“From Dreamers to Heroes” is a Q&A series featuring three remarkable entrepreneurs, their journeys, and the lessons learned along the way
As the head of SAP North America’s Small and Medium Sized Business (SMB) segment, I have the privilege of talking to a unique and inspiring breed of business executives: entrepreneurs. Not only are they the most passionate, determined and charismatic people I’ve ever met, but they’re also the backbone to the US economy with 60-70% of new jobs stemming from small businesses.
I recently had a chance to attend the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs, where we honored the country’s most prestigious, high-growth, market-leading companies. I sat down with three remarkable E&Y winners to learn more about their journey, their challenges, their dreams and successes and captured that in a three-part Q&A series. Each one had a different story to tell – one that captured me from the start – and yet they all embodied fearlessness and resolve. All of them faced arduous challenges along the way, but ultimately were able to achieve huge success because they never gave up and most importantly they stayed true to their core values. Let’s dive into our first inspirational CEO.
Meet Jill Nelson, CEO and founder of Ruby Receptionists, a leading provider of personalized live, remote receptionist services to thousands of small businesses throughout North America. Their mission is clear - to preserve and perpetuate real, meaningful connections in an increasingly technology-focused, virtual world – one that has made them widely successful, in fact, growing double or triple digits every year since inception in 2003.
Jill is a superstar. From receptionist to entrepreneur to CEO to 2017 Oregon’s Tech executive of the year – the first woman to achieve the award – to E&Y 2017 winner, you name it. What once began as her simple idea with a handful of people is now a $30 Million revenue business and a recognized Best Company to work for by both Inc. and Fortune. Here’s a recap of the conversation:
Eric: You began this company in 2003. Take me back to that and then up to today – a hugely successful company with over 7,000 customers and hundreds of employees.
Jill: The original idea was all about helping small businesses be more efficient –shared services – shared secretary, shared receptionist. I was super attracted to the idea having been a receptionist and office manager myself. I had no money, no business experience but I thought I must be able to do something with the resources I have.
So off we went. And shortly thereafter, we started hearing from our customers that with a personal touch and making a connection, our receptionists were helping them win business. This is when we changed the model a bit. We came up with the name Ruby because it was a popular one in the 1940s and 50s when personal service was the norm and that was fundamental to our business and our core values. As we grow, having a clear mission that we exist to ensure we make those personal connections is key, and speaking to these values day in and day out is what helps us with recruiting and retention. It’s amazing – our receptionists have the ability to make a moment special in someone’s day.
Eric: If you could do anything differently, would you?
Jill: I am such a fan of mistakes. Everything we do right here is because we did something horribly wrong down the line so I wouldn’t do anything very differently. The only thing I might change is I wish I would have understood earlier that I had a lot to learn from other entrepreneurs. I thought my business was so different that no one could help me, but when I sought out other entrepreneurs – the world opened up for me. It started me on my journey.
“Entrepreneurship is a journey of learning.” - Jill Nelson
Eric: Why is your company unique?
Jill: We learned how different we were in early 2009 – the beginning of the recession. It was a tough time for our customers as well. Some of them were leaving, so we started to ask ourselves – how do we make Ruby so valued that it’s the last thing they cut? We started trying new things and in the end, we learned it was all about the personal touch. We went above and beyond to bring our services to our customers, bring kindness to their day, be their “calm in the storm”. We wanted to show them we were there for them and it paid off. Not only did we figure out our company’s mission, we grew 30% in revenue that year at a time where customer service was going out the window. Since 2009, we’ve been celebrating our values and we’ve never looked back.
Eric: You told me Ruby is a tech company. How do you balance the tech with the personal?
Jill: It’s true. We view ourselves as a tech company, but where we deliver on our promise is that we answer 99% of our calls within 4 rings. That’s not easy to do. We have software that helps us get closer to our customers, for example, knowing the weather where the customer is calling from and having a conversation about it. We have a mobile app that aids us in syncing call backs and calendars, and we use data dashboards and analysis to understand our clients. Over the last couple of years, we’ve ramped up on our technology to strengthen our services.
Eric: I heard a stat last year that women led businesses have a much higher chance of success – like 3 times higher – than companies started by men. What do you think about that?
Jill: Our company’s leadership team is comprised of 4 women and 2 men, but for me, the attribute of a great leader is connection and commitment. If women are stronger in those areas than men, then I agree, but I look at the leader, not the gender.
One thing I will say is I think Women are more bullet proof for success. There are so many obstacles in a women’s path that by the time she achieves success, she’s already had a rough time getting there. Unfortunately, women have to prove themselves so many times before they “get to the other side”. We’re bullet proof for success because we are constantly working against the odds, and we’re successful in spite of it.
Eric: Any advice for entrepreneurs today?
Jill: In addition to developing a peer network, you have to find a balance between not letting people discourage you and being blind about your business and ideas. Listen to other’s questions, but don’t be discouraged by them – explore them and let them help you to make a better business case.