Think small. Change starts one person at a time. You don’t need to reach a thousand people at a time, although a fast selling book can help that. Instead think of how each person reading your book can make a change. Ours is about inspiring people to change one thing about their beige box at a time.
As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the great pleasure of interviewing Chelle Neff. Chelle has been a leader in the U.S. salon industry since founding her own salon in 2005. She has over 18 years creating innovative practices in the salon, product, and beauty world. As a woman entrepreneur she has overcome many challenges to run one of the most successful salons in Austin, Texas. Since she founded Urban Betty she has successfully grown revenue year over year and has two locations that house over 50 employees. In 2018 Urban Betty was named as one of the fastest growing privately held companies by Inc. 5000. Chelle has been interviewed for nationally syndicated Beauty Podcasts. No stranger to innovation, Chelle designed and developed her own app, FyleStyle, which allows stylists to track client information and color formulas. In 2014, she and her husband David J. Neff created the Austin Weird Homes Tour — a self-paced, self-driving tour of Austin homes that reflects the unique character of the city. The tour has expanded to cities such as New Orleans and Houston and their first book, Weird Homes: The People and Places That Keep Austin Strangely Wonderful was released in February 2018.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
I was born in Seymour TX, and lived in Throckmorton TX until the age of 8. My family moved to Abilene Texas where I stayed until I was 18. The day after I graduated from high school I moved to Austin Texas to start my career as a hairstylist and I have never left!
I began my journey as an entrepreneur by first being an employee in the salon industry. I knew from a young age that I wanted to do hair. At the age of sixteen, I was offered the chance to enroll in Cosmetology school at my high school. My junior and senior year of high school (1993–1995) I attended half days of regular classes and half days of Cosmetology school. When I received my license in 1995, I started working behind the chair. I slowly worked my way up the ladder to higher end salons. Five years later, I rented a small salon suite. That was the initial stepping stone to running my own business. After five years of being in my own suite, I took the leap and opened my own brick and mortar in 2005. I named it Urban Betty. Betty is my first name, and I’m named after my grandmother.
In 2014, my husband and I created our “side hustle” called the Weird Homes Tour — a self-paced, self-driving tour of Austin homes that reflects the unique character of the city. The tour has expanded in many ways: through tours in other cities such as New Orleans, Houston, Portland, Detroit, with a Podcast that features homeowners talking about their design inspiration, and also our first book, Weird Homes: The People and Places That Keep Austin Strangely Wonderful which was released in February 2018.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story?
When I was really young, I was always reading and had a book in hand. I wish I could say that one of those were a groundbreaking novel for me. A lot of Sweet Valley High, Babysitters Club, and VC Andrews. The first self help book that I can remember reading that really shifted my perspective on life was Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott about 10 years ago. I am a person that likes to avoid conflict at all cost. When you run a business, that doesn’t work out very well. You have to learn how to face problems quickly and head on. The best piece of information that I received from that book and still use at least once a week is, when speaking to people one-on-one to resolve an issue, it’s important to have a well-planned and thought out opening statement and it should last 60 seconds. Only 60 seconds! That’s what blew my mind. Keeping things simple and quick. I know it sounds crazy, but it works when dealing with issues.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
When my husband and I started the Weird Homes Tour in 2014, we thought it would just be a fun event we hosted in Austin once a year. But after we started connecting with each homeowner, we saw there was a need to protect and preserve these beautiful homes. A lot of our homeowners are artists that live on a fixed income and struggle with paying even the property taxes on their homes.
We met a homeowner named Stephanie that owned a home in Austin called Flamingo Ranch. She had spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours on beautiful mosaics, not only in her gorgeous home, but on the surrounding sidewalks and curbs. She had neighbors that loved the mosaic art and others that took their complaints to the city to get it removed. Due to rising taxes in the area, the expensive cost of living, and neighbor complaints she ended up selling Flamingo Ranch. Now, it’s completely gone. Once we heard that was happening, we knew we needed to create a book to preserve the memory of these insanely artistic homes. We have 19 homes in our book, three of which are gone now. It’s a good feeling to know that you can give these former homes a place to live on forever.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
First and foremost, we wanted to inspire people and celebrate the weird! So many of us live in our beige boxes, afraid of making any changes to our homes. Our homeowners decorate each and every corner of their home and are not afraid to expose their souls. We wanted to give the reader an immersive experience that would inspire them to create some sort of small art inside their own space. Even if it’s only painting a wall a different color in your house, that alone can create a small shift that’ll brighten your day every time you look at it. It’s the same theory behind our podcast.
Did the actual results align with your expectations? Can you explain?
Yes! Every person that has read the book comments on how colorful and beautiful all the stories are about each homeowner. We really wanted a book that celebrated people and what makes them different. Every chapter represents that.
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement? Please share a story.
For us, it’s been the rapid growth of the tour across so many other U.S. cities along with our local newspaper, The Austin American Statesman/Austin360 teaming up with us for the Podcast. This kind of validation from the general public/ guests buying tickets in cities all across the U.S., plus people reading the book and pushing us to create a follow-up Podcast is really showing us that people want design inspiration. They want to know the stories behind each of the artists and entrepreneurs that live in these spaces.
What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?
We immediately heard from people that wanted to go on the tour and meet the artists they learned about from the book. Other people read the book and emailed us, tweeted us their own weird homes, and one of our friends read the book and gave us the great idea of turning it into a podcast that features the home owners. It’s a beautiful artistic flywheel of people going on our tours, wanting to learn more, buying the book and then listening to the podcast and then telling others who do the same.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book? Can you share a story?
This book, along with the tours, have done a really beautiful thing for us. It has enabled us to support local artists, who sell their art during the tour. It has enabled us to hire our first three employees and dozens of freelancers over the last several years. Enabling others to work full-time on such an art/design focused project is a beautiful thing!
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
The word “weird” is a highly polarizing thing. Some people fear “weird” and they withdraw from strange or outsider art, people, and places. Even with this book, we’ve always struggled with finding sponsors, people and businesses that want to support design inspiration and outsider art.
Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
In today’s breakneck, fast paced, tech fueled, change on a dime world, books are something you have to stop and enjoy. You are forced to pay attention. You can’t skim our design inspiring, coffee table book. It won’t fit on your kindle. It’s an art and photography book with jaw dropping shots from photographer Thanin Viriyaki and fantastic stories about the home owners and entrepreneurs behind these places. I think that’s the power of books. In a great book, you get sucked in. You don’t stop to check your email or social media every five minutes. You dive in and devour chapter after chapter. That’s the power of the books.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Our book was best selling in the Architecture category in Amazon. The habit that drove that? Discipline. I knew for the book we wanted to create, we couldn’t self publish and we couldn’t have a local publisher do it. We knew we need to get in with one of the few art book/coffee table publishers around today. We also knew we had to find a literary agent. It took discipline to find the right publishers, find the perfect agent in Martha Hopkins, work with her to write the pitch, and get rejected by several publishers before finding the right one to work with. Then, it took discipline and time management to write/interview/layout photos every Sunday for two hours for six months.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career? Can you share the lesson(s) that you learned?
Capturing other people’s stories is hard. I can sit here and write my own story, but how do you thoughtfully tell someone else’s story? It requires a ton of interviews, research and time. Our biggest challenge with this book was not realizing how long it would take to do that research, work with our photographer, our amazing editor, and the publisher to tie it all together.
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book? (please include a story or example for each)
- Grab attention. There are ten of thousands of books written every year. How does yours stand out? Photos? Headline? You can’t start a movement if no one picks the book up.
- Tell an authentic story. In the days of Stephen Glass and fake news, what authentic story are you telling? What’s the research you are putting into it?
- It doesn’t have to be about you. Our book is getting people inspired to make changes. We are not doing this by telling people about our business, The Weird Homes Tour, we are doing this by telling the stories of our artists and homeowners.
- Think small. Change starts one person at a time. You don’t need to reach a thousand people at a time, although a fast selling book can help that. Instead think of how each person reading your book can make a change. Ours is about inspiring people to change one thing about their beige box at a time.
- Concentrate. We’ve got tours in cities all across the United States. However, the book focused on Austin and some of the homes that are not around anymore. Change and movements can be huge, but how do you concentrate that power into one thing that’s easy for people to grasp?
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next? Can you explain why that is so important?
We want to spark the movement of celebrating what’s weird and different! And, that means celebrating people that have diverse views, that look different, and live different. If someone paints their house pink, embrace it! Be thankful that you live in a neighborhood where we have the freedom to do that.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
IG & Twitter: @urbanbetty @weirdhomestour
Thank you for all of these great insights!