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Ruby Receptionists CEO Jill Nelson to Share Her Business Journey at BREW Keynote

Jill Nelson, who as founder and CEO of Ruby Receptionists has guided the Oregon tech company from startup to thriving industry player over 15 years, is set to share her fascinating entrepreneurial journey during a keynote address at Baton Rouge Entrepreneurship Week.

Founded in 2003, Ruby Receptionists provides personalized, live virtual-receptionist services to thousands of small businesses throughout North America. The company serves busy professionals in numerous fields, including lawyers, marketers, IT consultants, real estate professionals and financial planners.

Nelson started the company with little business experience, but now has about 500 full-time employees. “Our story is one of equal parts people and technology,” says Nelson, who spoke to us ahead of her BREW keynote address set for Wednesday, Nov. 14. Here’s a peek at what she’ll be discussing.

An Early Pivot Leads to Success

Nelson had been a receptionist to a business broker, then was a broker herself, and in the early 2000s she became interested in an emerging predecessor to co-working spaces called executive suites. These properties were class A office spaces with areas that were leased to small businesses. Property owners provided essential services like shared receptionists and secretaries, conference room space and copy machines.

“But I had no money and I had no business experience, so I couldn’t find a landlord willing to build that out,” Nelson says. Instead, she says, she focused her attention on the concept of providing high-quality receptionist services for small businesses.

“That just really took off,” she says. “It was like getting a door slammed in your face from day one and pivoting to something that turned out to be super-scalable.”

‘Culture-Powered Growth’

Nelson says that despite early challenges and growing pains, the company was steadily successful through its first five years. The economic downturn of 2008, which derailed plenty of early-stage companies, proved to be an inflection point for Ruby Receptionists, forcing it to refocus on its main mission and value proposition. “We solidified what we were to our customers,” Nelson says. “We recognized it wasn’t just about taking an essential task off their plate. It was about keeping alive the human connection and helping small businesses be successful by delivering an exceptional customer experience through that human connection.”

The company ended up expanding its customer base by 30 percent in 2009. “It was a really transformative year, and that’s the year where culture became first (for us) and when we really started to figure out the people side as well,” she says.

The company has set a record for the most consecutive years — 11 — on Portland Business Journal’s list of the fastest-growing companies, a streak Nelson says is only possible with a defined set of values and goals and a vigilant approach to attracting and retaining the right people. She calls it “cultured-powered growth.”

“You cannot do that when you have a revolving door of people,” she says. “We’re constantly hiring. If we had to hire for high turnover too we just would never be able to and we couldn’t sustain the service levels that we have too.”

Nelson says the company also “completely leverages technology for consistency, efficiency, scalability, reliability. Those things are absolutely fundamental to deliver service at scale.”

Beyond the Phone

Nelson sold a majority stake in the company to a private equity firm in 2014 but decided to stay on as CEO to guide Ruby Receptionists through its next phase of growth. The company’s clients — including many one-person companies — would seem to be well-positioned for the projected growth of the gig economy in the coming years.

“You don’t need a business phone anymore — 30 percent of our customers no longer have business phone service,” Nelson says. “It’s just Ruby and a cellphone, because we can get calls to them wherever they want, when they want.”

The company’s technology allows small-business owners to return calls through an app but have them go through the cellular network and publish their business number within caller ID. “We’ve freed them up to work wherever they want — they can take the calls they want,” Nelson says. “They have that peace of mind knowing there’s someone friendly there with helpful information to take whatever calls they can’t take or don’t want to take.”

The company is also planning a 2019 launch of expanded on-demand services that go beyond traditional phone interactions to website chats and multiple messaging platforms, Nelson says. “Wherever customers want to engage with our customers, we’ll be there to do that for them,” she says.

Stephen Loy