Lockdown Economy Lebanon in an Upcycling Arts & Crafts Brand with Samantha Fadlallah

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Danielle Hormillosa

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet Samantha Fadlallah, the founder of BOCA, a brand of upcycled hand-painted bottles in Lebanon. BOCA is a concept of a sustainable business born during the pandemic. Samantha creates hand-painted designs using acrylic colours on bottles, that are discarded as garbage — and turns them into art objects. During the lockdown, she could do it safely from home to generate an income at a minimum cost and deliver worldwide on-demand. The lockdown didn’t impact the production since the materials for the design are painted on discarded bottles, execution is from home, the packaging is a handmade jute bag and the tags are made from recycled paper. The simple fact is that in the modern age and during a pandemic, the brand had the opportunity to make a good first impression in the digital space similar to many other business ideas. The designs for bottle art range across different themes. Now and then a collection of 10 unique pieces is painted revolving around a theme (So far, 3 collections have been launched and sold out due to rising demand: ‘La Femme’, ‘Famous Faces’, ‘Li Beirut’). Business Motto ‘Help me upcycle and let BOCA cycle to keep creating beautiful stories.’

Watch the video version of the interview.

So let’s talk about BOCA, what do you do as a business and how long have you been running it?

Samantha: First, I would like to thank AlterContacts and Lockdown Economy. I love the initiative that you are doing and highlighting businesses that have started during the lockdown and the people who are coming up with new ideas every day, trying to make use of the time they have at home. I am very glad to be among those that you are highlighting through your initiative.

Today I would like to talk about BOCA, which is the new business that I started six months ago during the lockdown. Unfortunately, our business and events management were among the biggest sectors that were affected by the pandemic. Having so much time at home and being someone who enjoys wine as well, I saw bottles that are being discarded and thrown out as garbage. I wanted to make use of these bottles and I came up with the idea of converting these bottles, and upcycling and turning them into pieces of art that people can display in their homes, offices and bars. This is where the idea came up, to have something that is unique, that can stand out, and can be customized or tailored according to a person’s interests and likes.

What captures my interest are the bottles in your background! I was checking your Instagram account and was not able to pick a favourite. I have seen your first collection and we’re going to talk about that. For everyone who is interested, these are the bottles in the background and there are many other designs you can check out on Instagram. So, where is BOCA based? Is it online or in a physical shop, and how can we find your business?

Samantha: I am based in Beirut in Lebanon, but I do ship worldwide. I work at home. This is where I come up with the ideas, execute them, and do everything that is handmade. This includes hand-painting the bottles and packaging, which is also handmade out of jute bags. Even the paper tags that we use come from recycled paper. As you see, the idea is to be sustainable and upcycling bottles.

I sell BOCA bottles online via Instagram. I don’t have a website. Basically, I use a digital platform to communicate with clients worldwide. This is where I launch my collections and ideas, and where I get in contact with the people and customers.

It sounds to me the business requires precision and an atmosphere to be creative. Do you have people who help you with your creations? Do you have any employees?

Samantha: No, it’s just myself and I’m self-employed. My bottles are hand-painted — I have one here, just like the four behind me. In this one, there is a picture of Michael Jordan with a famous quote of his, as you can see. Because they are hand-painted bottles, I am the one who does all the execution.

You mentioned that you have a signature or brand identity that is a red, two-line pattern. It reminds me of our Lebanese flag, I’m interested and curious to know more. Can you tell me a little bit about this pattern?

Samantha: Of course! First, every brand should have a certain identity. As a graphic designer myself, this is what I usually work on. This is my career and what I love to do. I wanted my brand to have a strong identity and be widely recognized wherever you place the bottles. I do not sign the bottles; the double stripe is my signature. It is not related to the Lebanese flag and it depends on the picture and painting on the bottle. We have blue, red and beige stripes, so it really depends on the bottle that I am painting on and the artwork that I’m designing.

That’s very interesting!

Samantha: Now we can see that whenever you see the double stripe, this is a BOCA bottle. This is my signature.

About having the bottles recognized, let’s talk about the customers and those who are interested in your designs. Who are they and how do they reach out to you? How many clients and orders do you normally have?

Samantha: Clients have been building over the past six months. Before I began, I was not sure how people would react to the idea. I took my time before launching my first collection. I took a period of one month where I sat, created, designed and made sure that the brand itself would stand out and there would be no competition to what I’m doing. I started designing my first collection “La Femme” and painting the bottles. When I launched that, luckily the reaction of people was much more than expected. Clients started coming in one after another. Everything was spread via word of mouth. People are sharing and loving the idea and orders started to come in. Every month and a half, I was launching a new set. I launched the second collection “Famous Faces” and “Li Beirut” was the third collection, which was for my country.

Now I am fully booked for the upcoming two months, designing sets and bottles for clients. I have a certain waiting period for the bottles to be executed. As we said, the bottles are hand-painted and I do not paint the design more than once, so each bottle is unique.

Your motto is, “Help me upcycle and let BOCA cycle to keep creating beautiful stories.” As we are hearing, you already have stories to tell. Similar to other businesses, the lockdown took part in our life and became a reality to deal with. For many who are watching us, Lebanon is in a third national lockdown. The first lockdown started in March 2020 followed by a second one in November, and now we are in a third lockdown. As you started your new business during this time, building the foundation and structure, how did the lockdown effect BOCA and what your key challenges are?

Samantha: Luckily, my business was not affected by the lockdown. In fact, the lockdown helped me know what business to target before coming up with the idea of BOCA design. As someone who wants to be productive constantly and loves to come up with new ideas, I wanted something that I can do working from home and being safe. I wanted to generate income but at a minimal cost. This is where the idea came from. The good thing is that I work with discarded bottles so I don’t need to import from the outside. I’m using what we have, what people throw out, and recreating and designing them as art pieces. The lockdown affected me positively and gave me time to go back to a hobby of mine that I used to love doing, but I lost touch with it due to the daily life and business work that we go through back in normal life before COVID-19.

Similar to other entrepreneurs, I believe the environment was helpful because you had the mindset that you are going to make it no matter what happens and pushed you to pursue a passion you already have. Because of COVID-19, we now have BOCA products accessible to the world. Everyone who loves wine and other drinks would be able to enjoy the beautiful designs. Do you have any business or ideas to stimulate and attract new customers and reach a new segment? Tell us how you implemented these ideas, what worked and what did not work?

Samantha: Of course, any business needs to come up with new ideas and new things that would attract new customers and keep the existing customer base. It’s important to keep them up to date and interested in what the business is doing. With BOCA, I constantly ensured that collections are coming out. Clients could see that orders, new designs and even customized bottles are coming in. Lately, I started the home sets that I’m designing for homes and offices, like the one we have in the background. This is something new and I aim to keep coming up with new ideas that would bring in more customers and keep the recurrent customers interested in ordering more. One of my main aims, later on, is to start collaborations and partnerships with bigger brands, both local and worldwide, to keep BOCA going.

Since travel is restricted, are you planning to attend any future exhibitions or other opportunities to introduce BOCA to more people in the community?

Samantha: One of the main challenges due to COVID-19 and the lockdown is being unable to travel so the only thing to do right now is to collaborate with other brands so that I am able to feature BOCA in certain places and stores. Since we are unable to be physically present in different locations, I am trying to find ways to bring BOCA to wine companies and beverage companies, for example, who want to create designs for their bottles.

I also want to keep the identity of BOCA on bottles because, at the end of the day, this is what BOCA is intended to be. BOCA means “bottle” in Croatian and it also signifies “C’est un beau cadeau” or “It’s a beautiful gift.” I want to keep this identity on bottles only, and I don’t want to shift the direction towards something other than bottles. This is why I think the next step is to collaborate with and introduce our identity to other companies.

I’m sure this is a path where you are able to stand out with your designs and ideas, as well as the innovative creations and quotes that make the product different. You mentioned earlier that customers started to increase because of word of mouth. I’m sure customers return and recommend a business to others when they feel heard and when they receive something they appreciate. During this lockdown, can you tell us how your customers are doing and if you have any competition? Where do you think you stand?

Samantha: There is no competition for this idea. What we all know and see in the market are the painted plates or cups that are washable. My bottles are decorative pieces — empty, discarded bottles turned into pieces of art. The customers are coming back because they receive a product that is to their expectation and in the best quality possible. People enjoy giving BOCA bottles as gifts or collecting their own designs for their homes. Once they get one or two bottles, they want to complete the set. This is how the platform is growing and more and more people are discovering BOCA.

Definitely, this initiative would capture the interest of those who especially like giving back to small businesses and believe a sustainable environment is our way to move forward. What is garbage to others, you are able to create beautiful art that is put out there for everyone to see. We’ve talked about your plans for future collaborations. To take BOCA to the next level, can you tell us three things that you need help with?

Samantha: I think we need to increase worldwide recognition of the brand. What limits me right now is that I’m the only person working. I don’t have any employees and my hand-painted bottles are not massively produced. What we need is more recognition and opportunities to collaborate in order to uplift the brand and make it known everywhere. This is the main direction I want BOCA to take.

Thank you so much and I’m sure that in the coming times you’ll be able to reach out to the right platforms and take BOCA to another level through the upcycling of bottles into pieces of art.

Samantha: I also want to highlight that BOCA is about upcycling and a platform to turn bottles into pieces of art. I have many customers and even people that I do not know who recycle and are looking for places where they can make use of the bottles instead of throwing them out, and provide a benefit to the environment. They are reaching out and this is how people are communicating and it brings me much joy that they are taking this into consideration.

About the Guest

Samantha is a graphic designer, graduate from Lebanese American University, a Partner / Creative Director L.I.P.S. Management based in Beirut and KSA, an event management company and founder of BOCA designs for hand-painted bottles, a concept that started in 2020 for upcycling bottles into pieces of art, taking care of all the details creating marvellous customized designed and unique collections from the discarded.

https://www.instagram.com/boca.designs/

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.