Hello. My name is David J. Neff and I’m the CEO of the Weird Homes Tour. We are a social impact startup that celebrates outsider art and architecture all across the United States. During our self-paced, self-driving tours people visit the inside of homes of collectors of oddities, rare art collectors, performance artists, painters, sculptors and architects in cities all across the USA. And people can buy with their hearts since as a social impact company we donate to local nonprofits in all the cities we are in.
In the past five years, we’ve expanded our team to nine employees and launched tours in Austin, Houston, NOLA, Detroit, Portland, and San Francisco. We’ve also grown revenue and had over 11,400 people attend our events and invested more than $17k in local affordable housing nonprofits.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I started selling tickets to a Haunted House that my friends and I created when I was eight years old. It was a friendly old farmhouse and we decorated it with spiders and skeleton stickers. I dressed as a vampire and walked down the street by myself in the 85 degrees Texas heat to host the tours. We charged $8 a person back in the ‘80s. Quite the way to start. I’ve always been entrepreneurial, mowing yards in my neighborhood as a pre-teen and in elementary school going door-to-door selling cheese and sausage products as school fundraisers.
Find a mentor who you can be 100% transparent with as you begin your journey.
Even in college, I worked for a doomed internet startup called zLonghorns that worked with colleges to sell emails and websites to alumni. I remember going to the University of Texas football games and trying to sell ISP CDroms to people to install our software. That’s what everyone wants to hold onto before the big game, a CD-ROM! Not to mention we were competing with AOL, Yahoo, and all the big players.
When I got my first job with the American Cancer Society, I was an entrepreneur working on new eCommerce and Social Media ideas within the Society. I applied and earned two internal grants ($25k each) to launch a new technology for cancer survivors, cancer doctors, and patients. After the American Cancer Society, I co-founded an early donation/payment tech company called HelpAttack! We were way too early on tying together social media and online payments, but we learned a ton and helped pave my way to do more and more work in the tech world and the social impact world. That’s where my latest company lives, The Weird Homes Tour.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are very proud to have been profitable every year of the business and recently hired our first full-time employee, Kevin Shaw. Kevin started as Director of Events and was recently promoted to Managing Director over all our events across the United States. We have a net profit margin of 45-55% per event, and per year across all of our events. This is all with investing a percentage of net profit per each event to local affordable housing nonprofits. We’ve also added a series of coffee table books as another revenue stream. We’ve recently signed a podcasting deal and are producing a series of design inspiration podcasts with Gatehouse Media on a national level as another revenue stream.
We’ve seen tremendous growth using Public Relations, Word of Mouth, Facebook and Instagram to reach attendees and find homeowners, however, the social network based reach is slowing in 2019. Our email marketing list has over 25,000 subscribers and our Instagram is at 18,500 followers.
One of the big things we want to talk to other social impact businesses about their advertising and growth strategies. As Facebook continues to change and alter their feed, where should we be investing dollars for advertising? YouTube? Influencer Marketing only? Please leave us comments below this article, email us and share your thoughts.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
This business started with a walk through the Austin neighborhood my wife and I called home in 2014. As we wandered around walking our dogs, we saw a house that looked just like the Alamo (did it have a basement?). My wife turned to me and we both wondered aloud who lived there? What did it look like inside? That’s when my wife, Chelle Neff, said these prophetic words “We need to go on the Weird Homes Tour!” Low and behold we went home and nothing like that existed. I had run unconferences before (VideoCamp Austin for filmmakers), was the president of Austin’s biggest social media focused gathering and ran a film festival before (Lights. Camera. Help) as well as ran fundraisers for Movember and the American Cancer Society. That part of my brain kicked in and decided we should start the Weird Homes Tour to feature the weirdest, wildest and wackiest art homes across Austin, TX. With that first event, I’ve always had a test and learn mindset. I consider myself a professional “Learn it All” and think of most things, including this social impact business, as one continuous a/b test across cities, advertising, homes, media placements and who we invest in.
The biggest mistake we’ve made with this business is not focusing on sponsor revenue. We’ve constantly struggled with sponsorship levels and revenue. In the events business, it’s important to maintain a tight balance between ticket sales, advertising, and sponsorship. This is something we are working on by incentivizing our full-time and contract people to sell sponsorships and also working on a partnership with another home tour to split a sponsorship person. If anyone reading this wants to talk to us about applying for that position, please email us.
My co-founders, staff and I often chuckle at how over competitive other areas are (such as Tech). We believe in abundance and have a growth mentality. In fact, we’ve had some fantastic partnerships with other home tour companies (including our friends at the Modern Home Tour) where we share staff and plan quarterly workshops to identify problems that affect both our businesses and then plan hypotheses to fix those problems.
One of our biggest successes in growing our profit margin and plan of attack is our national focus. From day one, I knew this was bigger than Austin, TX. Since then we’ve expanded to Houston, Detroit, Portland, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Since I work with Fortune 500 companies in my consulting, I tend to think of horizons of growth. With San Antonino, Sante Fe (Meow Wolf), and NYC on the second horizon of expansion. The third horizon includes international expansion and all the difficulties and rewards that brings, as we look at Mexico City, Mexico, Paris, France, and London, England.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Coming from a tech and nonprofit background I’ve always carried a lean methodology and Test and Learn mentality with this business when it comes to tools. Our entire business is built on SaaS companies that we are constantly testing and learning from. And pivoting when needed. This includes us using Gmail for email, Wordpress for our Website, Zenefits for managing full time employees and contractors, creating all our documents in Google Docs and Google Slides, making data-driven decisions with dashboards built-in Google Sheets and pitching our homeowners on joining the tours using Zoom video conferencing.
Who needs financial data loss on a hard drive failure when all your finances and invoices are done in the cloud using Freshbooks. We also do yearly planning using Lean Canvas and get our advisory board together using Zoom at least once a year to review our next fiscal year plan.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m lucky enough to be married to a very successful entrepreneur, so a lot of my learning comes from my badass wife Chelle Neff directly. I’ve run every business I’ve ever built, or mentored, through Ash Maurya Lean Canvas.
For the last six to seven years I’ve used the amazing Gamestorming book and website to facilitate strategy and tactic meetings across my partners and staff. We love our business books, God knows I agree as I’ve written two of them, however, the next time you have the itch to buy a book on “growth hacking” instead buy one on company culture. Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast - Peter Drucker. I recommend you subscribe to the newsletter from Nobl. And subscribe to How I Built This with Guy Roz Podcast along with the a16z podcast. You should also read The Connected Company by Dave Grey. The Culture Engine by Edmonds and An Everyone Culture by Kegan and Lahey.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The very first thing when you have an idea for your next company is to do really two similar things. Find your most honest friend and give them the bumper sticker pitch of two sentences. I’m afraid most of us are stuck in an endless filter bubble of tech people who are pollyanna about every idea we bring up.
The second thing is to pull up Lean Canvas and fill out with your idea. What’s the problem you are solving? Who’s your target audience? How does it make money? This simple guide will help you focus your next idea in ways that are infinitely helpful.
My last bit of advice will find a mentor who you can be 100% transparent with as you begin your journey.
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