It started with a portrait of his favorite basketball player, Luka Doncic. Then came fellow NBA star Damian Lillard. International soccer clubs like Manchester United and FC Barcelona took notice. A Major League Baseball team reached out, as did the National Football League.
Before he knew it, Dylan Sadiq was inundated with requests for his mosaics consisting of cubes (as in Rubik’s Cubes, but copycats). Sadiq, 21, is a student at Rutgers University, where he’s now known as the College Cuber.
Sadiq charges $8,000, and can make a cube portrait in under four hours. After getting traction on social media platforms and retweets on Twitter, teams including the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils and Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls sought Sadiq’s work.
“This is not what I expected,” Sadiq told CNBC this week. While he was speaking, a new mosaic he created of Patrick Mahomes, the star quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, was going viral.
Covid ruined everything
Sadiq is currently in his final semester at Rutgers and plans to graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering. But he doesn’t envision pursuing a career in the field.
His interests changed during the pandemic, as virtual schooling failed to keep him engaged.
“When I was in person, I was grinding and studying,” he said. “I was getting immersed in my education. But since we’ve been online, it’s nowhere near the same, and it’s sad. I feel like I didn’t learn much. If you put me in a situation to make an impact, I don’t even know how I can help.”
With no opportunities for in-person internships or hands-on experience in school, Sadiq took a detour. He combined his social media accounts and his interest in engineering to master the Rubik’s Cube.
Sadiq likes to tell the story of how his brother, Brandon, challenged him at age 10 to solve the cube. His reward was Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty video game. Sadiq said it took him a week to complete the task.
In February 2021, Sadiq practiced solving cubes so he could get faster. Then he turned his newfound skill into an avenue for art creation.
Sadiq purchased $1,000 worth of cubes and figured out how to assemble 560 pieces to create a mosaic of Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ all-NBA guard. He posted it on Instagram in April, and the Mavericks noticed, sharing it with team’s followers. That sparked another mosaic of Lillard with similar results from the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I’m not sure Luka Doncic ever saw the mosaic,” Sadiq said. “And Mark Cuban, I’m not sure he saw it either,” he added.
Cuban, the owner of the Mavericks, told CNBC that he didn’t see it.
While Sadiq said he’s almost certain to forego potential jobs in engineering, he doesn’t consider his time at Rutgers, which can cost over $40,000 a year, as a waste. He said the university hires him for live events, including the football game against Ohio State in October and the inauguration of the new school president.
“That’s a huge part of the reason I’m the College Cuber,” said Sadiq. “Everything was ruined because of Covid. But where I feel valuable is through my artwork.”
Finding motivation in Detroit
In July, the Detroit Pistons became the first pro sports team to pay for a mosaic. Sadiq took a trip to the Motor City and created a portrait of Ben Wallace, the Pistons’ Hall of Fame center. While in town, he made the Red Wings a mosaic for their NHL draft party.
He also made sales to the NFL’s Lions and, for the MLB’s Tigers, he created a mosaic of slugger Miguel Cabrera. The team presented it to him to celebrate his 500th home run.
“I didn’t understand what I was doing,” Sadiq said of his experience in Detroit. “I was just trying to make an experience out of it.”
Wandering around Detroit, Sadiq said he became interested in the artwork that promoted Black pride in the city. That sparked an idea to expand the College Cuber.
“The artwork was amazing,” Sadiq said. “One of the things I imagined – I wish I could see the creation live. I felt like it deserved a crowd because artwork like that had a powerful message and looks beautiful. It’s colorful, vibrant – I wish I could see it being made in front of my eyes.”
So Sadiq made it happen. He started charging up to $3,000 for a live performance and can create a piece of art in about three hours. For a flat fee of $8,000, clients can see the live event and keep the artwork.
Last September, Sadiq turned the College Cuber into a limited liability company. He said that of the $38,000 he’s generated in revenue since the Pistons became his first paying client in July, about $27,000 landed as profit. He keeps costs down through a deal with a toy wholesaler and pays no rent on the studio in his mom’s basement, where he makes his mosaics.
“She’ll probably start charging me (rent) now,” he joked.
Sadiq projects he can exceed $100,000 in sales this year. So far, the Chiefs purchased the mosaic of Mahomes, and Titans running back back Derrick Henry is seeking a piece.
The NFL paid $8,000 for a mosaic of league commissioner Roger Goodell, after Joe Favorito, a well-knowns sports public relations guru and a sports business professor at Columbia University, saw a video of one of Sadiq’s mosaics. Favorito said he “was immediately blown away,” and coordinated an introduction.
“Creative talent, sometimes we take for granted,” said Favorito. “I think it’s our job to help amplify these young content creators who do something truly unique. His engineering and science background wire him in a particular way, and that’s how he’s able to do it. The fact he can almost do it in his head, and then know which pieces to set up and create something remarkable and unique in a few hours is a gift.”
It all started on the trip to Detroit.
“I learned so much from that experience,” said Sadiq. “I went from a kid making videos online to taking action. I would say that weekend in Detroit changed my entire life.”
Making money on social media
Sadiq isn’t the first person to monetize cubed mosaics. In 2019, CNBC profiled Italian artist Giovanni Contardi, who uses Rubik’s products to create art. Contardi sold a mosaic of the late Amy Winehouse for roughly $5,000 and gained social media attention for a piece on NBA star LeBron James.
Sadiq has been in contact with Rubik’s for a brand deal. The company is owned by Canadian toymaker Spin Master, which trades on the over-the-counter marketplace.
“The pandemic was a problem for him, but it’s also created digital opportunities that he can take advantage of,” said Favorito.
Social media is central to the College Cuber’s business. His Instagram account became eligible for Facebook’s bonuses program, which pays creators to post reels. Sadiq said he’s made about $550 so far from Instagram. He also joined TikTok’s creator fund after his mosaic of Mahomes gained over 100,000 views.
For additional revenue, he’ll make mosaics and charge clients $750 for the video that companies can post in their advertisements.
But Sadiq doesn’t charge pro sports teams for the video post. Instead, he seeks retweets or reposts to build exposure. Manchester United and Barcelona have helped with soccer fans, and the NBA’s Orlando Magic also promoted the work on Twitter.
Sadiq said he plans to use the extra attention as a force for good.
Last year, he attended his first NBA game courtesy of the New York Knicks after creating a mosaic of all-star Julius Randle. Sadiq, a New Jersey native, said visiting Madison Square Garden was “life-changing” as he was able to understand further “the culture and the unity of [sports] fans.”
Sadiq now requests that teams that become clients provide free tickets to fans who have never attended a sporting event.
“That’s what I want to experience with my artwork – to bring the fans together,” he said.
Of building the College Cuber, Sadiq said, “It was just something that came to be, and I realize the value I bring to people.”