they gave me that freedom, because I was able to build everything I have with that freedom. I feel very sad for any individual or any child that doesn’t receive the freedom from their parents.”
Thankfully, his parents supported his decision to go to the United States to pursue his studies. He reveals. “It was important to escape mediocrity. My society is living a mediocre life, my village has mediocre infrastructure. The talent there is mediocre. There would never be a lot of equity around there. So, I needed to build my own bubble and find those great people and friends.”
It was in the West that his horizons expanded and he finally met the people who would help him achieve his goals. “I could go and say one hundred percent that every person I ever met contributed to my success or I could even say zero percent of those people made a difference, but the reality sits somewhere in between. The conditions that I had growing up, at least 10,000 other people had similar conditions in my village, in my city. But they didn’t make the most of it. The conditions that I had at Harvard were very similar to the conditions that another 10,000 other people had. And they didn’t make NAS Daily.” He goes on to concede that no one can excel without the right support. “Generally speaking, I think NAS and I wouldn’t be here without the team, without my family, without the support and the freedom that they gave me.” He also feels his gender contributed to his success story. He explains, “Honestly, not that I think I wouldn’t have succeeded if I was a woman. But, in my society, if I was a woman, I would not get the chance to travel around the world, have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, make videos with them half naked and just say, whatever the heck I want to say about religion or any other subject. That’s the one thing I know for a fact that my sister will not have the same chances I do. And that’s something that we need to change.”
LIVING IN THE LIMELIGHT
He may have millions of followers and he may be one of the most recognised faces on the planet, but Nuseir doesn’t take his fame seriously. “Fame has an amazing return, but it also has an incredible cost. The cost can be huge but then the return is much higher, too. I like the rewards of fame, but I’m paying the price for it.” Ever since Nuseir expressed his opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, he’s seen a swarm of haters online. But, that’s something he prefers to take in his stride. “Whenever there’s conflict your opinion becomes a pivotal point. Especially with the Palestine-Israel stuff, just like Pakistan and India, you know when you’re famous, your political stance can become problematic. (laughs) Then there’s the obvious loss of privacy and the constant selfies, too.”
Appraising his own success, he feels the NAS Daily brand snowballed into something big. “I always wanted the message to reach as many people in the world as possible. In pursuit of that popularity, my name and my face has become recognizable, but I view it as a side effect. The main aim has always been whatever message we give, we reach as many people as possible. It’s but natural that we would require exposure because we care so much about the message reaching out. I never really started it with wanting to build a media empire or something. It just happened and today we have NAS Studios and NAS Academy and it feels wonderful.”
Today, Nusier finds himself at the juncture where he can influence many lives and opinions. With childlike exuberance he says that it makes him feel ‘wow’. He adds, “It’s not often that I am able to take a step back and review the success because there are so many problems that keep me occupied. But, I feel like this is long overdue. This opportunity, this chance, this privilege is long overdue. This is the time for people like us to do something substantial. This is the time for brown people to have a voice. This is the time for our narrative, our opinion to reach the world. Not that I feel overly happy as well, I realise the privilege here, but part of me feels like, this is what I’ve always wanted, to have some impact on the world and it’s finally happening.”
Why does being big matter to Nuseir? Because it means everything is headed in the right direction. He explains, “I don’t believe in small-scale anymore. I believe that the bigger you are, the more influential you can become. So very few people would listen to someone with 20,000 followers. Many people would listen to someone with 20 million followers and that’s the nature of society. We have to grow big, not because we want to be famous, but if you truly want to have power and influence, then you need to be as big as possible.”
Being big is good, but being too big can easily turn bad. Bigger brands take lesser risks and for a content creator like NAS, that could be detrimental. Nuseir agrees, “I think that’s already happening with us, it’s unfortunate and I need to find a way around it. When it comes to political issues, for example, we are very careful about siding with one or another. We’re very careful about not promoting a narrative that is destructive, even though the population at large may want to see it differently. I have always believed that going against the flow, sometimes is the responsible thing to do. And sometimes going with the flow is a responsible thing to do. It’s our responsibility to figure out what is the right stance and what are the right words to use. But, I do think we’re taking less risks when it comes to controversial opinions, especially as we develop new business relationships, investors and employees. I need to find a way to take more risks with things that don’t destroy lives.”
While his risk-taking ability may have lessened, Nuseir’s focus on growth and expansion has only increased manifold. His passion for taking the next big step also got him to Dubai. “We expanded from Singapore to Dubai and expansion is an important word. Our HQ is still in Singapore, but we expanded because visas are much easier in Dubai, so you can hire talent and resources easily. Also, Dubai has a lot more creators within the media industry as compared to Singapore. And most importantly, I feel Dubai, being a part of the UAE is a country that’s in progress. I believe I found a country that is under construction and I want to be a part of this process of building something new. That’s why I’m not based in France because that’s a country in maintenance mode. It was built 200 years ago. Right now, it’s maintaining itself. But Dubai and Singapore are both under construction. And so is India, by the way.”
Talking about expanding horizons, Nuseir’s meeting with Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 feels like it must have been a life-changing moment. He feels glad that the meeting happened. “Not that meeting Mark turned my life around, but it did change my approach to content creation. It wasn’t a moment of validation for me personally, but it was assuring to know that we are worth his time. We are worth something. I am no longer just a kid with a camera. We have reached the most powerful human on the internet. That was awesome. Perhaps it was a validation to what I had started 600 days earlier.” The meeting certainly acted like an adrenaline shot to his ambition and dreams. “My goal now is to be best friends with every powerful person in a room. I want to surround myself with people that are always thinking big. You know, how they say, simple minds discuss people, good minds discuss events, but great minds discuss ideas. It feels great that someone as powerful and big like Mark has become a friend. This guy built something big. This guy had ideas for how the future could look like. He comes from a country where it’s very difficult to build companies and he made it work in the billions. That’s inspiring and more power to him and possibly more power to us.”
A lot of NAS fans have always posed the question that Nuseir should have started off with YouTube as opposed to Facebook, but he defends his decision. He says, “Certainly we may have made more money from YouTube as opposed to Facebook, but I think people underestimate that. Facebook doesn’t give you as much money, but it gives you a lot of distribution, which you will later on turn into money. Probably, 100 million views on YouTube will give you more money than 500 million on FB. But those 5x views will bring more people who want to work with us and those people will give us the money. Money that we then use to start new brands, companies etc, so there’s still substantial financial growth. Honestly, we don’t necessarily care about the money that we get from Facebook. It’s nice, it helps us build the business, but what we care more about is the branding that Facebook helps us with.”
CHANGE IS EVERYTHING
Nuseir has travelled to many countries, met different people and cultures, but the one experience that really changed his perception was his visit to India. He recalls, “I will never forget the time I spent in Varanasi. That experience just stood out and it was the exact opposite of everything I believed in up until that moment. You die, you go, you’re burned on a pyre and then your ashes are immersed in this river. That is supposed to be holy. And that process is against everything I believe in as a Muslim. Looking back, it felt like the biggest attack on my beliefs, the biggest threat to my being and I was okay with it. If a billion people, one out of seven people in the world believe that this river is salvation and you should be burned after death, then there’s a high chance they’re right. There’s also a high chance that what Muslims believe in is right. So who is right? I mean, I’ll probably never know. That for me will always be the lesson to not get too attached with anything.” Now, Nuseir only places his belief that cannot be disproved. He explains, “I accepted this culture shock by giving up on my beliefs. It’s like with science. You believe that one plus one equals three, until you get mathematical proof that one plus one equals two. In that moment, everything you believe in, goes out the window. So now, I’m not too attached to religion, culture, traditions, people or ideas. I’m only attached to the ideas that have never been proven wrong. You could say, I believe that the Earth is definitely round.”
Having travelled the world extensively, Nuseir is now no longer inspired by the idea of exploration. Instead, the change that he reacted to in 2016 has just seen a 180-degree turn around. He adds, “NAS Daily started as a travel project, but I never wanted to be a travel blogger. My goal has never been to tell you which hotel to stay in or how to travel on a budget. Eventually, I may go into the travel industry, but I think travel is just a means to an end, to meet people, to see cultures, to make content.” The questions that inspire him have definitely changed. “I look at things slightly differently now. I ask myself, what beliefs do I want to change? How do I want to grow? And based on that, I decide where I want to go. And honestly, I feel I’m growing a lot more in the office environment and I think I’m very happy being indoors. I used to say, I don’t want to be in an office, I want to be outside because I was growing outside through traveling and exploring. But now I’m growing a lot more being behind this desk. I am very happy spending 9 AM to 12 PM at the NAS office.” He’s not transformed into a pencil pusher yet, but he does have a grip now on corporate setups and business building. Speaking about this change he says, “Best part of being a creator is that you can do it anywhere and anyhow. I think everybody in the world can be and should be a creator. But I think the definition of creator is different for every individual. I don’t think people should start content creation to be famous. That’s not how it works. If someone does it for the wrong reasons it will only cause emotional turmoil. And founding companies is also not right for every creator. I only recommend it to the people that are ready for it. But I always recommend that everybody must create something, either a video or a baby or an image or an art or a family or a tradition, create something from nothing. Zero to one, is an incredibly satisfying process. And I think us humans are inherently creative. So, we are all creators in that respect. And I want to help as many creators as possible to become the next NAS.”