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How to Stay Creative and Set Trends Using Mashups


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Bernard Ablola: Thank you guys for being here. We really appreciate it. You could be anywhere in the world right now, but you’re in the right place. We are about to drop some knowledge. Imagine this: opening up 40-plus brands, not only Poke, not only burgers, ice cream, you name it, he sets the hottest trends in the OC. You’re listening to the best and greatest, and we bring it here live.
Bernard Ablola: My name is Bernard. Thank you, Anish, for the wonderful introduction. I’m the managing partner at Think Strategy. We do B2B sales development. I also have a little puppy back there; his name Skye. You guys have probably seen him, the blue eyes, a little husky. I also have a nonprofit called Holistic Life Foundation. We teach yoga and mindfulness for kids, so we’re reaching about 7,500 students worldwide. But I’m not the reason why we’re here, we’re here because we’re here to see Andy.
Bernard Ablola: Andy, I got a couple questions for you. I know that you’re very accomplished, but a little bit of a background, I know Anish talked about it as well. You have 20-plus brands in the Afters Ice Cream place, right? Who’s had a donut with the blue ice cream in the middle and then after you eat it, the next day, you’re like, “Did I just eat a smurf?”
Andy Nguyen: The color of your stuff in the toilet might come out different color.
Bernard Ablola: I was like, “What is going on here?” He’s also created 40 other plus retail brands. So I’m gonna pick his brain and knowledge about creativity. How you start these brands? How you start companies in a very short amount of time frame? How long does it take to do Afters?
Andy Nguyen: Afters, that’s four years ago.
Bernard Ablola: So four years, right? Forty-plus brands in four years. He also has a nonprofit called Passion Chasers. It teaches kid’s entrepreneurship. Imagine this, I was talking to my buddy Shari somewhere in the audience: what if we learned what we knew now at a small age, who would be farther along, where they are now? Everyone should raise their hands, that’s really, really big, right?
Bernard Ablola: Let’s just jump into it. How did you get started?
Andy Nguyen: I grew up my entire life in Orange County, weird, awkward, troublemaker early on, trying to figure out how to fit in with certain groups. I ended up following the troublemakers, got confused. Hit my freshman year and had the worst time in high school, got kicked out. After my freshman year and if you’re Asian you’re kicked out, I thought it’s not a good look. You can’t be Asian failing in math and born in America and failing English. Got kicked out. I had to think back, you know, this is a really shitty place to be in and I don’t want to be in that place. I knew I was different person.
Bernard Ablola: How did it feel?
Andy Nguyen: How did it feel?
Bernard Ablola: Yeah.
Andy Nguyen: It’s crazy. It’s more than just being alone. I lived across street from high school, so I looked out the window every day, like 2:30, 8 p.m. and everyone’s leaving and they’re hanging out with each other and I’m just stuck here at home.
Andy Nguyen: Now the first week, it’s cool because I could stay home and watch TV all day. But after a while, when your parents say you can’t go out and you’re stuck there doing homework, it takes a toll on you. I was like, I had to go completely change my mindset. I came back my junior senior year, I did really well. But after you graduate and you get kicked out of school, you don’t get to choose the colleges you wanna go to, so I had to go to a community college.
Andy Nguyen: Going to community college, I took a lot of career planning classes. I took all my general education. I was like, “Dude, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I don’t know what I wanna do.” Good thing I started being around some of my good friends. Then one of them happened to drop out of school early and he went to real estate. How many you guys like real estate in here? Yeah, not many. I was like, I’m on the other side.
Andy Nguyen: He asked me about real estate. I was like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He goes, “Well, we can start our own company.” I was like, “I’m only 19 years old. How are you supposed to start your own company?” I didn’t think that was possible. He said, “Just give it a try. I’m making pretty good money and I’ll show you how to do it.” I ended up getting a real estate appraisal license before the market crashed. I was doing pretty well for like two and a half three years. I learned how to make money early on, but I also learned how much I hated real estate. I was like, “This sucks. I had no interest in it. I don’t like this. I wanna do something else.”
Andy Nguyen: I happened to know one of my friends who was starting a clothing brand and he asked me to do a photo shoot for it. I was like, “I’m not a model, dude.” He was like, “I’ll give you free clothes.” I was like, “I love free clothes. All right, man, I’ll do it.” Yeah. Then after the photo shoot, I saw what he was doing, I was like, “I’m way more interested in this.” He’s getting ready to launch another clothing brand. I was like, “Can I invest my money into your brand?” and he told me no. I was like, “Why? I can do this.” He was like, “I don’t think you’re ready for it.”
Andy Nguyen: I went back to my friend, I was like, “You know what, the real estate market’s crashing. Let’s take what we have and let’s start our own clothing brand.” So in 2007, I launched a clothing brand called IMKing. We did that for about seven years in the retail. We were in the top retailers in the world. We’re in the brand Izumis, we’re in PacSun, we’re in Tillys. We did well. I learned that industry, I learned how to network, I learned how to put product placement on people, I learned how to build a team. At that young age, I had 40, 50 people working under me.
Andy Nguyen: Then, after seven years, I was like, “I’m doing the same thing over and over.” Trade show, shipping, product placement, same thing over and over again. I needed something different. I found a different hobby. I started discovering a new hobby for myself. I was starting to write about food a lot in Yelp. I was utilizing Yelp so much it became like a game to me. I turned it into a game. I turned into like, where’s the most reviewed places when I travel, I’m gonna eat at all these places.
Andy Nguyen: I became that go-to guy as a well. If you’re looking places to eat, like, “I’m going New York, where should I eat?” “Oh, you should eat at these 10 places.” What I started noticing when I was traveling was there’s a lot of these unique ice cream places and they have all these unique flavors. Back in Orange County, we have Baskin-Robbins, we have Thrifty, we have Cold Stone, which are cool but the flavors but weren’t unique, they weren’t fun. I was like, “Yeah, I can do this. I can do this a lot better.”
Andy Nguyen: I started drawing up a lot of ideas, like a lot of different flavors. Actually, I was so busy at that time, I was trying to give the idea away to my friends. They’re like, “No, it’s not gonna work. You can’t make money doing ice cream.” Literally, I was like, “Dude, this is gonna kill. You need to try it.”
Andy Nguyen: I happened to hit one of my other friends and I told him about it, I’ve known him since second grade. We had this conversation and a lot of our ideas were really similar. He’s like, “Let’s do it. Let’s open our own ice cream store.” So we hunted and we found this place in Fountain Valley. We worked right across the street and we never went to this plaza ever. It was an ice cream store that was open maybe once every other week.
Andy Nguyen: So we’re now partnering up with them. We ripped their store apart. We painted the whole thing black. We started putting crazy words on the wall. One wall says “Gucci Mane loves ice cream.” Another wall says “Leave your diet here,” “Antidiet.” We started making ice cream with weird flavors, and he’s like, “No one’s gonna buy this flavor.” I was like, “Trust me, it’s gonna work.” He’s like, “No one’s gonna eat blue ice cream.” “I was like, “Trust me. It’s called Cookie Monster, you need to make it blue.”
Andy Nguyen: Then, we were developing different ideas around it. Ice cream itself won’t work by itself. We need to figure this out. It was right around the time that the Cronut came out and the Ramen Burger came out, and those are both like New York items. That was the first time people were talking about food, like really talking about food and mashups, and that’s never been done before. We tested waffles, we tested taco shells, we’re trying to get taco shells with cones. That didn’t work out. We sucked at it.
Andy Nguyen: Then, my partner Scott, he’s driving past the donut store, at first we were testing this bread product, it’s in the shape of what we were originally now, he came to the store and I’m like, “Dude, we’re about to go eat right now.” He’s like, “No. We’re gonna try the donut out.” So we tried them and we were like, “This is it.” We created a name for it, we called it the Milky Bun.
Andy Nguyen: We opened Afters a little over four years ago now in Fountain Valley, which at the time, if you tell somebody, “My store is in Fountain Valley,” they’d go, “Where is Fountain Valley?” We opened our first store without a real sign. If you look at the signs, to this day, it just says “ice cream.” But we made it light up now. Before it didn’t light up and the only way that you’d find the store is if you saw the line down the block. For the first two years of that location, we’d have a line, two, three hour line down the block every single day.
Andy Nguyen: Today, we have 22 locations for Afters Ice Cream throughout Southern California. We continue to expand. I have about nine other food concepts throughout Southern California and Arizona and I’m jumping into other territories at the same time.
Bernard Ablola: I’m a really big comic book fan and I like this superhero origin story. Because you have so many things going on, different brands, different ways to create a business, how did you find your unique ability, your superpower, and what is it?
Andy Nguyen: It’s funny, when I actually teach the Passion Chasers class I always refer to the superhero theme. The only reason I always say the superhero theme is not just because of breaking walls and laser vision and stuff, when I think of superheroes, I think of right moral code, I think of being okay being different, always trying to find yourself.
Andy Nguyen: For me, I believe my superpower is being able to connect the dots, connect with people, putting great people together and helping them unlock their superpowers.
Bernard Ablola: So the way I look at superpowers is unique ability. Have you ever been at work and you think that you wanna be on vacation? Or, you’re on vacation, you’re like, “Oh, I need to do this thing at work.”? Your superpower is a thing that you love to do each and every day and it doesn’t drain energy from you. People see it in you. It’s your passion. It’s your unique ability. When you spend most your time in your superpower things grow. Obviously, Andy, it worked well for you.
Bernard Ablola: What are some of the challenges you ran when you’re building all of these brands?
Andy Nguyen: Challenges? Not having enough experience. All the industries I’ve gone to, real estate, fashion, food, I had zero experience into it. I still to this day can’t design a T-shirt, I still to this day do not know my way around the kitchen. When you put me in the kitchen, it’s gonna be a disaster. I was always trying to figure out how to financially grow. Most of the projects that I’ve been a part of has been self-funded. We’ve never borrowed a single cent for anything I’ve done. So it’s been interesting process of trying to maintain that and grow at the same time.
Andy Nguyen: But you go through challenges every day, you go to challenges of having partners or staff members that don’t get along. They don’t teach you that in school, like you have one person that literally could turn your company upside down. How do you deal with that? How do you work through that? How do you turn it around and make your company successful?
Bernard Ablola: They say that restaurant business and retail is 80% failure rate. That’s a really high failure rate. What are the common myths when you’re opening up a store like this?
Andy Nguyen: Common myths? That you have to work and you have to be in the kitchen all the time. You won’t see me in the kitchen for sure. Yeah. You have to be in the kitchen all time, common myth in the restaurant industry.
Bernard Ablola: You have to delegate well.
Andy Nguyen: You have to delegate well, yeah. You have to have a really good systems in place. You have to have really good team members, managers, marketing teams, menu developments, everything. It’s all tricky.
Bernard Ablola: I remember, in Seattle, I opened up a smoothie shop as well. We were right on the water. I got my food handlers license. I’m a marketer, right? So I put on these gloves, I put on this little thing on my head that covered my hair, and I started serving these smoothies. Then, the next day, more people came. One lady came and started complaining, “It didn’t taste like yesterday.” Then, she came back the next day after that, “It didn’t taste like the day before.” I just gave up. We closed up shop in four months because, well, at the break-even point, I think we had to sell like 70 of these things to even break even and we were selling 15.
Bernard Ablola: When you’re doing this, you have to manage well and delegate well. That’s a different mindset than just getting into the food industry. Can you talk a little bit about that? How do you manage well?
Andy Nguyen: Understanding your role. I think I know my role really, really well. That’s why I’m able to do more than just be a part of one business. I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m not good at. I think when you know you’re not good at you hire the experts for it. If they’re not experts too, you can always help try to mold them into it. I think that’s something I know, maybe that’s how I manage.
Bernard Ablola: Okay. I’m about to ask one of my favorite questions. First of all, have you seen his store? There’s crazy colors. I purchased these socks there. I just went there the other day, I did my research. I ate the big donut as well, with the blue ice cream. That’s why I had a hard time fitting into my pants today. Can you walk us through your creative process of creating a brand that generates two to three hours long lines, 250 people waiting for ice cream, and just Instagram success, over a quarter million followers? What is your creative process?
Andy Nguyen: I think when we were first thinking of things we’re not just thinking about the product or the store, we’re thinking what’s the void, what’s the experience that we’re creating? We’re not trying to build a store, we’re trying to build a story, and put our lifestyle into it. We’re not just developing product, we’re developing a production around this whole thing. Production, it’s like a show, putting on the performance. That’s why the store is black, the common theme. We’re trying to be like the anti-corporation.
Andy Nguyen: When you go to, like you mention Baskin-Robbins, they have pink and purple color, light pink, like purple, and they have circus music or whatever they have playing in there. You come into our store and it’s black. What kind of ice cream store supposed to be black? Then you have trap music pumping through the speakers, you got staff members wearing shirts that say “anti-diet.” It’s not normal, but it’s that feeling, it’s that lifestyle. That’s part of who we were and that’s what we enjoyed.
Andy Nguyen: We’re all thinking about what excites us. If I don’t get excited about it, why would I put it out? That’s how I kind of developed everything, every project, every product that we put out. If I can’t get excited, I need to go back to the drawing board.
Bernard Ablola: Yeah. That reminds me of a statement that says “It’s either a hell yes or a no.” Can you walk us through a day in the life?
Andy Nguyen: A day in the life. These days are a little crazy, every day is a little different. We can talk about today. Today, I got up, I know tomorrow we’re leaving to Coachella tomorrow, so I’m halfway packed. But we have Coachella, we have three of our brands there, my partners. We have Wingman there, we have Afters there, and we have Pig Pen there. So everyone’s gearing up for that. I left for our meeting in Chino Hills to check on a food haul that I’m a part of curating over there. There’s about eight concepts in there and I own six of them in there.
Andy Nguyen: After Chino Hills, we drove to LA to go eat. We’re always studying, we’re always trying new places, so we’re trying different restaurants, we’re shooting pictures, talking about the dishes that we like and don’t like. The next thing, we’re at the BuzzFeed headquarters over there meeting, talking to them learning about what they look for when they’re shooting videos and what they’re posting.
Andy Nguyen: Now, I’m here chit-chatting, learning from everyone, getting to know everybody and talking to you.
Bernard Ablola: It’s awesome. You had mentioned this concept of mash-up where you’re taking, you had a fashion background in the past and now you’re taking the food and matching it up with what’s hot and what’s latest. How do you stay on top of trends? How do you stay on top of fashion?
Andy Nguyen: That’s my lifestyle. I always wanna know what’s cool, what’s everyone talking about, what’s getting me excited? Okay. That new pair of off white Jordans are coming out, I need to have it. How am I gonna make this happen? That’s the same way I apply my thought process to the items I created. I was like, I need to create something where people were like, I need to have this. That’s how we develop and work on our items.
Bernard Ablola: When you think of an idea and you’re not sure it’s gonna have success or failure, what do you do?
Andy Nguyen: If it doesn’t do well, we go back and work on another item. I recently filmed with the Food Network and they named me, they called me The Mashup King, which was a weird term. I was like, “I get it.” Because we’ve created a lot of interesting items. At the Poke store, we created this item called the Sushi Donut. That went so viral that in about a week and a half we had like 63 million views on that and the stores wrapped around the block for entire month. We didn’t know it’s gonna happen.
Andy Nguyen: Or my buddy Kevin there, we worked on a mac and cheese burger. The buns are made of mac and cheese and deep-fried and put in a burger. So we’re always trying to think things out to get us excited. We’re like, “That’s super cool. That’s interesting. That looks good in camera. Let’s make that.”
Bernard Ablola: Tons and tons of restaurants open up, tons and tons of retail shops open up, why do you think companies fail?
Andy Nguyen: Because they’re not paying attention to the youth, not paying attention to what’s going on right now, they’re so stuck in their ways. Everything’s always changing. Including right now, with the social media, it’s always changing, algorithm changes. I think if you’re not on top of it and keeping up, you’re gonna fall. In a week later, you’d go behind already.
Bernard Ablola: For those in the audience and those on the live cam, if they were to start this type of business, where do they begin?
Andy Nguyen: Doing the research, finding what’s the void in their area. It doesn’t make sense to do the demographics. I chose an easy one, I chose ice cream because everyone loves ice cream. Thank goodness I started that because that led me to all these other ones. Now I’m able to test and try different things that may not work and see and test water a little bit more.
Bernard Ablola: What’s your research process like?
Andy Nguyen: I eat at a different restaurant all the time. I’ve probably eaten at well over, yeah, they’re laughing at me because they know. They get stuck on it. If you travel with me, you’ll know it’s really intense. Kevin and Eric, they’ve traveled with me. I could try 14 places, 20 places in one day. In one day I’ll try, I’ll test items, so I’m like literally laying on the floor passed out.
Andy Nguyen: But I wanna know what’s out there. I was like, “I’m only here for 24 hours. We’re gonna knock everything. I wanna go try it all out.” Experience, it’s like seeing, like learning about the area, taking pictures of certain backgrounds. I’m always learning and picking it apart. It’s different now. Before, I was eating for enjoyment, before I started the business. Now, it’s different. Now, when I eat, it’s all about research and my mind’s running like, “I can start a business from this. I can scale this, for sure 200 stores in a few years.”
Andy Nguyen: It’s a different thought process now, but it’s fun, it’s still a game for me. I treat a lot of stuff like a video game, all my tasks every day is like a point system. Done, mark that out, it’s completed. So everything’s like a game. That’s my system and processes that I go through.
Bernard Ablola: Do you journal this? Do you document this?
Andy Nguyen: Yeah. I write in a journal all the time. If you’re following me on social media, you know I’m documenting almost everything I do.
Bernard Ablola: If you have to tell your 18-year-old self what you know now and expedite the process, what would you do?
Andy Nguyen: If you look at your five closest friends at the time, you’ll most likely talk like them, you’re most likely just like them, you’ll be in similar things. So for me, you surround yourself with amazing people, talented people, you’re gonna chase that, you’re gonna try to compete with them. It’s just a natural habit. If you surround yourself with troublemakers, most likely you’re gonna find yourself in trouble. So, yeah, I choose to surround myself with amazing people like you guys and learn.
Bernard Ablola: Last two questions, what is the future for Andy and where do you see that this business is gonna take you?
Andy Nguyen: Well, I always tell people I don’t always wanna be known as, now I remember four years ago, Andy, that’s the clothing guy, or now that’s the food, that’s the restaurant guy. I don’t wanna be in that hole. I always wanna do something different. I wanna continue to go into different industries and figure out how to disrupt it one way another.
Andy Nguyen: Right now I’m working on a lot of development on changing how retail and the food experience and how stores, how the shopping experience is, teaching people how to curate that and do it right. Because right now, like I mentioned earlier, it’s the age of experience and if you create a great experience, everyone is retail buying, if not, you have those places like the ice cream museum or other stuff, but with their phones. If you can create experiences like that, people come.
Bernard Ablola: Lastly, I just came from your shop and I asked the person behind the counter what should I get. What’s your favorite flavor?
Andy Nguyen: My favorite flavor? I’m traumatized from ice cream now, so I don’t eat as much ice cream as I used to. Every time we do testing, I’m like, “Ugh, I got to test an ice cream?” My favorite flavor is the milk and cereal. We actually bake butter, sugar, the flakes that we make, and we mash it up into the ice cream. So we mix it into the ice cream and we also top it with it. So you get body, texture and a lot of hints of butter and sugar. Milk and cereal is my go-to.
Bernard Ablola: That’s awesome.
Andy Nguyen: Thanks, Bernard.
Bernard Ablola: Andy, thank you very much. If you want to reach out to Andy, you just follow him on Instagram, you just follow him on Twitter and Facebook. I really appreciate it. Awesome job. Thanks a lot.

Check out our latest event filmed at Stacking Growth Santa Monica on April 2018, where we discuss staying creative and setting trends using mashups. You will learn: How to leverage Instagram and Facebook in creating a crazy demand for your product and service.