Free Enterprise Staff  | June 14, 2016

Family-run startup turns hat industry on its head

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s annual America’s Small Business Summit takes place this week in Washington. Make sure to follow along via the ASBS homepage and the Twitter hashtag #IAmSmallBiz for updates and live-stream events.

Dennis Mashue is on a mission.

The Michigan father is running a hat startup called Tuck’s Tooques with his 17-year-old son, Tucker, who is autistic. Dennis hopes to teach Tucker the importance of entrepreneurialism and serve as an example to others about what people with developmental problems can accomplish.

“I have firsthand experience about how hard it is for parents of autistic children to educate others about [the condition],” he explained. “Tucker may be autistic, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t do what everyone else can.”

Tuck’s Tooques officially launched as an online business in 2012 after Mashue became disenchanted with the school-to-work job programs available for children with disabilities. “When Tucker was diagnosed around age 2, I went out and took a look at the facts for people like him and saw that the unemployment rates were 70 to 80 percent,” he said “We couldn’t rely on anyone else to improve this result.”

Mashue and his wife decided to take a hand-on-approach to Tucker’s education and employment, which included introducing him to local entrepreneurs and later starting their very own business.

While Tuck’s Tooques originally started out selling hats exclusively, it has progressed to selling an assortment of winter gear, such as gloves and socks. The site now ships products to 27 states across the country. The products are hand-woven by Nepali artisans using yak wool and stay warm even when they get wet. The high quality earned the startup acclaim from industry professionals such as world-class mountaineer and polar explorer Lonnie Dupre. The explorer was so captivated with the hats that he outfitted his entire crew with the company’s products for a Nepal expedition planned for October 2016.

“Everyone will buy a hat for a great cause,” Mashue said. “But when people started coming back to us and saying, ‘Your hats are fantastic,’ and then Lonnie said that he wanted to buy our hats—that’s we knew that we had something.”

Mashue is quick to point out that his son is truly in charge of the business. “He goes in first at new business meetings,” he said. “He’s taken on a lot of responsibility for the company.”

In the end, Mashue hopes the business will inspire others to launch their own startups and employ more people with developmental disabilities. Meanwhile, he urges those who want to launch, manage or even co-own a business with someone autistic not to treat them as anything less than competent.

“In Tucker’s situation—and a lot of autistic people’s situations—their mind is completely fine,” Mashue said. “There is a disconnect between the mind and body, which more often than not forces the body into doing or saying something completely unrelated to what the mind is thinking. But they’re not incapable of understanding.”

The father-son team is currently are touring the country to raise awareness about their business and autistic individuals. But it’ll be right back to work when they return home.

“I believe in this kid and believe we’re going to do great things together with this business,” Mashue said.