I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom D’Eri, the co-founder and COO of Rising Tide Car Wash, a social enterprise that employs over 80 individuals with autism in a successful car wash business. He is also the co-founder of Rising Tide U, an organization dedicated to teaching others how to harness the autism advantage. Tom is a summa cum laude graduate of Bentley University in Finance and Economics, an Unreasonable Institute Global Fellow, a Startingbloc Fellow and a Miami Herald 20Under40 award recipient.
Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?
My father, John, and I founded Rising Tide Car Wash as a means of employing my brother Andrew who’s on the autism spectrum. While Andrew is an incredibly capable young man, we saw that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, for him to find meaningful employment because of the way society views autism — as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a valuable diversity. Our mission with Rising Tide Car Wash is to create gainful employment opportunities for individuals with autism in premium car washes. We feel that by delivering exceptional service, provided by expertly trained employees with autism, we can help change the way communities view autism and show the world that people with autism can help businesses thrive.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re a true social enterprise where the success of the business and the fulfillment of our mission are completely aligned. If you come visit one of our stores, you’ll see employees that genuinely care about providing great service and consistently deliver great value to customers. You may be lucky enough to be greeted by Brandon, a young man with autism, who always has a smile on his face and enthusiasm in his voice. If you ask him how his day is going he’ll likely say something like “I can’t complain, I love working outside!” and then he’ll bust out into a cheer of “Woooohoooo!!” because he’s so excited. This habit has earned him the nickname of the “Woohoo Man” by our team and some of our regular customers.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
At our car washes, we’re always working on improving our employee and customer experience. One thing we’re currently excited about is redesigning our training program into a digital and experiential system that weaves leading character skill research into the fabric of how we develop our people. We feel that teaching things like grit, self-control, effective conflict resolution and growth mindset can not only improve how effective our employees are in their work but also help them be more successful people in their whole lives. We’re also developing a dashboard system that leverages our point of sale system data to make more effective management decisions in real-time on key performance areas like labor management. We also recently launched an education arm of our business called Rising Tide U, with the goal of enabling more jobs for individuals with autism by sharing what we’ve learned in building Rising Tide Car Wash into a thriving business. Our first educational product, The Autism Advantage, is the first step-by-step online course that teaches learners how to build a sustainable social enterprise that employs individuals with autism. In less than a year our students have created over 58 jobs for people with autism in businesses like snack delivery, food products and video production.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
I’ve been an avid reader for over a decade now so it’s hard to choose just one. The book that had the single largest effect on my view of how to build a career that matters is “Getting Green Done” by Auden Schendler because it taught me that real impact comes from the front lines, immersing yourself in the issues and not being afraid to get your hands dirty. I’ve taken that approach in everything I’ve done so far and it’s served me well. Also, Kim Scott’s Radical Candor drastically improved my understanding of how to effectively help my team develop themselves — it’s now required reading for my entire management team.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Build a network of mentors who can help guide you. No entrepreneur is successful by themselves, everyone has help. The stronger your tribe of mentors is the easier it will be for you to navigate the inevitable uncharted territory you’ll face and will give you the confidence you need to keep moving forward.
- Stand for something — It is infinitely easier to attract the mentors, team members, partners and customers you need to grow your business if it stands for more than just what you’re selling. Because we stand for empowering individuals with autism we were able to get the attention of Paul Fazio, the President of SONNYs Enterprises (the largest manufacturer of car wash equipment in the world) before we even opened our first location. His insight and support was instrumental in launch and continued success.
- Never stop learning — both reading and practicing new skills. Once people start to recognize you as an expert in your industry it can be very easy to rest on your laurels and just keep doing the same things. This is a recipe for disaster as your competitors will easily be able to catch you. You should constantly be reading as well as taking on new projects. One thing that I’ve learned in the last year is that the practice of taking on new initiatives that are out of your comfort zone (for me that’s been digital marketing and character skill development) is probably the most effective way to broaden your skill set and bring new ideas into your business. This can feel scary and overwhelming at first, but I believe it’s the secret sauce for continued innovation and success.
- Be honest with yourself about what you want — Everyone will have an opinion about how you should grow your business, especially if it is successful early on. It can be very tempting to simply do the things that the people you love and trust think you should do and not stop to think about if it really serves you and what you want out of life. I think questioning what you want and constantly building a more clear vision for your life and your business is a critical part of being an entrepreneur and making all the work worth it.
- Do the nitty gritty, unglamorous stuff — Most entrepreneurs are drawn to the work because they have a vision and creative energy. These core parts of what make become entrepreneurs can really work against us in the long run if we fail to roll up ourselves and really focus on developing ourselves as “operators” and managers. Many young entrepreneurs I know shy away from doing the work they’re not comfortable or interested in doing, regardless of how important it is for the business. The thought of doing things like building great operational processes from the boots up or getting close to the economic realities of running a business or becoming a great sales person may make your skin crawl but in order to become the kind of leader that has the chops to be successful in the long run you need to do understand every aspect of your business.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
This has got to be Gary Vaynerchuk, right? I respect Gary so much and am frankly in awe of how he’s been able to build an empire on providing incredible value and just being a beast from a work ethic prospective. Every time I start to get tired or burnt out or jaded I just pop on a Gary V audiobook or podcast and I immediately feel re-energized. I’d honestly just like to meet him to thank him for being the inspiration for a generation of entrepreneurs.
-Published on August 18 2018