Native Women Lead recently hosted Virtual Gurus’ founder and CEO Bobbie Racette to kick off its 2021 Transformation Thursday Retreats. This retreat’s topic was “Growing and Scaling a Multi-Million Dollar Venture in Tech & Workforce Development” and Bobbie shared her personal story, as well as some advice for first-time entrepreneurs interested in creating tech companies. The following blog post was transcribed, reformatted and edited by askBetty, Virtual Gurus’ new Slack app that gives users instant access to a live personal assistant.
Oh hi there! I’m Bobbie, the founder and CEO of Virtual Gurus. I’m a Cree-Metis woman from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Before starting Virtual Gurus, I worked for other people as a Sales Director, and in the oil and gas industry as a Rescue Technician.
I came from a nontraditional family. My mom Lorna, raised my brother and I, with my other mom – the love of her life. We were raised in an LGBTQ family in the late 70s. My mom is from a reserve outside of Regina, Saskatchewan but she really wanted to go to the city and raise us in a way that we were able to take care of ourselves and learn what we needed to learn. She struggled to find work herself so she became an entrepreneur. She was actually the first female Indigenous house builder in Saskatchewan! She was such a hard worker and I think that’s where my brother and I get our work ethic from.
I have struggled with a skin disease called polymorphous light eruption so I couldn’t go out into the sun at all without protecting my skin. I didn’t go to school from grade two until grade 9. I became kind of a recluse and was really shy. I couldn’t talk to people and I struggled with public speaking.
Overcoming fear and rising to success
I knew that in order for me to move forward with Virtual Gurus and to scale the company, I had to get over that fear. One of the most important things about being a business owner is that you have to hit fear head on, and not be afraid of what’s going to happen because really, you’re your own worst critic.
Using my experience as motivation to build Virtual Gurus
At Virtual Gurus, we don’t just provide virtual services, we focus on making a social impact. I’m a marginalized folk, and I’ve always struggled with finding work so it was very important to me to be able to provide work for other marginalized folx. Many of our contractors are Indigenous, people that immigrated to Canada; part of the LGBTQ community, people who are transitioning genders, single stay-at-home moms who are trying to make ends meet, or students who are trying to put food on the table while they’re trying to learn. We have expanded our platform to provide work to those people.
Here are key takeaways for folx interested in starting a business:
- Leverage community support.
It’s important to leverage your community support systems. Some great examples are Native Women Lead, your local startup community, and local accelerators. These communities and startup programs helped me more than anything. I started traveling a lot and leveraged opportunities to get myself out there. Now you can imagine being somebody who is deathly afraid of public speaking having to do that! It was a bit scary but I realized that if I wanted to move Virtual Gurus forward, I really had no choice. I needed to put myself out there.
- Bootstrap your business as long as possible
When I started Virtual Gurus, I literally had $300 in my pocket, and the “Bank of Mom” was running out. I didn’t have money to pay my rent and I was borderline homeless. I was in a really vulnerable situation. I realized that my choices were to go for it or not.
So, I went from $300 to $1.3 Million and I did that without raising a round of investment capital. I bootstrapped the company and lived off of the capital that Virtual Gurus was bringing in to keep building the company. I did not pay myself a salary until the second period and that salary was just enough to get by and pay my rent. I worked in a coffee shop part time just to help offset my personal expenses.
Eventually I started focusing on reinvesting all the money Virtual Gurus was bringing back into the business. I only recently started paying myself what I now call a liveable salary.
I wanted to raise the valuation of Virtual Gurus as much as I could on my own before I raised a funding round. I was able to close $1.25 Million for my first funding round from our lead investor, Raven Indigenious Capital Partners. We are using that money to scale the company this year. We went from six employees at the beginning of 2020 to 20 full-time salaried employees at the start of 2021.
- Build relationships
One of the other things about building businesses that is super important is obviously relationship building; it is one of the hardest things I struggled with.
When you are raising your funding round, you need to stand up in front of somebody and pitch your company. You have a pitch deck and you need to pitch them on why they should give you a million dollars (or more). It is one of the hardest things to do. I pitched over 170 times last year and every single one of the investors said, “No”. I had two choices. It was either to let it beat me down and let Virtual Gurus fail or let it pick me up and understand that these are things that I need to get better at.
I realized I was approaching the wrong investors. I shifted my mindset on what Virtual Gurus really was, which is a social impact company. And I started pitching to impact funds, which is when everything finally came to fruition. We ended up closing the funding round at $1.25 million all because of building relationships with the right investors. So, it is very important to make sure that you are building relationships with the right people.
- Discover your North Star
Our North Star is our people. It’s important to know your reason, your why. If you don’t know your reason, then you’re probably starting a business for the wrong reasons. The Virtual Gurus operations team has grown from six to 20 staff in the past 12 months. We are a fun group of people that laugh and bring our dogs to work. We’re definitely a diverse bunch. One of the most important things is making sure that your staff understand your vision, where your values are, and what your mission or North Star is.
I’ll close with my main motto which is: be bold, be brave, be you. I encourage all of you to follow this too.
Learn more about Native Women Lead and their Matriarch Fund here.