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First: Welcome to all the new subscribers - we’re officially over 650! If you know someone interested in running a business remotely, I’d be grateful if you forwarded them this newsletter.
Today: We’re talking about remote community building with an entrepreneur who’s built a multi-thousand person virtual freelancer community.
Bobbie Racette has been helping businesses remotely for years, but never as much as during the COVID pandemic. Her business, The Virtual Gurus, connects businesses all over the world with highly-trained, highly-educated freelancers and virtual assistants for everything from blogging and social media to data entry and planning calendars. Now, she’s further innovating in the space with askBetty, a Slack app where entrepreneurs can work with freelancers on a task-by-task basis.
As an entrepreneur, Bobbie has built a strong community of over 6,000 freelancers in the Virtual Gurus network. The way she built - and sustains - that community is a lesson for anyone leading remote marketing, community, or sales teams.
In this episode, Bobbie shared what she focuses on when it comes to community building remotely: education, infrastructure, and the human touch.
The power of education
→ A core value proposition of Virtual Gurus is providing highly-trained remote workers for companies. To help ensure the success of gurus on the platform (thus making them more money), the company hired an onboarding team to explicitly work with new gurus to get them up to speed and matched with clients.
→ Another way that Bobbie and the team ensure their community is poised for success is to offer them direct education. The Virtual Gurus Academy offers courses - available to anyone, not just guru community members - on specific skills that Virtual Gurus clients are willing to pay for.
Communities need infrastructure
→ Whether digital or physical, every community needs the infrastructure to succeed. Current team solutions were helpful, but frequently didn’t allow for the kind of community building that Bobbie wanted.
→ While it’s not visible on the front-end, the Virtual Gurus team built a thriving community platform where gurus can connect to help each other with work assignments, mentor each other, and build their networks.
The human touch
→ Every marketplace has at least two sides, and Virtual Gurus is no different. So they have a customer success team explicitly focused on providing the human touch to both clients and the gurus working to support them. That way, no one feels that they are only working with a machine - and there’s always a direct connection to the core operations team.
→ Part of Bobbie’s mission is to use technology and business as a driving force for good in the world. This was one of the reasons behind founding the Academy, but also drives Bobbie’s further community building efforts. Specifically, she’s working with various underserved and often-ignored communities, including the LGBTQ+ and Indigenous communities in Canada, to teach them the skills necessary to launch their own freelance business, whether with Virtual Gurus or not.
The final word
“The main thing [about remote work] is to trust your team. You trust them in the office. You’re not sitting beside them all the time. You just have to have that same trust being at home.”
I’d be grateful if you shared this post with anyone you know interested in remote work and running a business remotely
Remotely Inclined Chats with Bobbie Racette, Founder of Virtual Gurus
Transcript edited for brevity and clarity.
Stefan: Welcome, Bobbie! Can you share a bit about yourself and Virtual Gurus?
Bobbie: Yes! Virtual Gurus is a virtual assistant platform - a marketplace where we provide work to virtual assistants, freelancers, and remote workers. On the flip side, we provide services to businesses and entrepreneurs of all sizes.
We match based on algorithms - we have all the virtual assistants in a database and you can select which assistant might be better for you. Our assistants are all in Canada, but work with clients all over the world in Singapore, the UK, Australia, and all over the US and Canada.
We’re also working on a Slack app called askBetty. Since so many entrepreneurs don’t need full-time virtual assistants, we’re building askBetty as a by-the-task app.
You gave away a lot of free services in response to COVID. How did that impact your business?
I turned it into thinking that panicking isn’t going to get me anywhere. Instead, what can I do to help people?
A few of our clients were quitting and pausing because they were stressed out and not sure what was going to happen. It was all unknown at that point. So we decided to launch a People over Profit program and decided to kick it off with 110 startups across Canada, giving them free service from us.
We took a financial hit from that, but everything worked out because most of the clients ended up staying on because they liked the service. We didn’t even need to do any marketing because it was marketing itself from work of mouth. That resulted in us having 66% month-over-month growth.
How do you manage a growing remote team - now in the hundreds - while still maintaining quality?
One of the things we’ve worked on internally is the management side. There are a lot of moving parts as you grow. So we hired a full-time client success team to manage the quality of the work. We also have an onboarding team and a Virtual Gurus Academy to train virtual assistants, which is available to everyone. We try to help VAs and freelancers to scale up.
We also have a whole community on the backend. People don’t see this, but the community can talk, support each other, and help each other with jobs - it’s all remote workers helping each other.
I love the focus on community. How do you balance synchronous vs asynchronous work with your growing team?
We’re trying to figure out exactly what we’re doing as far as making sure, logistically, how our virtual assistants can service multiple clients at once and how they do it. So we have a few staff in a small coworking space, mainly our operations staff, and everyone else. Most of our upper management is at home.
We also train our contractors on the importance of time management and balance. We work with them on prioritizing. That’s helped us as well with our own skills.
With the Academy, people can take courses anywhere. With askBetty, it will be everyone with a Slack account.
Hybrid remote versus all-remote: what’s your preference?
So I’m at home. Our COO is at the office because she just got back from a holiday. We have full time staff for operations in an office. Sometimes it’s important to be in the same room. Upper management doesn’t necessarily need to be there, but our CSMs found they feel like more of a team when together and more able to focus on the client success side of it.
I’d love to get rid of the added expense of a coworking space, but the CSMs love it there. We also give our VA’s the same option - if they want to go into coworking spaces local to them, we’d be happy to build partnerships with coworking spaces they can use.
But we don’t need a full office. We’re also growing and hiring five more people, but still won’t get an office - they will be fully-remote workers.
What’s your advice for leaders making the hybrid vs all-remote choice for their teams?
The first thing I thought when COVID hit was that it would be a game changer. A lot of people came to the realization that working from home is probably better - you can be just as, if not more, productive from home. And I know expense-wise, it’s better for my company.
But we had the platform for it. It was an easy transition for us. We ended up changing the transition to make sure we could help all the businesses that use our service, and we were able to reach out and give them advice on how to change everything. One of the things I’ve tried to tell people is that everything stays the same, you’re just not looking at their faces all day (other than zoom or something).
Whether remote or not, everybody should know their core responsibilities and should still be able to perform those responsibilities. You just have to over-communicate and set expectations with staff and contractors. Then you should be able to work remotely. I think the main thing is to trust your team. You trust them in the office. You’re not sitting beside them all the time. You just have to have that same trust being at home.
Amazing, thank you for your insights!
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Image courtesy Virtual Gurus