Nico Vergara was 18 years old when his six-week trip to New Zealand completely uprooted his career dreams.
After ordering a treat from a small cart on the coast, Vergara watched the vendor dump a vanilla ice cream base and fresh fruit into the top of a “cool” machine, which produced a perfectly blended combination of the two at the bottom.
In 2021, just three years later, Vergara launched his own cart selling New Zealand-style “real fruit” ice cream in Portland, Oregon. Today, Nico’s Ice Cream includes two brick-and-mortar locations in Portland and pints sold in about 60 grocery stores across Oregon and Washington.
“It’s funny. I mean, I’m not a huge sweets guy,” Vergara, 23, tells CNBC Make It, admitting that he’d previously “never been a huge fan” of ice cream. “[But] when I ate New Zealand-style, it’s light, airy, fruity.”
Bringing his vision to life meant emptying his bank account: Vergara says he started his company with all $25,000 of his life savings, from investments in stocks like Apple and Amazon, and $10,000 from an uncle.
Within a year, one ice cream cart became two brick-and-mortar locations, a Mexican restaurant and a cafe that closed almost as quickly as it opened. In 2022, the ventures brought in a combined $650,000 in sales, Vergara says.
Most of that revenue — $473,000 — came solely from Nico’s Ice Cream.
Bringing a taste of New Zealand to the U.S.
Many teenagers don’t have thousands of dollars in savings. Vergara credits his mother, who worked as a private investigator, for introducing him to investing at a young age.
“My mom taught me a lot about money,” he says. “And one of the things that she taught me about was investing. So when I was 14, 15 years old, she had me start investing into stocks and having me do my own research.”
Before starting Nico’s Ice Cream, Vergara also worked in the service industry — studying how to navigate payrolls, negotiate leasing contracts and obtain equipment for brick-and-mortar shops.
One piece of equipment was particularly important: the ice cream blender, made by a Hope, New Zealand-based company called Little Jem. Vergara spent $11,000 on the machine, which took three months to go through customs and ship to the Portland airport, he says.
With his money and equipment in order, he crafted a three-year business plan:
- Year One: Open a cart and sell ice cream in north Portland.
- Year Two: Buy another custom cart and ice cream machine.
- Year Three: Open a brick-and-mortar store somewhere in Portland.
That plan went out the window when his cart’s sales exceeded expectations, Vergara says. Three months in, he expanded to his first brick-and-mortar store. Exactly a year later, he opened a second one, purchasing another Little Jem ice cream machine to power it.
Wanting to build on the momentum, Vergara used more than $100,000 of his profits to open a Mexican restaurant called Nico’s Cantina and a cafe called Nico’s Coffee.
The coffee shop closed its doors after suffering a break-in, struggling with its landlord and bringing in only $20,000 in revenue last year, he says. The restaurant — which brought in $157,000, he adds — still exists today.
Vergara’s current focus is opening a third ice cream store this fall, ideally outside Oregon. It won’t be easy, he says, citing the coffee shop’s failure.
“There’s passion and love for what I wanted to do,” he says. “In my opinion, if you think about it too much, you’re going to scare yourself out of a situation.”
His advice for anyone else who’s full of entrepreneurial ambition: Take the leap.
“I’m a brown kid with tattoos and no college education, and I’m doing it,” Vergara says. “And, you know, if I can do it, genuinely, anybody can do it.”
DON’T MISS: Want to be smarter and more successful with your money, work & life? Sign up for our new newsletter!
Get CNBC’s free report, 11 Ways to Tell if We’re in a Recession, where Kelly Evans reviews the top indicators that a recession is coming or has already begun.