How to build a multi-million dollar, inclusivity-first tech business out of an economic crisis.
A conversation with Virtual Gurus founder, Bobbie Racette.
As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. She’s keeping those conversations going virtually — and this month, it’s with another Calgary-based leader with a passion for inclusion, Virtual Gurus founder, Bobbie Racette.
When Bobbie Racette first founded Virtual Gurus — a business offering remote administrative assistant services on a contract basis — she didn’t even have a website.
Four years later, and Virtual Gurus is a thriving tech company, matching businesses with virtual assistants and freelancers using a proprietary matchmaking algorithm. The Virtual Gurus Academy trains new assistants, helping to fill their own pipeline with diverse talent. And they just launched the beta version of Ask Betty, a new by-the-task virtual service that’s integrated with the Slack app.
A Cree-Metis woman who prides herself on building an inclusivity-first company, Bobbie says her most important goal is to create more jobs — and she’s already leading a team of about 250, with 6000 ‘Virtual Gurus’ in their database.
I caught up with Bobbie to talk about building and scaling her business, putting her values first, and being a role model.
Laura: I want to start by asking about your origin story. You launched Virtual Gurus in 2016 — at a time when Alberta was in its worst recession in decades — and you still managed to build a seven-figure business. Can you share a bit more about that journey?
Bobbie: Virtual Gurus was really built because of that economic crisis. The first people to get laid off in a recession are always the administrators — so when the recession hit, the administration departments of all these companies in Alberta got laid off. There were thousands and thousands of administration people running around trying to find work, and at the same time, all these businesses still needed admin people, but they couldn’t afford a full-time admin person.
I had been laid off from my oil and gas job, my EI was running out — I really was borderline homeless at the time. I literally had $300 in my pocket when I officially started it.
In the beginning, I was the virtual assistant. I was charging pretty low rates, but I was able to pay my rent from that. Then I built the website myself. When I got to 19 clients I brought in another virtual assistant — she’s still with the company today — and we went from there, bringing on more and more.
We only hire Canadians right now, and we hire a lot of marginalized folks. People who are often forgotten. People who want to learn how to work from home, like single stay-at-home moms who can’t afford childcare, or trans women, who felt in their previous office jobs they couldn’t be themselves. We have a mandate with hiring freelancers — the onboarding team knows it, and the freelancers applying know, because they see it on the website — that we will always be 95% self-identified women, 65% are people of color, and 45% are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Laura: Have you had challenges scaling while also maintaining those values?
I had to toggle a lot with the fact that we’re not offshore, so we can’t pay our workers $2 an hour, which isn’t uncommon with services like this. But that’s the whole point of me starting — I wanted to be able to figure out a way to pay a fair wage while still making good margins for Virtual Gurus. It took a couple years of playing with the pricing.
A lot of people didn’t think that Virtual Gurus would be scalable, because how can you scale the human aspect of it? We didn’t have the matchmaking algorithm, until about a year ago. But I was determined to just keep pushing and proving that we were able to do this. I started realizing what people really needed. We built it into a two-sided marketplace, where not only are we trying to make sure we’re bringing in the clients and taking care of that, but we also recruit and take care of the virtual assistants, the freelancers, and the remote workers that manage the back end. It’s a whole community.
Laura: And how are things going with the business lately? Has the pandemic had an impact?
Bobbie: I just had my board of directors meeting for my Q2 update — I bootstrapped up to a million, then closed my first funding round right before COVID hit — and all my investors are extremely happy. Looking at our numbers, we’re not hockey sticking, but we’re going up nicely. With COVID, what’s happened to a lot of businesses wasn’t the case for us.
Obviously, we took a hit too — because April was ‘hardcore panic month,’ I’ll call it. While I’m panicking, my CSM team had to deal with all of the clients panicking, quitting or needing to pause. We came up with solutions that we could provide them and said, “Try not to panic” — because once the panic mode is over, pivot mode is going to kick in. And then when pivot mode kicks in for your business, at the end of the day you’re still going to need our services.
At the same time, we’d realized that a lot of our startup friends were taking major hits and their staff have been laid off, so we gave 110 startups free services and then we gave all SMBs 40% off for a month — which worked out, because now most of them have turned into paying clients. Our clientele went up 66%.
The main point was to help these people, so that they can keep their companies afloat. I knew we were going to take a hit — but we’re a monthly subscription service, and the thinking was that they could potentially turn into paying clients. If not, they’d fall off, and that’s fine — because in the future they’d remember when Virtual Gurus came in and helped them.
It felt good to be the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year. It felt good to have them there to witness it. I think it was a very proud moment for my family. A very proud moment for me, of realizing my resilience. I stuck to this, I kept going, I didn’t give up. I didn’t believe the naysayers and I proved them wrong.
Laura: That’s really a win-win strategy. I think it takes a savvy entrepreneur to see the value in giving their product away for free, at a time when most businesses are thinking about preserving revenue. Which is a great segue into what I’d like to ask you about next: last year you were named the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year and Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Prairies Region, by Startup Canada. What was it like getting that recognition for what you’ve accomplished?
Bobbie: I actually took my moms to Toronto for it, and they didn’t know that I’d won. It was more of a trip of giving back to my moms, thanking them for everything that they’d pushed me through.
They would fly to Calgary for a family talk, and it wasn’t, ‘You’ve got to do this for the family, because you’re making money,’ it was, ‘This is your baby. You’ve got this.’ They knew that it was something I was passionate about. No mom wants their kid to give up on something they’re passionate about.
Taking them to the awards was my way of thanking them. It felt good to be the Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year. It felt good to have them there to witness it. I think it was a very proud moment for my family. A very proud moment for me, of realizing my resilience. I stuck to this, I kept going, I didn’t give up. I didn’t believe the naysayers and I proved them wrong.
Laura: You’ve talked openly about coming up against discrimination as an Indigenous, LGBTQ+, woman entrepreneur. Has it always been important to you to share that part of your story?
Bobbie: For the first two or three years that I started, I didn’t want to share that story at all. I was very quiet about being lesbian, raised by two lesbian moms. I was very quiet about being Indigenous. If you look at any of the articles from before 2018, they don’t really discuss me being Indigenous — I just focused on being a woman in tech more than anything.
In the beginning of 2018, I started getting asked to be a mentor for Indigenous youth in business. That changed it all for me. I would do a speech in an auditorium, and they were all wanting to take pictures with me, saying, “Oh my God, it’s Bobbie Racette!” That made me realize I can’t shy away from this anymore. I have got to be loud and proud about my Indigenous culture.
Then the same thing happened with the LGBT part of it. I got asked to speak at Venture Out. That’s where it really started. So many people said, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, trifecta!’
Laura: It’s wonderful that you’re embracing being a mentor and a role model. Thinking back to when you started, that few hundred dollars in your pocket, did you ever picture yourself where you are now?
Bobbie: Honestly, five years ago, if you would have asked me if I would be where I am right now — no, absolutely not. I didn’t have a career directive. I didn’t know what I was going for. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was working as an administrator, worked in oil and gas as a safety technician. I don’t think I knew that I had it in me to be an entrepreneur. Now, when I think of it, I’m like, ‘Oh, yes, this is what I should have been doing 10, 15, or 20 years ago.’
Laura: And looking ahead, where do you hope to be?
Bobbie: Providing work to 10 times more people than I’m providing work to now. That’s the most important part for me.