Sam Bel International LLC is going it’s third year anniversary. However our story didn’t start there, here is the story of how Sam Bel International became what it is today. A powerhouse for web development and tech for diverse business owners in the Tri-state area. With a network of talented creatives spanning the entire globe.
I haven’t just started my creative journey, it’s been more than a decade. Life for me was never a straight line. So instead of writing a resume or another boring about page, I’ve written this article instead. About where I come from, my upbringing, how I got into tech, design, and business. As well as why I’m hoping to change the industry.
I’m a first-gen American, my full name is Sammir I was born in Astoria, Queens to a Colombian mom and Moroccan dad. I have been called Sam all my life. I founded Sam Bel International after working at an agency as a Senior Interactive Designer at a top digital marketing agency in downtown Manhattan. This is my story.
As a kid in the NYC public school system, art was always on my mind and a way out of playing house like the rest of the kids. The school I attended in Queens, NY had a Halloween contest every year, the winners would be selected to go to a local business to paint their art on their store window and get out of class for a day. I needed to win, every year.
I decided to go with the haunted house imagery, lots of adorable ghosts out of windows. Maybe a Frankenstein character peaking behind the brick home. I went in with those crayons.
Fast forward to my young teen years I became a graffiti writer who hung out with some much riskier writers in my hometown. I’d be with them on every art inspired adventure, although usually whispering to myself saying “this is a bad idea.” It’s here I knew that art had subcultures, rules, people who had big identities only known to others who were attentive enough to know. I wanted that underground admiration.
For some reason the older more successful graffiti writers always showed me respect, I don’t know why. But I respected them even more for doing so. I only wanted a glimpse into what the top looked like, so getting into a conversation with them was everything for me at the time.
If you grew up in the graffiti world you knew Five Pointz, a graffiti Mecca of the city. A massive factory covered from top to bottom in spray paint. Only the best of the best could rock these walls. The owner was a man named MERES. At the time he had a clothing line, one that sported a giant light-bulb. I was hooked on the idea of owning a clothing line. I knew one thing and one thing only at the time, I had no idea what I was doing.
But I messaged him on social media anyway.
Learn Photoshop MERES told me. So being young and always with a computer at hand. I found a free alternative, GIMP. I learned the basics there and put some very simple graphics together. A script font, a graphic of a record and started a brand. Seek’s Theme I named it after the Nas song Thief’s Theme the only video with a guy wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt as a mask. I took his advice and ran with it.
Street/urban fashion was big in at the time and Marc Ecko was running the city. We were younger kids 15, 16 who bought $35 t-shirts and we couldn’t get enough. We’d walk into a store and start calling out which ones we wanted to make sure our friends wouldn’t get the same one. Shirts with cryptic messages only other graffiti writers would know. The entire allure of the graffiti world felt exclusive. Our hunger for anything that represented this hidden culture you were apart of felt right.
When we’d meet up a friend would rush into a room with a DVD by the biggest names in Graffiti wearing Halloween masks and doing the unthinkable. Hanging with ropes around their waist catching massive tags on buildings. Some rocking Nixon masks and mimicking their voices. The more ridiculous the more awesome it seemed. “These guys were wild”, I’d say to myself.
“Now what?” I asked myself. I knew I wanted a career in art, I was young going from job to job trying to figure out his this thing would work. I wanted to make money and had the hustle to do it. I worked jobs here and there, some in kitchens, others in retail moving boxes or shoved in a stock-room because of my body type. It wasn’t great, I wasn’t happy. Then a friend of mine at the time asked me to meet him in Brooklyn, he was starting a web design company and wanted some help. So to Brooklyn, I went.
After getting there I felt what a startup was, four desks in a room in the back of the apartment. One girl and guy, making calls, writing emails. I was hooked. The experience was interesting, we would be creating sites, I’d be writing tons of emails to companies on Craigslist which produced results. We’d go on runs meeting different clients, collecting checks for work rendered. I felt this was the life I wanted.
One day I responded to an ad mentioning something along the lines of Socialite Looking for Blog I responded and he gave me an address in the city to meet him.
After navigating my way through the subway, I ended up right across the street from the Museum of Natural History. A well-dressed gentleman was waving at me from the stoop of a brownstone. I didn’t understand how rich one had to be to own a property like this at the time. We spoke and he explained to me what he did. He went to parties and needed a site to showcase his stuff. “Let’s have lunch!” he said to me. I agreed and we went right across the street. After talking for a while he mentioned to me, do you know a young musician named Lady Gaga? At the time I had no idea who he was talking about. “Not sure I do”, I responded. “She’s going to be huge, the whole fashion industry is behind her.” I ran the idea past my friend after getting back to Brooklyn. “We need to do this site”.
My friend was reluctant and turned it down countering his offer for a few thousand to nearly five thousand. He declined.
A few months later, the company went out of business. My friend would take on a very large programming project, pouring every last resource he had into it. The scope was too large for him to develop alone, he broke-down, the company went with him.
I needed a new hustle.
I was searching for something new, yet again. I realized that art was the way and maybe fashion was the route. I found a school and decided to enroll at The Art Institute of New York City. They had a location in Tribeca. Steps away from the iconic Tribeca Film Festival nearby and Chinatown a few steps away, I always wanted to live in the area. I signed on the dotted line and now I owed them 25k.
My days consisted of taking the train from Jersey where I lived at the time, taking the 1 train and getting a bagel before class. I’d be there extra early and tried to soak in the curriculum. Sewing was a big part of it and although I was great at everything else, that wasn’t one of them. I buckled under the pressure, hunched over these small stools, teachers forcing me to get it right or fail. They looked at my botched samples holding in laughs. It was brutal.
I had to come to the conclusion I just wasn’t very good at this aspect of it. I did, however, receive some knowledge from one of the most prolific people in fashion and professors in my life.
Mr. Wu was the co-founder of Vera Wang. One of the biggest, if not the biggest international wedding dress designers. Rumors would go around who he was, her cousin, her husband, her brother. Either way, the man was gifted, he’d sketch out dresses in seconds. Telling us how important it is to be able to not only be able to design, but to design like a machine. He was a complete savage both in his creative abilities and his harsh honesty. More than just a designer he was masterful at business. A bridge I knew was to be crossed to be successful in the creative field.
Day one of class as unforgettable, he went around asking why we wanted to be in fashion and what we wanted out of the class. One by one he’d sit and wait for the wrong answer. “I want to be a personal stylist,” one girl answered. That’s all he needed, he smelled blood. “Do you know any celebrities personally?” he asked her sarcastically. “Does your father play golf with any movie stars?”, she already became defensive. “Then get it out of your head it’s not going to happen and you’re wasting your time here. You should probably leave.” She looked at him a bit horrified, as tears started flowing, she got up and left.
He pointed to me, “and you?” I wasn’t sure what to answer but I didn’t want to screw this up. I thought for a moment and said, “I want to be the designer.” Expecting him to shatter my skull with his reality sharpened pessimism. He said nothing for a moment. “Good answer.” I felt relieved but also felt the fear coming off the pours of my classmates who soon began shifting their answers in a better way.
The lessons I learned by this professor I’ve never forgotten. How making mistakes in fashion can cost millions, how to get on time for things that matter, how you should always know more than the people you hire. How you should hire people who are gifted and let their individualism be. These were priceless lessons I feel, till the day, that 25k was worth.
I needed money, so I started working at a kitchen for the Bank of America building in Bryant Park. A friend of mine had gotten the job for me. They had me as a food runner, buffet style, I’d be there from 6 am to 5 pm running massive trays of hot food from the kitchen to the cafe floor. My place in the kitchen was different from the friend who had gotten me the job. He was in a more comfy position a few floors up, where the stockbrokers were. They had smaller snacks, expensive waters, etc. I was in the trenches. Interacting with kitchen staff, superintendents, shipments, head chefs and managers. Those who would occasionally come down from their tree houses a few floors above would get destroyed by the chefs. I soon came to the realization, if you gained the respect of the chefs you’re life would be much, much easier.
I stayed there for nearly a year until I got a call from an old friend, the one who had started a business in Brooklyn that went under. He was working in a digital marketing agency and wanted me to interview for the Graphic Designer position. I agreed and set up a time to meet the CEO.
I interviewed in a Tribe Called Quest t-shirt and cargo shorts. My designs were worthy of the next interview. Although my professional attire could have been more formal. He asked me to design ad display banners for a local restaurant. I used a bit of ingenuity and got it done.
I was able to design anything under the sun. Give me the specs and I would handle the rest. T-shirt designs, banners, mural art for offices, websites, app interfaces, and much more. I had nearly 35 projects in the pipeline and not one of them would go past the deadline. I became a Photoshop mercenary after five years.
I worked with companies like Guess Jeans USA and designed a mobile app for their Coachella music festival installation. My usual clients were bigger city Law firms trying to break out of the Yellow Pages era. Overall I designed 144 sites during my time there as a designer. I left after the 5th year, I felt unaccomplished and wanted to do more creatively. After I left I took a trip to Morocco. I needed to regroup and see what the next chapter of my life would entail.
I landed in Marrakesh exactly 24 hours after I left my job. I didn’t tell anyone, to be honest, I needed time to think free of the questions I was already asking myself. I sat in a small garden in an apartment my family has right on a busy city block.
What I wanted to do was build a company focused on the client and the designer. Making sure that the bond was not being interrupted by anything. A direct connection from business to creative. With the designer feeling ready to share their creativity by being in a great environment. I knew it would be tough. After two weeks of meditation and mint tea, I landed in JFK ready for the next chapter in my life.
When I started Sam Bel International, I was uncertain of a few things. How do I grow? How do I stand out in a sea of designers? How do I provide value and insight into things that matter to customers? Once I began sorting these ideas out in my head the mission became clearer. I would be able to provide these agency-level skills and resources I was being hired to do and provide those services to small businesses. This was seen as blasphemy, especially in the agency world where the bigger the agency you belonged to, the better off you were and the supposedly the only way to survive as a designer.
At first, it was shaky because I was still figuring out the philosophy behind the business and more specifically, my own LLC. I asked myself questions like how do I price my services? Would high prices scare off customers? Could I do this alone?
I was uncertain of the very business I had nearly seven years in. Why? Because I was only viewing design from a creator’s standpoint, not a business owner’s standpoint. I was soon able to position my services in ways people would understand, but that’s not without lots of trial and error.
Every day we continue to develop new innovative ideas in-house that will improve our clients’ lives and the lives of their valuable customers. We love the spirit of small business and love what we do.
We build relationships with our clients, so if you’re interested in seeing what we can offer. Reach out, call 1-800-705-1843, or better yet you can text me directly at 347-608-1711. We look forward to hearing from you!