Janet Bannister is likely the woman behind your shopping addiction in Canada.
If you’ve compulsively bid on a favourite record on eBay, sold that old couch on Kijiji, or (like me) drooled over incredible closets on The Coveteur, you have Bannister to thank.
Bannister, Toronto-born and Western University educated, is entrepreneurial by nature. When she was 15, she started a muffin business out of her family’s kitchen and sold to stores in downtown Toronto.
Her love of business began, though, when she read Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca, the man who turned Chrysler around through the late 1970s and ’80s. Bannister was 12 at the time and knew that working in business was what she wanted to do with her life.
At 13, she decided to get serious about finding a summer job. But she wasn’t sure she would land something that would teach her as much as she wanted to learn.
She decided the only solution was to start her own business.
“I can’t believe I thought that when I was 13 years old,” she said. “But that was the way I thought. My father was a big influence. He taught me everything. He taught me how to write a business plan, how to do a profits-loss statement, cash statements, and balance sheets.
“He taught me how to do a sales call and handle rejection.”
After graduating from the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western, Bannister worked for Proctor & Gamble and McKinsey & Company in brand management and strategy.
It was when she moved to Boston, and joined a small startup, that she discovered her life passion: entrepreneurs.
While working in Boston, she met executives at eBay. EBay hired her and moved her to California to help grow the business beyond the collectible website that it was mainly known for in the late 1990s.
When she was ready to move back to Canada, eBay appointed her Product Director for eBay Canada. Bannister quickly realized that, unlike Americans, Canadians were still reluctant to make purchases online.
“Canadians spend a ton of time online, but were very reluctant to buy online,” she said. “Looking through the research, I thought a classifieds model would better suit the Canadians.”
While Bannister struggled with figuring out the secret sauce, eBay presented an opportunity.
They had an online classified ad platform that they were preparing to launch in Europe called Kijiji. At the time they had no plans to launch it Canada.
Bannister, however, believed that the Kijiji model would work in frugal and practical Canada.
‘You can take the platform and launch in in Canada if you want,’ Bannister was told by eBay executives.
So she did. It was just Bannister at the beginning running Kijiji Canada. She had very little budget, and was running what was basically a startup inside of eBay Canada. She grew the business and hired a team.
“It was very successful,” she said. “Canada become the most successful country around the world [on the Kijiji] platform].”
Bannister went on to become Kijiji’s worldwide general manager. She expanded the platform in the US, Europe and Asia.
Getting weary of balancing global travel, and the needs of her young son, Bannister decided to take some time off. She launched her own consulting business, helping large brands such as Post Media, Indigo and Starbucks develop and grow their online strategies.
While Bannister enjoyed working with the different brands, she wanted to go back into a more entrepreneurial environment.
“I liked consulting, but I wanted to become more entrepreneurial,” she said.
Bannister moved from working with large companies to a small digital startup called The Coveteur, a Canadian-based, online magazine that gives readers a peek into the lives and closets of fashionable trend-setters.
“I was the CEO at the time when it was really just the founders working out of one of the girl’s apartments. There was really no revenue model.”
Bannister raised a seed round of funding, grew the team, and launched the website.
“My job was to raise funding and help turn [The Coveteur] into a business,” she said.
While raising money for The Coveteur, she met the Real Ventures team.
Real Ventures, a seed-venture fund, had been around since 2007, based in Montreal. The team was in the middle of raising their third fund and wanted to expand more into Toronto and Waterloo. They were looking for a partner in one of those cities.
“So I met them and I realized that what I really loved to do [in my career] was the consulting aspect: working with multiple businesses simultaneously, mentoring and helping people grow their business; but I also loved entrepreneurs and working with young companies who were passionate about growing their business. I said, ‘Hey! Be a VC. Here is something that combines these two things that I love into one.’ ”
She joined the team as a general partner in September 2014. Since then, she’s been travelling to Waterloo, learning about the local startup community. She has made eight or nine investments since then, including TritonWear and Piinpoint.
“We are huge fans of the Waterloo ecosystems,” Bannister said. “Great, great entrepreneurs: super-smart, really hard working. I love the community: Communitech, Velocity, the Accelerator Centre are excellent. I can see the value-add that they provide.”
While Bannister is now handing out money to young startups (instead of hunting it out), she has still not lost her competitive edge. Now the mother of a 10-year-old boy, she finds herself busy with his activities — and her own. Bannister is a one-time competitive runner who now completes triathlons for fun.
As for Bannister’s relationship with Waterloo? Expect to see her more often at the Communitech Hub, at events and meeting with startups.
“I notice an extremely high quality of entrepreneurs and the ideas that come out of Waterloo,” Bannister said.
It’s hard to believe that we are already heading into mid June. Summer vacation is just around the corner for many of us. For now, why don’t you get away from your desk and explore Waterloo Region. I see and hear that . . . The PCH Hardware Hackathon is coming to Waterloo Region this weekend. If you want to check out the action, spectator tickets are still available. A $10 ticket lets you watch the pitches and enjoy a beverage or two at the Tannery Event Centre, 151 Charles St. W., Kitchener, this Friday, June 12, beginning at 5 p.m. You can also attend the closing ceremonies on Sunday beginning at 4 p.m… PCH is also hosting a free hardware startup job fair this Friday, also in the Tannery Event Centre. The event runs 1-3 p.m. and features companies like Pebble, Muse, Palette and Ringly. If you aren’t attending the hackathon, you will need to register for the job fair . . . This Sunday, June 14 is the fourth Grand Porch Party, a free, musical event in Uptown Waterloo. Homes between Alexandra Avenue, Roslin Avenue, Dawson Street and Euclid Avenue open their porches and front lawns to live music. The event runs 2-5 p.m and is open to all ages.