Startup Star: Janet Bannister—a Driver Behind the Successes of eBay and Kijiji—Shares the Secrets of Entrepreneurial (and Investor) Success

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By the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association

It was a full house and a captivated audience at the Young Private Capitalists (YPC) fall networking event in Toronto recently, which featured Janet Bannister, General Partner at Real Ventures, Canada’s most active early-stage venture capital firm.

Bannister, who has led investments in a dozen companies at Real Ventures, offered invaluable advice to young entrepreneurs and professionals based on her successful career in technology and startups.

Bannister is perhaps best known for launching Kiji​ji​.ca and growing it into one of the most visited websites in Canada. She then helped to expand the business globally across North America, Europe and Asia.

Prior to launching Kijiji, Bannister worked at eBay in Silicon Valley, helping to transform it from a collectibles site to a mainstream marketplace.

We caught up with Bannister in a Q‑and‑A session to talk more about her career and what she looks for in a successful startup. Bannister also discussed what she loves about being on the investor side of the startup scene. Here’s what we learned:

What do you look for when you make an investment at Real Ventures?

The first thing is the idea or vision. Is this a big idea? Can it be a huge business? We, of course, look at the business plan, go-to-market strategy, competition, financial model and many other things, but it really boils down to whether it can be a $100-million-plus company.

The second thing is the team: Can they execute on the vision? We invest in a wide range of founders — some are serial entrepreneurs and some are straight out of university. The key things we look for in entrepreneurs are: Do they know what they know and what they don’t know? Are they sponges for knowledge? Can they attract and build a great team? Are they scrappy, hard-working and tenacious?

What do you like about being on the investor side of the business?

While I like to operate businesses and have had some success at that, I am happiest being more of an advisor. I love getting to know an entrepreneur and his or her business and then being able to give advice or guidance that is helpful. There’s nothing better than that. I also have tremendous respect for the passion and energy of founders and feel lucky to be able to work with them and get to know their companies, technologies and industries. I am always learning. Real Ventures is also very values-driven and entrepreneur-friendly. They care about doing what is right for each company. It’s a great fit for me and aligns with my values. Being an entrepreneur is physically, emotionally and mentally draining. As a VC, you need to have empathy and respect for the founders with which you work.

What’s your advice for young entrepreneurs starting out today?

Drive your life; don’t let your life drive you. Be proactive. Figure out what you want and go out and make it happen. An example for me was going out to California to join eBay, even though I didn’t know a soul there. I ended up working hard and getting a great position. When I came back to Canada I created a role for myself, which was launching Kijiji.

Also, follow your passion and do what in your heart you know is right. For me, that was coming back to Canada when I did. I love Canada and we wanted to have our family here. At the time, it seemed like a step back in my career, but it turned out to be great.

Lastly, failure is OK. Everybody fails. It’s about what you learn from it. That’s a key difference between entrepreneurs who are ultimately successful — they learn every day and view failure as a learning opportunity. As Thomas Edison once said, I have not failed 10,000 times; I have successfully found 10,000 ways that it will not work.”