Tom D’Eri is the COO/Co-Founder of Rising Tide Car Wash, a social enterprise that employs individuals with autism for 80% of their staff in a premium car wash business. Tom and his team have developed one of the first operationally proven and financially viable businesses dedicated to employing people with autism. To date, Rising Tide Car Wash has employed over 150 individuals with autism generating over $3,000,000 per year in sales. Rising Tide Car Wash has been the recipient of the Autism Society of America Employer of the Year (2014), Ruderman “Best in Business” Award (2015), Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Leader in Adult Autism Award (2017) and the CARD Community Leadership Award from University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (2018). To see Rising Tide in action, watch this short video.
The Rising Tide team used their experiences of building a successful for-profit business model with autistic employees from the ground up as the foundation for “The Autism Advantage” online business course.
We want to share our knowledge with others so they can bring autism social enterprises to their communities.
Why did you create The Autism Advantage?
We created The Autism Advantage to help the thousands of families just like us who have reached out over the years asking how they could start an autism-focused business in their community. After years of design research with families and curriculum building in partnership with University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, we determined that a self-paced, step-by-step course designed to show learners how to build a financially sustainable business by starting small, testing, building a network of mentors and focusing on the strengths of people on the spectrum would be the most impactful service we could offer.
What is the program’s mission?
To help aspiring autism entrepreneurs address the unemployment many people with autism face. We do this through courses, coaching and content that empowers them to build financially sustainable businesses that harness the talents of people with autism. Together we believe that autism entrepreneurs not only employ many people with autism but also address the larger issue of showing the world that autism is valuable diversity in the workforce.
Who is the ideal person to join and go through the program?
The “user archetype” that we designed this program for is parents who have loved ones with autism and want to start a business that employs them. With this group in mind we know that most of them have full-time jobs that they depend on and have some, but not a lot, of money to risk in starting a business. We designed the curriculum to be executable with only a few hour per week commitment to start and to focus on “de-risking” the entrepreneurial process through testing and network building.
How does the program work?
It’s a self-paced fully online program that covers how to think like an entrepreneur, how to approach business idea generation, how to test if your idea is worth pursuing, how to build a network of mentors and partners, how to choose the right business structure, how to fund your business and how to prepare for a full scale launch.
To supplement the curriculum we offer support through a private Facebook Group, email access, and coaching calls.
What makes it unique from other autism start-your-own-business programs?
There are 2 primary factors that make The Autism Advantage different from anything else currently on the market. First, we combined practitioner wisdom with entrepreneurship best practices. Everything we teach we’ve done in building our own financially sustainable and scalable social enterprise that is currently employing 72 individuals with autism. We believe that to be a true guide to others on their journeys you have to have conquered the challenges they currently face, we’re the only ones that can say that right now.
Second, we have a strong focus on financial viability. We do this not because we think that aspiring autism entrepreneurs are motivated by making profit but because it’s the number one risk of failure for every entrepreneur. Inexperienced entrepreneurs tend to get fixated to the “solution” they want to bring into the world and don’t do the upfront work to determine if people really want what they are building. This is doubly risky for autism entrepreneurs because once they start hiring people with autism they feel a deep sense of commitment to what they are building, even if they know its not working. This can cause them to go deeply into debt and pour everything they have into their business just to see it fail at some point. We help our students avoid this worst case scenario by being intentional and validating a business model before they extend lifelines to people with autism.
Can you give us an overview of the modules?
- The Entrepreneur Mindset – learn how successful social entrepreneurs think and why putting profit before charity is one of the most generous things you can do for your business.
- The Big Idea – a facilitated ideation process to help learners come up with potential business ideas that harness the advantages of employing people with autism.
- Test for Success – learn how to know if your idea is worth pursuing by running short, cheap tests that answer key questions around if people want your service and if your loved one with autism can thrive in the business.
- Support Through Story – learn the step-by-step process you need to build a rich network of mentors and partners and how to tell your story in a way that will make them want to help you.
- The Right Business Structure – an overview of each potential business structure and some general recommendations about how to choose the structure that’s right for you.
- All About Funding – learn 5 different strategies for raising funds, the pros and cons of each and what you need to have done before you ask for money.
- Ready for Launch – guidance and tools to build your financial systems, operations systems and hiring process.
What can people expect to achieve after completing the Autism Advantage?
When a learner completes the Autism Advantage they will fully understand if the business they want to start is viable and what they need to do to get it off the ground. They will have learned how to find these insights before they quit their job or make a big leap by spending a few hours a week testing their assumptions and building their network.
The course is also jam-packed with all the tools and resources we’ve accumulated over the 6 years we’ve been building Rising Tide Car Wash which can save aspiring entrepreneurs countless hours and a significant amount of money.
Here are a few quotes from people currently enrolled in The Autism Advantage:
“I really appreciate the approach your team has taken with these course modules. It makes a lot of sense to my wife and I (we have 4 kids, 1 on the spectrum and I work a full time job that I can’t leave). I think the course so far has been fantastic, and really applies to my situation. Taking a logical step by step approach to finding out the viability of an idea, without having to make a big bet or take a big risk right away was very valuable to hear. I am eager to get along with the last half of the modules and follow all the other great resources that you guys have recommended. What you’ve done so far is really amazing!” – Ben M.
“The reason we were able to take the leap – is from all that we’ve learned through Rising Tide. Rising Tide, the workshop, the relationships that came from the workshops, the wisdom of your podcast interviewees and interviewers – all contributed to an invaluable knowledge base that has allowed us to feel ‘ready’. I am very, very grateful for all that we have learned from the Autism Advantage!” Molly Sebastian, Co-Founder – Invictus Enterprises.
What are some of the challenges you faced when starting Rising Tide Car Wash and how are you helping your Autism Advantage members overcome similar challenges?
When we were in the process of starting Rising Tide Car Wash we often wished there was a roadmap for us to follow. So much of the process was uncertain. How do we know if customers will support us? How do we know if Andrew and enough people with autism will be able to be successful in this business model? How on do we empower employees with autism to use their natural talents? How on earth do we run a car wash? We faced challenges in learning about each of these core questions and spent over $100,000 before we were ready to buy car wash and launch.
But what came out of that experience was a road map for addressing every one of these questions in a much more efficient manner than we did early on.
With our Autism Advantage clients we’re not only providing a roadmap (the course) but as much support as they would like on their journey. We make ourselves very available for each client through coaching calls and email support.
Much of what we’ve worked with our clients on so far is designing effective tests for them to understand if the business they want to pursue will work before they make a large commitment to it. For example, one of our clients wants to start a t-shirt business for their son with autism who is a talented graphic artist. They were contemplating purchasing equipment and space when they entered the course. By going through the course and having coaching calls with us they realize that first they need to figure out what their best “client type” looks like and what is product that group really want. They can do this using a simple website, some sample shirts and a drop shipping service. What they’re learning from this test will greatly improve their understanding of what equipment they really need (if any), if t-shirts are right product or if something else would be better and if they actually want to live the life of an apparel entrepreneur.
What are some of the rewards you’ve experienced through Rising Tide Car Wash and how can Autism Advantage help others reap the same rewards?
Building Rising Tide Car Wash has been the most purposeful experience my family has ever had. We went from being hopeless for Andrew’s future to having the piece of mind that Andrew will be supported, not by our family but by the organization we built. Rising Tide provides him an income, a community of peers and friends and a purpose. It has also brought my entire family together in a way that I never dreamed was possible. We get to work together every day in a business we all care deeply about and we get to meet so many other people who share our mission. The Autism Advantage can help others get the same control over, and purpose in, their lives.
In addition to the course, are there other ways the program offers support?
Yes, the entire Rising Tide U team makes itself available to our clients in any way we can. We are quick to answer emails and have coaching calls to help clients through their journey.
What’s the cost to sign up?
The cost is 5 payments of $99 with a 30 day money back guarantee.
If the reader only takes away one message from this interview, what would you like it to be?
That it is possible for them to provide a future for their loved one with autism by starting a sustainable autism-focused business.
Discover more about the Autism Advantage:
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Rising Tide Car Wash photo by Sonju Photography
Photo of “the two Toms” courtesy of Rising Tide Car Wash