Chelle Neff: “The ability to admit that you are wrong”

Don’t sweat bad reviews. The busier you get, the more online reviews you are going to receive. And that’s not a bad thing AT ALL. Let me warn you though, about 1% of them are going to be negative. You’re not pizza, you can’t please all the people all the time. I remember the first […]

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Don’t sweat bad reviews. The busier you get, the more online reviews you are going to receive. And that’s not a bad thing AT ALL. Let me warn you though, about 1% of them are going to be negative. You’re not pizza, you can’t please all the people all the time. I remember the first negative review that we received on Yelp. I cried for several hours and couldn’t sleep all night. Now when we get one, of course, I am peeved. However, it only lasts 30 minutes max. I will warn you, take time before you respond to that review. Get your emotions under control and be professional.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, 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 has 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 recognized as one of the fastest-growing privately held companies by Inc 5000.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I began my journey as an entrepreneur first as 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. At that point, everything I did behind the chair paid for the entire salon and my household. It was a very stressful situation. After having the one employee, I quickly learned that it was much more profitable to have employees rather than booth rental/contracted hairstylists. After about six years, I slowly phased out all of my hairstylists that were contractors and transitioned to a 100% commission-based salon. 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 share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

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 in just one year! After that, I hired a salon consulting company and a business coach (Summit). 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?

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

Freedom. I can honestly say I always wanted that feeling. I was led onto this career path as a CEO from my sheer motivation to do better in my life than what I had grown up with. My parents had me when they were teenagers and we lived meagerly when I was young. I knew that if I wanted to go to college, I would need to find a way to pay for it myself along with my cost of living. Growing up, I had a natural knack for doing hair and art so when I was offered the chance to enroll in cosmetology school at the age of 16, I jumped at the opportunity, and by the age of 18, was a fully licensed cosmetologist This was much more affordable for me than the traditional college route, so that’s what led me to pursue it. Ten years later, I opened Urban Betty.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

  1. Mentoring– 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 be 2% shareholders of Urban Betty Salon.
  2. Networking– Consistently being tied to your brand and representing it at all times. You never get to take that hat off. Whoever you meet, wherever you are, you are promoting your brand. Even when you’re not aware of it.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I love seeing people grow within my salon company. I have people that have been with me for almost 15 years. Some started out as assistants and now work in our Leadership Team training other stylists at the salon. Others that started out as receptionists and are now shareholders of the company. It’s an amazing transformation to watch.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The downside is constantly having to put out fires. Each day, within a larger company, there’s the potential for something to go wrong. And it usually happens when I’m out of town! This is why I say that you can never take off the “executive hat.” It follows you to bed each night and even joins you on vacation.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO Can you explain what you mean?

That we’re all rolling in the dough and making tons of money. It can take at least 5–10 years to make a profit. And then if you expand after getting to that point, it can be like starting all over again to make that profit. I have been overextended several times and had to borrow money from family and friends to pay for my bills. It took almost 10 years before I could turn my business around and into a functioning model that could pay me a salary — without having to be behind the chair doing hair — and make a profit.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I’ve worked in salons for over 20 years that have been mostly female dominated. If there’s anything I’ve seen it’s that women aren’t taken as seriously as men. I have been very fortunate to not have had to worry about inequality in the workplace. I recently joined an Entrepreneurs Organization and was asked at the first networking happy hour if I was someone’s spouse, how I even got into this organization in the first place, and if the person that recruited me was a client of mine. It’s these kinds of unconsciously biased questions that need to be called out and eliminated.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

When I first opened my salon, I didn’t want to be anyone’s boss. I was only 27 and the thought of telling others what to do terrified me. I thought the resolution was to hire only contractors that would pay me weekly rent for their salon chair and do their own thing in the meantime. I was surprisingly awoken to a reality that this could never be the case. Even if people are running their own business within your business, they need structure and cohesive culture that can only be led by you. Eventually, I changed my salon company to all commission where I could lead like a boss and have the culture that I wanted. So, in essence, being an entrepreneur truly helped evolve me, and I learned to step into my own power.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I believe you have to have the following traits to be a successful executive:

  1. Drive. You have to always want to do better and be better. We say, “Better Your Best.”
  2. The ability to admit that you are wrong. My company was built on making mistakes. Admitting to them and learning from them is what will set you apart.
  3. Connection to people. You must stay connected to your company and employees. The number one reason most businesses fail is because of an absentee owner.

I think the person that should avoid aspiring to be an executive is someone who is unwilling to evolve. You have to constantly look inward at yourself and outward at your company. If you can’t make changes on both of those angles, you will never succeed. You have to be willing to be able to take critique and learn from it. Be able to grow and evolve.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Ask for help! I have two salon business coaches and I also hire salon consulting agencies. We became a Summit Salon in 2014 and it forever changed the path and success of my business. No one ever teaches you how to own a salon. Most of us do it based on what we learned we liked or disliked from the places we used to work. In 2019, we recruited the High-Performance Salon Academy to help us further our growth even more and continue to thrive.

The moral of the story is, I didn’t do this all by myself. It took my entire staff, all the clients we served, coaching, mentoring, books, classes, and all other resources that I could find. Like Brene Brown says, “lean into what feels uncomfortable.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without my life coach/therapist, Rebecca Hamm. I met with her once a week for the first 5 years after I opened my business. I am down to every other week now. When you are an entrepreneur you constantly need someone in your corner who can call you on your BS in a gentle way. She does that for me. She has helped me overcome my ego and become a boss in every sense of the word.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I had the realization one day that I have a great platform to help other people and support organizations throughout the world. This year, we had our 12th annual Women’s Clothing Swap at our salon, which benefited The SAFE Alliance, a shelter in Austin for battered women and children. Over 200 women showed up to drop off their gently used clothing and took home with them whatever clothing they liked. All leftover items were donated. We donated around 20–30 large bags of clothing, shoes, and accessories.

In 2015, I joined the board for Austin Classical Guitar, which is a non-profit that does educational outreach to children through music. I am so proud to be a part of this amazing non-profit.

In 2018, I was asked to be part of the Community Engagement Community for The Whole Planet Foundation, which helps alleviate global poverty around the world by giving microloans to entrepreneurs who are mostly women and who traditionally have fewer resources and less access to financial services.

In 2019, I joined Impact Austin with whom, along with more than 100 enthusiastic members eager to pool resources for a combined larger impact, the organization has become one of the nation’s largest women’s philanthropy groups. Impact Austin is dedicated to helping women achieve their full philanthropic capacity. The membership requirements are simply to be female and to donate $1,250 each year. Using a collective-giving-model, we combine $1,000 from each member’s annual gift to fund high-impact grants that we award in June.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t sweat bad reviews. The busier you get, the more online reviews you are going to receive. And that’s not a bad thing AT ALL. Let me warn you though, about 1% of them are going to be negative. You’re not pizza, you can’t please all the people all the time. I remember the first negative review that we received on Yelp. I cried for several hours and couldn’t sleep all night. Now when we get one, of course, I am peeved. However, it only lasts 30 minutes max. I will warn you, take time before you respond to that review. Get your emotions under control and be professional.
  2. Let people go with love. Employees are going to leave, it’s a fact of life. The average lifespan of a stylist in the salon industry is 4–5 years. I made the mistake of trying to talk several of them into staying and letting them know what a terrible choice they were making. Guess what? That only made them want to leave more. (It’s the same philosophy as when someone tries to break up with you.) If they are choosing to leave under good circumstances, cheer them on and let them go in peace. I remember one time when I made a whole spreadsheet for an employee about how much more money, they would actually make by staying with me instead of leaving. That DID NOT work. In fact, they left feeling as if I thought they were stupid. I later apologized after learning this and guess what, that employee actually came back to work for me later. Never try to talk someone into loving you or staying at your business if they want to leave.
  3. You probably won’t make a profit or even get a paycheck for a while. For each business, the timing on that can be different. I was keeping my head just above water for the first 10 years. I remember after I first expanded in 2010 and added 6 chairs, half of my staff left. They felt like the company was getting “too big” and wanted to stay in a smaller space. I understand that now, but at the time it was like a knife in my heart, both emotionally and financially. I had to live off of tax returns and a small loan from one of my best friends just to make my house rent, bills, and car payments for about 6 months.
  4. If you’re a recovering perfectionist aka control freak, don’t hire contractors. Instead, have employees. Your brand is your brand. If you have people that have their own brand (contractors) inside your business, that can be much harder to control. I quickly learned that the best way to achieve a profit and a cohesive culture was to switch to an all employee-based business model with structure. In 2010, I changed my salon company to 100% commission, my brand flourished, and everyone was on the same page.
  5. Hire a business coach or consulting group. In 2013, I was floundering and in the negative in my bank account a lot of the time. I remember my banker calling every other day to make sure that deposits were going to come through so that we could cover expenses. It was embarrassing and extremely stressful. In 2014, I joined the Summit Salon Business Center 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. That same year, Urban Betty made Inc. 5000’s list of Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies in the country and was one of only four hair salons to make it on the list. I was also able to retire from doing hair and focus solely on the branding and marketing of the business which is what I now love!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number 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 to you. 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 very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 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.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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