How to scale a company and develop successful new products, according to the founder and CEO of Virtual Gurus
When Bobbie Racette launched Virtual Gurus (a tech-enabled marketplace of virtual assistants) in 2016, she had $300 in her bank account and one employee: herself.
Racette had no idea she was about to build what would become Canada’s largest freelancing platform in a few years.
And, even more importantly to her, a business centered around providing meaningful work for BIPOC, the LGBTQ+ community, single and stay-at-home parents, as well as people who experience disabilities.
“My true vision was, and always will be, to provide work to those who are often told no, or are not given opportunities…that is something I’ll never move away from,” says Racette, who is an Indigenous and LGBTQ+ woman and has experienced plenty of “no’s” throughout her own journey.
This “why” and purpose has inspired Virtual Gurus’ tremendous growth — including every new product Racette develops — and is coupled with a deep, data-driven understanding of what both the supply (freelancers) and demand (clients) elements of her business need most.
Here are some of the key lessons she’s learned about developing the right tech and products, at the right time.
Prioritize development of tech that meets your most pressing human needs
When Racette began to grow Virtual Gurus, she wanted to build her own tech platform right away — a customized client management system.
But she also knew that her biggest client and freelancer need at the time was a better “matching” process, ensuring each virtual assistant was paired with the right client. (They were manually matching clients and virtual assistants using Excel spreadsheets at the time). So Racette invested her first round of funding in building an algorithm that would do just that.
In the meantime, she temporarily held off on CRM development, and partnered with an existing tech platform to meet those needs.
“I pushed the product to market first and built the tech last,” says Racette. “In hindsight, I kind of wish that we would have taken the other road. But I don’t think we’d be at the scale we’re at if we did that. Because we were able to hash out the science behind the operations…and then built the tech around that.”
Testing and figuring out a successful operational process first enabled the company to scale quickly as they built and added new tech, she explains.
Fast forward to today and Virtual Gurus is now in “high-tech mode,” says Racette. They’ve built out all their own proprietary software, which includes machine learning and AI capabilities that allow the company to leverage the power of business intelligence (BI).
Don’t lose sight of your purpose, as you grow your business
That data-driven, business intelligence really helps to inform the way Racette expands Virtual Gurus. But she also never loses sight of her “why,” which helps prioritize growth strategies.
For instance, Racette says she’s spent as much (or more) time on the talent side of her business as she has on the customer side. Beyond ensuring good virtual assistant/client matches are made, the company is deeply dedicated to ensuring freelancers are set up for success, even helping them with re-skilling as needed. As a result they have one of the lowest churn rates in the industry.
“When you have thousands of people on your platform you have just as much work on the supply side as the demand side, maybe more,” says Racette. “I believed that I needed to focus on the supply side because our product, our business – it’s the people.”
Keeping clients happy and giving them what they value most, starts with empowering (and retaining) freelancers — while simultaneously heeding client feedback, she explains.
“The number one important thing, no matter what business you have, is listening to your clients and what they’re telling you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. They’ll help you make decisions about what to add to your platform or whatever tech you’re building.”
Truly listen to your people when developing new products
The juggling act of building out a robust freelance network, as well as deep-diving into client feedback, does genuinely drive Racette’s approach to new product development.
In 2020, when the pandemic hit her business hard and clients pulled back on the use of Virtual Gurus’ services, she once again focused on making sure her supply side was taken care of.
Racette created their “People Over Profit” program, which offered free or discounted services to startups and small businesses to keep their virtual assistants working — and also helped maintain a connection with clients.
Though the company took a hit at first, 75% of the clients in the program turned into paying customers and they ended the year with almost 300% year-over-year growth.
More recently, Racette launched her new askBetty Slack app, because enough clients reported their need for occasional or one-off on-demand support. “Again, we’re just testing and trying it out with the market for eight, nine months to see how it fits,” she explains, taking an operations first/tech next approach once more.
Less than a year in, the product is already scaling on its own. “So now we are building a full on askBetty team…building AI into it, and we’re gonna launch it into its own platform.”
Tried, tested and true, Racette’s people-first, but highly tech-enabled approach is not just inclusive, it’s profitable.