Get To Know BodyBusiness Member Chelle Neff
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a late November Monday morning. Chelle Neff is running laps around BodyBusiness with her fellow Tribe classmates. She’s wearing neon green pants and a black top that reads “positive vibes.” Over the past few weeks she has been contacted to do numerous interviews. Podcasts, magazines and blogs all looking to hear her story and soak up some knowledge. Her businesses are all growing – her salon, Urban Betty, is looking to expand to new locations. An Urban Betty product line is in development. Talks of expansion into new cities for her and her husband’s Weird Homes Tour are underway. Conversations with publishers about printing more copies of their book based on the tour are in the works. Deciding the direction for her salon-centered app FyleStyle. Expanding Betty Bootcamp, Chelle’s proud creation wherein Urban Betty helps teach women how to style their hair and makeup on their own. Her philanthropy efforts are varied and expansive, reaching out to numerous communities and causes throughout Austin. Both her and her salon have won numerous awards – Best of the Best, Philanthropist of The Year, Entrepreneur of The Year. Her husband, David Neff, is a man of many talents himself – author, consultant, speaker, trainer. He sits on the board of numerous non-profits and has picked up a few awards as well for his work in philanthropy and mastery of social media outreach. The future is brighter for this proud business owner than the tips of an Ombre Premium Coloring from Urban Betty itself. Yet, as with most bootstrapping-entrepreneur stories, the path wasn’t always so platinum blonde.
Chelle grew up in Abilene, Texas, the daughter to two young parents who were struggling to make it in the world. By the age of 10, Chelle knew she wanted to become either a teacher or work in cosmetology. While still in high school at the age of 16, she started attending cosmetology classes. By 18 she had received her cosmetology license. Like many classic sad-sap country songs, she fell hard for a boy right out of school and followed him to the big city. Their relationship soon deteriorated and she was on her own looking for work, alone and away from home. She took a job at a SuperCuts and hoped for the best.
“Coming from Abilene, I didn’t know about going to a fancy salon or being an apprentice,” says Chelle. “That didn’t exist in my world. I thought, ‘Let me start out with the place that has the least expectation for me.'”
She found herself feeling lost and unmotivated. One year at Supercuts “felt like ten.” She didn’t have the passion for the work of cranking out cookie-cutter men’s haircuts while barely getting by. She went to another salon and started watching stylists do color and updos. They were using their creativity and displaying a passion for their craft. She instantly fell in love with the world surrounding her.
In conversation with Chelle, there’s a good chance you’ll hear her use the phrase “dip your toe in the pool.” Chelle was ready to test the waters of the true salon world. She got a job at Regis Salon at Lakeline Mall. On “The EnTRUEpresnuership Podcast with Wes Fang,” Chelle describes the step as a “Scary jump to become a commission-based employee, because if you don’t get clients – you don’t make money.” After one year at Regis, she moved up to the high-end salon arena and took a job with Salon 505 at The Arboretum. Two and a half years later, and a little further into the pool, she was at Bella on Sixth Street. After the owners decided to cut stylists’ commissions, she told herself one day she was going to own a salon and “create a structure that’s fully transparent with their employees.”
She left Bella for Gallery of Salons in the Northcross Mall in 2001. She had her own suite and acted as an independent contractor. Soon after she launched a website as a means of displaying her talents and reaching new clients. Her confidence was growing yet still wavering. “Every day I question myself,” says Chelle. “I think I’m just alright.” Right before going to sleep one night, the name for the site hit her: Urban Betty – the name derived from her grandmother Betty with whom she shares a first name (her full name being Betty Michelle Neff).
After achieving success on her own, Chelle’s “toe in the water” metaphor came back into play.
“Once you start getting deep enough, you might as well just jump in.” She was finally ready to open her own salon. With the help of a loan from Big Austin, which specializes in small business development, in January 2005 the first brick and mortar Urban Betty opened. She found herself alone a 1,700 square foot space. One girl asked if she could come work at her space with her. She was scared to approach people. She was still only 27 years old.
“Thank god ignorance is bliss,” says Chelle. “Because if I knew now everything that was ahead of me, I would have chickened out.” She walked into the building, still $80,000 short of what the first contractor told her it would take to finalize her dream, and felt a wave come over her. She knew this was hers. Only 10 years had passed from the time she was the girl in Abilene extending her hand to receive her cosmetology license.
The nervous nights of drinking box wine while staring at a bank account teetering on the edge of negative are now behind her. Urban Betty has more than 50 employees across two locations: one on 38th Street and another on South Congress. Last year the salon made it on to the Inc. 5000 fasting-growing private company list. Chelle prides herself on the fact that she can offer her stylists full benefits and built into the company a system that strategizes with the employees to help build their careers.
“We have structured our salon so people come in and we have a career path for them,” says Chelle. “If they want to buy a car, buy a home, make a retirement plan, we can map and strategize that for every person. That’s something again that’s not standard in our industry. It’s something I wish I would’ve had. I had to look at my salon and say what are all the things you wished for and dreamed for and how do you make this happen. It didn’t happen overnight. It took probably 12-13 years to get health insurance, matching IRA’s. A lot of times people kind of look down our industry, like the service industry. I asked myself, ‘How can I elevate this?’”
The entire staff goes on two yearly retreats where they connect and help build the culture. She has one-on-one coffee sit-downs with her employees each quarter. “I want them to know I’m human. I clean up dog poop too. I don’t want them to think of me as some person in a high tower. The last two salons I worked in before going out on my own, I didn’t even have a chance to know the owners or talk to them. They were just an entity. I never wanted to be that person. Staying connected with the people within the business helps keep people motivated and in turn keeps them creative.”
She hoped the second location would only take a couple months to be operational once she found the right building. It took nearly two years due to permitting and inspection issues. Thus, the life of a small business owner. Struggles, delays, successes – constantly moving to the next. After one divorce and a few failed relationships in her personal life, Chelle had started to step away from the Austin dating scene until a friend reached out to her. Her love for all things spooky had sparked a connection. A friend had noticed someone on Twitter giving away their scary movie collection. A modern-day love story ensued.
“He (David) used to have a blog for horror movies and he was getting all these free movies and he would do a write up on them and he had this ridiculous collection,” says Chelle. “He’s a minimalist and hates having a lot of things. He tweeted that he was giving away all these horror movies. A mutual friend saw that and knew that I was a weirdo and liked horror movies so they were like, “Hey why don’t you guys connect because I’m sure she will want those movies.’ So, I went to his house to pick up the movies from his porch in the middle of the night. He wasn’t even home and later on he tweeted to me ‘how did you like those movies?’ I said they were great and that I watched the one on the BTK Killer. He was like, “those are words to my heart that you even know what the BTK Killer is.” Friends saw the exchange happening and said he’s single, you’re single – why don’t you ask her out? Then he said let me check with some people who know her. One of his friends said “well she’s too good for you” and he took it as challenge accepted.
But the story gets even better because then he tweeted to me and said he was writing a second book about entrepreneurs and I would love to interview you about being an entrepreneur. He said let’s go grab a beer, that was the first tweet, and then he said “I just wanna talk and interview you. I have a list of questions for you.” He asked me the questions and friends of mine that had seen the exchange told me “that’s a date” and I was like, ’No, it’s not – I can’t even tell what he looks like, it’s just a little headshot on twitter.’ After we had that interview he texted me later saying “where are we going on our first date?” Three months into dating I go, “there’s no book on entrepreneurs” and he says “No, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t crazy…” That’s how we met. He still has the list of questions in his notes section in his phone.”
On a walk through their neighborhood one afternoon, David and Chelle noticed a home whose design was oddly similar to the Alamo. They spoke about how they would love to be able to take a look inside the intriguing abode. The next morning, an idea was hatched: what if they created a company that provided tours of the weird homes around the city? David had made money in his youth by selling tickets to haunted homes and Chelle was gifted with her entrepreneurial spirit. The tours soon became a hit – The Weird Homes Tour earning them and their company highlights in local magazines and hits on local news detailing their new venture. They have now expanded nationwide, with tours taking place in six major cities and a coffee table book showcasing the weird homes they fell in love with here in Austin. The book is even on sale at the Austin airport, a beacon of light for all the visitors to our ever-growing city that our quirks and eccentricities are still alive and as vital to our identity as ever.
Chelle retired a few years ago from the role of stylist so she could focus fully on the ownership side of her business. Though she originally came to BodyBusiness (in 2001!) as a way to stay strong for all the long shifts working on her feet, today she finds her workouts have a different effect.
“It’s helped me tremendously,” says Chelle, who takes Tribe classes with trainer Rachel Ross three times a week. “I got my cosmetology license in 1995 when I graduated from high school. Started doing hair in 1995. Retired from doing hair three years ago. I did hair for 21 years. I was standing all day. When you are in a job where you stand all day, you have to incorporate some sort of fitness on the side so it doesn’t break your body down. Number one, that was part of it. Number two now is just to maintain because I wouldn’t say I’m a super active person outside of the gym so I feel like I need to come here to do that. What’s awesome is my husband and I like to travel a lot. We did a five-mile kayak in Croatia and I wasn’t even sore. We went hiking and only my hamstrings were a little sore. Having the endurance to do that is huge. I look around and I am like ‘I would be dead if I wasn’t working out regularly.’ I see the people in here that are seventy plus and they are killing it. They are doing more chin ups than I am. So, I need to stick with this so that I can look like them when I get older.”
It’s not a stretch to say that Chelle has gone from dipping her toes to fully diving into life itself. Turn on your TV and you might see her and David being interviewed for their jaw-dropping Halloween decorations . Open the Austin Statesman and you will see Urban Betty being awarded Best of the Best for Salons in Austin. Hell, open the New York Times and you will see her being interviewed. She has traveled recently to Ireland where she felt “time stand still.” Chelle transformed herself from the girl afraid to speak in public and unsure of her own talents to one of Austin’s brightest stars. Near the end of her interview with Wes Fang, Chelle’s voice cracks with emotion as she thinks about what she would tell her younger self. She wishes she had trusted herself in those early days, standing behind the chair in the SuperCuts, hoping the $6 haircuts would pay her bills. She was looking for more than what those moments gave.
She attended a panel recently to hear the founder of Panera Bread share his wisdom. When she walked into the room, she was immediately questioned about who she was. She introduced herself – Chelle Neff, owner of a salon in Austin, Texas. A woman in the crowd replied she was from Austin too. “I own Texas Beauty Labs,” said the stranger in the crowd. “We create products for people.” For a woman looking to expand into making her own line of beauty products, the universe couldn’t have been giving Chelle a more obvious sign that this moment was where she was right where she was supposed to be.
That little girl in Abilene knew she wanted to be one of two things: a teacher or a stylist. Today, Chelle’s Betty Bootcamp helps empower and teach women how to style themselves. Her interviews and presentations help inspire a new generation of young women to build their own careers and take ownership of their future. Her company provides employees with the respect and ability for growth they deserve. She styled clients for decades, sending them off on their big days with bellies full of butterflies on their proms and weddings, their hair and makeup embodying grace and beauty.
Not many of us get to say not only did we get to achieve our childhood dreams, but that we also helped so many others along the way. As Chelle speaks of her collection of oddities displayed in her home (many inspired by or purchased from a Weird Home), she talks about how people are now bringing her doll heads. “My estate sale will one day be just a huge bag of baby doll heads for another weirdo.”
Chelle Neff – Teacher, stylist, philanthropist, small business owner, entrepreneur… doll head collector. Now that is diving in.