Chelle Neff of Urban Betty: “Here Are 5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry”

Thought leadership gives your business recognition and validation. When I won the award for Austin Under 40 as Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016, it opened so many doors for my company. The community wants to trust your business and if it is run by a thought leader it will drive them to want to […]

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Thought leadership gives your business recognition and validation. When I won the award for Austin Under 40 as Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016, it opened so many doors for my company. The community wants to trust your business and if it is run by a thought leader it will drive them to want to become a part of that success. Once you are recognized, people begin to reach out to you to learn about your professional accomplishments. Visibility is one of the things we strive for as founders. Becoming a thought leader not only gives you visibility, but credibility as well, which in turn inspires the king of employees who want to work for you to seek you out.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chelle Neff. Chelle has been a leader in the U.S. salon industry since founding Urban Betty in 2005. As the CEO, Neff has successfully grown Urban Betty year after year and today has a salon company that houses more than 60 employees and 2 locations. No stranger to innovation, Neff designed and developed her own app, FyleStyle, which allows stylists to track client information and color formulas, and in 2017, she launched her own series of educational classes called Betty Bootcamp. In 2018 & 2019, Urban Betty was named as one of the fastest-growing privately held companies by Inc 5000.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I began my journey as an entrepreneur first by being an employee in the salon industry. I knew from a young age that I wanted to do hair. When I was offered the chance to enroll in a cosmetology school while in high school at the age of 16, I jumped at the opportunity because it meant directing my path toward exploring a true passion of mine. During my junior and senior years, I attended half days of regular classes and half days of cosmetology school.

When I received my license, I started working behind the chair at Supercuts. I slowly worked my way up the ladder to more high-end salons. Five years later, I got a small suite at the Gallery of Salons in Austin, Texas and became an independent contractor. That was my initial stepping stone towards running my own business.

I was completely alone the first week I opened my first brick and mortar Urban Betty and had just one hairstylist/contractor for the initial three months. I didn’t hire my first employee until six months after opening. In 2011, we moved into a space that was double the size of our original salon. Now eight years later, I have two locations and almost 60 employees.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I have been mentoring and training women in my salon company for over 14 years. Throughout the years, I’ve promoted four of my employees from receptionist roles to management positions. Most recently, I invited several of my long-term employees to become 2% shareholders of Urban Betty Salon. I wanted to share the rewarding fulfillment of entrepreneurship by helping these women achieve their dreams of owning a business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I originally structured the pricing list for services at my salon, I offered package deals and all sorts of special discounts. I thought surely this was the best way to draw in new business. After struggling to make ends meet, I finally ran a report to see how much money we were giving away. It was an astonishing $50,000 in just one year! After that, I hired a salon consulting company and a business coach — Summit Salon Business Center. Within the first 3 months of hiring Summit, we restructured the pricing on our service list to an a la carte menu with only a limited number of discounts. Our revenue grew by 30% the following year! Once our profits quickly turned around, I was able to retire from doing hair in 2016 and focus solely on managing Urban Betty.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The first thing I did after starting my company was launch a website with a terrible logo. This was around 2002. I mistakenly thought that I could just use Which is a hilarious thought because I had no idea at the time that such a basic domain name would already be taken. Also, can you imagine how hard it would be to actually find my salon if anyone did a search? Back then, no one knew about SEO and the importance of a domain name. That pushed me to think outside of the box and to come up with something that would be original and catch people’s attention. From that came Urban Betty, which derives from my given name Betty Michelle.

At the time, I thought my logo looked good. It was a lady with a city background, and she looked very cartoonish. Think of Sex and the City if it was a children’s book. Not good. We reworked it after a couple of years. I recently found an old scrapbook with my first brochure and the original logo. I showed it to my employees, and they couldn’t believe how bad it was. We all had a good laugh! I learned that you need to always be re-evaluating your brand and evolving to stay current.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader is a person who influences an entire movement within their industry. They inspire people all across the globe by sharing their experiences and connecting with others who are on the same path. Thought leaders help create a business recipe that others can replicate in order to become more successful. A regular leader only leads inside of their own business. You have to get outside of this comfort zone and inspire change in order to truly become a thought leader. Influencers are a little different because, while they may influence people to do something for a moment in time, can they actually create and inspire long-lasting and enduring change? I feel like this is the difference. Influencers can change something for a moment but thought leaders can influence change for an entire culture or industry for a lifetime.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

I believe it’s worthwhile to become a thought leader because, when you change your industry as a whole, you better everyone around you and not just yourself. I wanted to create a salon company with structure and systems that can help others and become replicated. I struggled so much for the first ten years when I opened my salon company. There are not any classes on how to be a salon owner. In cosmetology school, you are only taught lessons on how to do hair but that is about it. I learned what to do and what NOT to do from my experiences working at other salons for the first 10 years. Once I hired a business coach and salon consulting company (Summit), my entire life and business changed for the better. They were my original thought leaders. By investing in these resources my company grew by 82% in the next three years! I want to pass on that torch and knowledge to other founders so that they, too, can be successful.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Thought leadership gives your business recognition and validation. When I won the award for Austin Under 40 as Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016, it opened so many doors for my company. The community wants to trust your business and if it is run by a thought leader it will drive them to want to become a part of that success. Once you are recognized, people begin to reach out to you to learn about your professional accomplishments. Visibility is one of the things we strive for as founders. Becoming a thought leader not only gives you visibility, but credibility as well, which in turn inspires the king of employees who want to work for you to seek you out.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Hire a business coach or consulting group that specializes in your industry. In 2013, I was drowning in debt and negative in my bank account on and off for months. I remember my banker calling to make sure that deposits were going to come through so that we could cover expenses and payroll. In 2014, I joined the Summit Salon Consulting Group and hired a business coach. Since bringing on the consulting group and coach, I have grown Urban Betty’s income by a whopping 82%. In 2018, Urban Betty Salon generated $3.4 million in revenue, making it one of the highest-grossing salons in Austin. In 2018 and 19, Urban Betty made Inc. 5000’s list of Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies in the country.
  2. Hire a PR person. When you have a ton of knowledge and want to inspire people, you may not know how to get it out to the public. I remember seeing all these salons in magazines and I wondered why I could not get the same coverage? We were successful, winning tons of awards, yet it seemed that no one really cared. That’s when I finally got introduced to a PR person. I interviewed three different people and hired the one I connected with the most. She opened doors and introduced me to people in my industry that I never would have had the chance to meet without her expertise.
  3. Apply for every award that you can. If you see any magazine, website, or other publication that has awards for your industry, always apply. You never know when you may win. We won our first award back in 2006 on Citysearch for Best Salon in Austin. We sent emails to all of our customers and got them involved in the process, they were just as excited as we were. And once we won, our phones blew up with new customers. From that moment on, I knew I would throw my hat in the ring for anything.
  4. Network, network, and then network some more. I’m an introvert so I had to get out of my comfort zone and attend any event that I could that would introduce me to new people. Don’t just go to ones specifically for your industry. Go to any and everything that is out there. I have even made great connections at the gym. You just never know who might be put into your path that could someday help you on your journey. Also, you never know who YOU may inspire or help. I actually met my husband through networking! I used to attend these Twitter meetups and made so many friends at them. Not only did I make business connections, but I also met one of my best friends (who would later become one of my bridesmaids), and the love of my life.
  5. Social media is the best way to inspire people free of charge. Get out there, share your thoughts and connect with other leaders. If you don’t have the means (yet) to hire consultants, coaches, or PR people, get on social media and promote your brand. If you see any classes online about how to amp up your social media, take them! Get your thoughts out there. I was recently interviewed about my startup story and I posted it on Instagram. I had so many other business owners reach out to me personally to let me know how inspiring it was for them. That was amazing!

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Michael Cole is an incredible thought leader. He started out as a barber and has now helped tens of thousands of salon professionals transform their businesses. He recognized a need in the salon industry for structure and systems to be put into place in order to generate profitability. About 20 years ago, he took the leap to strategize and develop a plan to solve it. He first created the Summit Systems and began teaching it to other salons. He then created an entire brand (Summit) around that system and launched it nationwide.

In 2014, I attended a four-day Summit workshop and saw him speak for the first time. He connected with the entire room on a whole new level than I had never seen before. His candor and knowledge blew me away. He told funny stories about how negative people in your workplace are referred to as “red tornadoes.” I will never forget that story and the impact he had on me as it forever changed both my life and business for the better. Two lessons he teaches are to find a specific “problem” in your industry that needs solving, and most importantly, to LOVE how to solve that problem and share it with the world. His humanness and ability to connect with others is what I believe truly makes him one of the best thought leaders out there.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I think everyone out there is overthinking everything. No pun intended. I honestly believe that if you don’t like something, like the phrase “thought leader” for instance, then don’t use it. But if you like it, then go for it! If we worried about what other people thought, we wouldn’t be considered “thought leaders.” I think it gives new life and meaning to leaders who are actually making a difference!

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Keep evolving and learning! I was definitely a victim of burnout. After 20 years of doing hair, I didn’t want to do it anymore. After opening my salon company, though, I discovered my love for marketing and mentoring others. I felt the passion when I thought about that side of the business. I felt fatigued whenever I thought about doing hair. It was then that I knew I had to begin my transition from being behind the chair to leading in a business role. To make that happen, I had to incorporate new business solutions so that I could earn enough profit to pay myself since I was no longer in the hairstylist role. I didn’t want to let my fatigue disillusion or keep me from learning, evolving, and thriving. You really have to reflect internally about what makes you happy and find a way to redirect your path. It’s not easy at first but it will totally be worth it, I can promise you that.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a movement of supporting other people’s success. The world is not one big pie for everyone. We each have our own pie! When one person is successful, they are never taking away from you. Your worth and all that you have are based on your emotional well-being and your beliefs surrounding that. Whenever you celebrate another person’s success, you draw that same energy onto yourself. I would love for everyone out there to want others to succeed and be happy for them!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I heard this quote right after opening my salon company and I was completely overwhelmed with all of the things that I needed to do. I believe that all movement is forward movement. Even the smallest thing like having coffee with another business owner — asking them one question may help you get to where you want to go.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet J.K. Rowling. I am a huge Harry Potter fan and I love her success story. She literally wrote an idea down on a napkin and turned it into an empire. I have a burning secret desire to write a book and I feel like she could really give me a few pointers.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you for all of your great insights!

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