Structure and systems work. When you grow up being an “artist”, you are conditioned to go with the wind and let whatever happens happen. It took me a while to accept that you can’t run a business that way. You have to implement a system in place and stick to it. In 2014, I hired a salon consultant group and a business coach. They taught me how to place structure in my company where it was lacking, and then followed up with quarterly visits to track my growth. Without structure for myself and my team, we never would have experienced the success that we have today.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chelle Neff. Chelle has been a leader in the U.S. salon industry since she founded Urban Betty Salon in 2005. Neff started her salon company with just one employee and a strong vision. Over the years, she grew her business to what it is today, a $3.4 million grossing company with two locations and over 50 employees. Neff continues to innovate in the salon industry; Neff designed and developed her own app, FyleStyle, for hairstylists to track client information and color formulas and in 2017, she launched Betty Bootcamp, a series of educational hair classes for the public. In 2018, Urban Betty was named as one of the fastest growing privately held companies in the country by Inc. 5000.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was led to this career path 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 while 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. I naturally had a knack for doing hair and art, so when I was 16, I had the chance to enroll in cosmetology school while in high school, and by 18, I was fully licensed. 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.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting story that has happened to me is the day I learned to ask for help. For years, I struggled with trying to figure out how to make a profit on my own. I started out with a contractor-based model, and then slowly switched to a commission-based (employee) model. I kept trying to change things up thinking “this will be the thing that will turn my P&L around and make me money”. After 11 years of being in that hamster wheel, I decided to turn to professionals in my industry and ask for help, which by the way, is extremely hard for me! I hired a consulting group that changed my life forever. They had 30+ years of industry knowledge and showed me how to restructure my entire business. Within three months of implementing their methods, we had more money in our bank accounts than ever before. And two years later, I was able to retire from doing hair and focus solely on managing and scaling my company.
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 when I started my company was launch a website with a terrible logo. This was around 2002. I mistakenly thought that I could just do updo.com. Which is hilarious because I had no idea 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. It then required me to think outside of the box and come up with something that would be original and catch people’s attention. So from that, I came up with Urban Betty, which comes 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. Recently, I found an old scrap book 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!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes my company stand out is our Betty Bootcamp classes. The common problem many of our guests face is not knowing how to re-create their own hair at home once they leave the salon. I would consistently hear that complaint and wanted to find a way to solve that problem.
I had a stylist that would book out an extra 30 minutes to give that guest a lesson on how to style their hair. One day, our manager noticed this and asked the stylist if she would want to teach a blowout class to several people at once. It caught on like wildfire and after a few years we launched our Betty Bootcamp classes. The general public can come in and learn how to blow out, curl, or braid their own hair, do their children’s hair, and learn how to apply makeup. This is a radical new idea that puts the power back into the guests’ hands when it comes to their hair.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am working on creating an Urban Betty product line. So many of the products that we use out in the world today are filled with toxic chemicals. One of my stylists created a completely clean and safe conditioner and included me in that project. Before experiencing the creation of that, I wasn’t that interested in doing my own product line. But, once I saw that you can change people’s lives with just one product, I decided that I wanted to be a part of that initiative. So many people are looking for chemical-free, organic products that are safe to use. I would love to help create something that changes the beauty industry for the better.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
The best advice I can give other female leaders is to stay connected with your team. Know every person you can that works for you and listen to them. You need to meet with your employees and ask them how they are doing. I schedule coffee dates with my employees quarterly. We sit down for 30 minutes and it’s their time to talk about life and ask me any questions (no agenda). Business or personal, dealer’s choice. I feel like if you can cry and laugh with your team, you will forge a bond like no other. Being strong is great, but being vulnerable is even more powerful. And, at the end of the day, vulnerability and our desire to show our human side will connect us all.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The importance of structure within a large team is extremely important. You need to have systems in place that allow every employee to start out in the same place and end up wherever they can take themselves. We have a level system for our stylists and every person starts at the same level. They have five goals to hit within each level and we meet with them once a month to go over their numbers. If they hit their goals three months in a row, they’re promoted to the next level. So, the stylists’ ability to make more money lies within their own hands, which takes the pressure off of management to make that choice for them.
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?
About 10 years ago, I was doing hair and had a new guest come in. When I asked her what she did for a living she said that she meets with people to help them heal trauma in their life. I thought, “What the heck, I’ll schedule a visit.” When I first met with her, I admitted things out loud about my life that I had never told another person. It was an awakening and I realized that I needed a lot of help in my personal life. What I thought would be one visit turned into weekly visits that changed my life. She helped me gain the perspective I needed to leave a dysfunctional marriage, know my worth, and most recently, she helped me let go of the fears I had surrounding scaling my business. I suggest that every person in business have a life coach, guru, therapist or whatever you feel comfortable calling them, in your life. Meet with them at least twice a month and make sure they aren’t afraid to call you out on your BS.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I had the realization one day that I have a great platform to help other people and support organizations in the world. This year, we had our 11th annual clothing swap that benefited Austin Safe Place, a shelter 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. The leftover items were donated. We usually donate around 20–30 large bags of clothing, shoes, and accessories. Every year our attendance to this event increases and all the staff participates by sorting the clothing. We draw new people into our salon because guests invite their friends and families to this event. This introduction is a great way to gain new guests and help our community!
The salon is also a permanent drop off location for Project Princess, a nonprofit organization that provides teenage girls in the Austin area a chance to attend their high school prom without having to stress over spending money on fashion. We have a special closet for donated formal dresses to give to this organization. Over the past five years we have collected well over one hundred formal dresses to donate. Along with this, we donate our services for updos to the teenage girls attending prom that cannot afford those services.
Twice a year, we team up with our local gym and do haircuts for the homeless. We have done three of these so far, and the sense of purpose and internal reward are immeasurable. Five to seven of our staff members cut hair for 2–3 hours at the gym in one of the large workout rooms. Homeless people arrive, shower, are given a fresh set of clothes, a haircut and job counseling.
The month of September is Leukemia awareness month and anyone willing to donate their hair during this month receives a free haircut from us. Any other month of the year we offer 50% off of your haircut for every guest that is willing to cut at least eight inches of his or her hair and donate it to this great cause! In the past, we donated the hair to Pantene Great Lengths, which provided the funds to turn this hair into free, real-hair wigs for women with cancer. Pantene has donated over 30,000 free real-hair wigs to the American Cancer Society wig banks and we couldn’t be happier to have been a part of this. Now, we’ve partnered with Wigs For Kids which is an organization that uses donated hair to create wigs for children with cancer.
All of these events promote teamwork in our salon. The staff is involved with helping plan, set up, work, and clean up. We have seen a tremendous amount of comradery develop between staff when they get to be involved in philanthropy and events held in our salon. It creates a much stronger bond when people get to “give back” together and see the results.
We encourage our team and guests to participate through social media announcements and email blasts about the events or charities. Most guests that attend bring friends that have never been to our salon. This give us a chance to show off our salon, our staff, and gain new guests while giving back.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t be afraid to be a boss. When I first opened my company, I didn’t want to have any employees. I was only 28 and didn’t feel that confident. I had contractor-based business model. After several years of struggling to break even, we had a broken culture. Everyone worked for themselves and really didn’t care about the business as much as I did. They wanted to get in and out and do their own thing. When I realized that I wanted to create a more positive, cohesive culture, I knew that I would have to switch my business model. I decided to only hire employees and it forever changed my business for the better.
- Structure and systems work. When you grow up being an “artist”, you are conditioned to go with the wind and let whatever happens happen. It took me a while to accept that you can’t run a business that way. You have to implement a system in place and stick to it. In 2014, I hired a salon consultant group and a business coach. They taught me how to place structure in my company where it was lacking, and then followed up with quarterly visits to track my growth. Without structure for myself and my team, we never would have experienced the success that we have today.
- Give yourself the permission to say I don’t know. I once had an employee ask me a question that I didn’t know the answer to. When I said “I don’t know,” she said, “You’re supposed to know, you’re the owner.” That rocked my world. And you know what, owners don’t always know the answer and that’s OKAY! I still have to stop and remember to say “I don’t know,” instead of coming up with a solution in the moment. The best tactic that I have found is saying, “Let me get back to you in 24 hours.” That way, you can ask for help and find out the best answer. And, guess what? Most of the time they will actually figure the problem out on their own.
- Delegate, delegate, and then delegate. Hello, my name is Chelle and I am a recovering perfectionist. I like to take on way too many tasks and I feel like no one can do it as well as me. I had to let that go and let other people make mistakes. I hired two amazing managers and taught them how to do my job, but I had to give them time to learn it. And, you know what? They actually do a better job at everything that I’ve showed them. It just took time and patience.
- Take time off. Being at my salon 30 days in a row gave me the illusion that I was making it a better place. While at first, that might have been true, it finally caught up to me. I was having constant dizzy spells. When your body talks to you, you need to listen. If you are tired, sick, or grumpy, take some time off. You will be a much better leader when you feel rested and mentally prepared.
You are a person of great 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 knowing your worth. Too often we feel bad if we are successful or abundant. Money and abundance are a good thing! You can do so much good in the world if you have the means and the drive to do it. I would love for every person in the world to step into their own power and own their worth. We are all worthy of success and abundance. The only thing that holds you back are your beliefs about it.
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 and asking them one question will help get you to where you are going.
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 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 all of these great insights!