Jill Nelson – Founder and CEO of Ruby Receptionists

[quote style=”boxed”]It’s a combination of three things: Incent, inspire, and empower.[/quote]

Founder and CEO Jill Nelson has grown Ruby Receptionists to a multimillion dollar business, which has experienced double-digit growth every year since its inception in 2003. With 135 passionate staff members, Ruby serves more than 2,600 small businesses throughout North America. Jill’s signature approach to business, “Practicing WOWism,” drives the company’s growth and success and helped secure coveted awards, including Fortune magazine’s #1 and #3 Best Small Company to Work for in the U.S. in 2012 and 2013 and Portland Business Journal’s Fastest Growing Company in Oregon for the past six years. Dedicated to supporting small business, Jill has served on the board of Portland’s Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and a mentor for its Accelerator Program supporting local startups. In 2013, EO named Jill “Entrepreneur of the Year.”

What are you working on right now at Ruby?

The beginning of this year was go, go, go, with the opening of our second office in Beaverton, Oregon. Since everyone was so busy and working so hard to make it a successful transition – I’m delighted to say it is more beautiful than we could’ve imagined! – we’re settling into our new space and catching our breath. Right now, we’re focusing on what got us to the dance: our personable, client-focused service.

Where did the idea for Ruby Receptionists come from?

I had initially thought of an executive suites concept, but didn’t have the funds or business experience to make it happen. Instead, I built on what I did know: friendly, well-trained receptionists. At the time, answering services were limited; you’d call in for your messages, and that was about all they could do. I realized that there was a real need and hunger for more than simple mechanics of answering the phone and taking messages; every small business deserves a cheerful, professional receptionist to actually help their callers, and thus, Ruby Receptionists was born.

How does your business make money?

We serve more than 2,600 small businesses and professionals throughout the U.S. and Canada, providing friendly, professional receptionist services for a fraction of the cost of an onsite receptionist.

What does your typical day look like?

I don’t really have a typical day – I look at my calendar the night before, whom I’m going to see, where I need to be, what I need to wear. Every day is different!

How do you bring ideas to life at Ruby?

It’s a combination of three things: Incent, inspire, and empower. I try to build excitement in my employees and give them the tools and motivation to act on that excitement and create these really memorable moments with callers and clients.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The return to human connections. I was at a dinner party recently, and all of these executives were discussing the loss of connections these days – service has gotten so impersonal! Seeing others getting what we’re trying to do at Ruby – without me saying a word – is really exciting, because it’s not just work to us. It’s what we live for.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I had a job when I was young, where I would sit in an empty lot and count dump trucks. That was my job. I would sit there with my little clipboard and check a box when a truck came in every hour or so with a load of gravel. It was incredibly easy…and incredibly boring. I learned that I would rather work really hard and try to make something worthwhile, even if the risk is greater, than simply “get by.”

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I’d focus on the “why,” not the “what.” Why was the idea of receptionist services meaningful to me? What do I, and Ruby, stand for? It wasn’t till our sixth year in business that we answered those questions and nailed down our core values: Practice WOWism, Foster Happiness, Create Community, Innovate, and Grow. And it’s been these values and our mission to perpetuate real, meaningful connections that have propelled Ruby’s growth.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Get out of the way. I’m a mentor through Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s Accelerator program, and so often I see CEOs functioning as a bottleneck. They’ve hired really fantastic people who are excited about what they do, and these executives are hampering their team. So, get out of the way, and empower your team to see what they are actually capable of.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

We surveyed our employees for the first time in 2005, a little over two years after Ruby started. What I learned was like a sucker punch to the gut: Our employees were happy with their salaries and benefits, but they did not feel like they were making a difference. I had received so many compliments from our clients telling me how much we had affected their business, how they had gotten a new client because the receptionist was so nice, or just that they had more peace of mind and could relax knowing that we were there. So there was a failure to communicate just what kind of an impact they were actually having.

It was a turning point in the company. We started sharing all of our compliments with everyone and overhauled the way we hire. We stopped hiring based on experience and started looking for people who saw 250 calls as opportunities to make someone’s day.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I would love to see someone create a fashion-forward fitness band a la the Nike+ Fuelband or Bodybugg – or even a decorative cover for existing models. Something that would track your exercise, but also you could match to your outfits or add a little sparkle! If you’re going to wear it all the time or if you’re going out dancing, it’d be nice to be able to dress it up a little.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I think there’s a social norm of negativity. Often, the way we connect with those around us is to share a complaint or negative observation. I would love to instead introduce social pressure to see things in a positive light. It would do us all some good!

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

There was a time where I got really interested in my Scottish roots. I went so far as to learn Scottish highland dancing and even went on to dance competitively. Ironically, I signed up for Ancestry.com recently and discovered there’s not a drop of Scottish blood in me.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

Kayak.com is my go-to for quickly and easily finding flights, and Inc.com and Ted.com are fantastic resources for business inspiration. I recently saw a TED Talk by Candy Chang on using public spaces to create community, which sparked Ruby’s new floor-to-ceiling chalkboard wall in our break room.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Verne Harnish’s The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time is a must-read. These audacious decisions were truly made from the heart, and that’s what ultimately made these companies legendary.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

Simon Sinek: As I’m sure many would agree, Simon is wonderfully inspirational for anyone with a business.
Rob Moseley: I’m a huge Oregon Ducks fan (U of O is my alma mater), and Rob gives great insights.
FastCompany: Their business and design articles are top-notch.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

To further delight our clients, Ruby employees have access to a prepaid Amazon account where they can buy anything for any client at any time, no questions asked. Though we instituted this practice of “WOWism” about two years ago, we recently hit a snag; we had over-wowed a few clients. We held a meeting to refine our system for sending wow gifts, and our Beaverton Site Director said, “Only at Ruby would this be an issue – we have ‘Ruby world problems!’” It made us all crack up.

Who is your hero and why?

I have three heroes: Steve Jobs for his vision – who embodies my mantra of “relentless resistance to fine”; Aretha Franklin for her incredible soul; and my sister-in-law for her boundless heart.

What qualities led Ruby to win Fortune magazine’s #1 Best Small Company to Work for Award?

Our strong sense of community and promoting from within have certainly helped us get here. People want to feel valued and that they’re making a difference in the world. Ruby’s mission to foster meaningful connections in today’s increasingly technology-focused, virtual world has really turned what could be simply taking calls into 250 opportunities every day.

How do you personally give back to your local community?

Most recently, I’ve spoken at a Young Entrepreneurs event and Dress for Success Oregon’s Going Places Network series. I especially love one-on-one mentorship and getting to work with companies that empower women.


Ruby Receptionists on Twitter: @callruby
Ruby Receptionists on Facebook:
Ruby Receptionists on LinkedIn: