By Camilla Cornell
Tami Zuckerman first struck up a friendship with former eBay employee and Kijiji founder Janet Bannister about four years ago. They met at a Toronto café when a friend suggested Zuckerman might benefit from Bannister’s long experience with online marketplaces.
“She wasn’t intimidating at all,” says Zuckerman, a mom and former teacher who launched VarageSale, her community-focused buy-and-sell app, when attempting to declutter her own home while on mat leave.
Bannister “started off by telling me she was intrigued by my passion and the idea behind VarageSale,” says Zuckerman. (The app was mobile-first and screens users in order to make women feel safer.) Then she offered her friendship and suggested Zuckerman call to bounce around ideas.
Shortly after, when Zuckerman was struggling to organize VarageSale’s sales categories, Bannister – who had no involvement with the company at the time – spent three hours analyzing how users navigated the site and offering tweaks. “We had a million Post-It-notes on the table and she just brought all of her expertise to bear to help me figure it out,” says Zuckerman.
Not surprisingly, when Bannister joined VarageSale’s board earlier this year in her role as a general partner with Montreal-based venture capital firm Real Ventures, Zuckerman “was just really excited that I’d get to see her more often.”
It’s hardly the wary relationship that can exist between venture capitalists and entrepreneurial founders.
I learned that, even though I was a 15-year-old girl, I could actually run a business and hit my targets and make a sale
But then Janet Bannister isn’t a typical venture capitalist. She looks more like the girl next door than a tech titan, with cornflower blue eyes and a disarmingly friendly manner. It is only her lean, athlete’s body that offers clear evidence of a disciplined approach to life and to business.
A triathlete, Bannister rises at 4:30 a.m. to bike, run or swim for 90 minutes before sharing breakfast with her 10-year-old son, Andy. Only then does she begin her workday with Real Ventures, where she sits on the boards of a dozen or so companies.
Bannister’s own entrepreneurial roots run deep. Her dad worked for IBM and business was a regular dinner table topic. As a teen, while participating in competitive sports, she also launched her own muffin business, baking in the wee hours and persuading 15 shops to sell her goods.
In the process, she learned how to make a structured sales call and put together income and balance sheets. And “I learned that, even though I was a 15-year-old girl, I could actually run a business and hit my targets and make a sale,” she says. “It gave me the confidence that I could run a successful business.”
She also developed time management, discipline and goal-setting habits that have served her well. After graduating from the Ivey Business School in 1992 with the highest marks in her class, she became a brand manager with Procter & Gamble, following that with a three-year stint at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
Interestingly enough, I actually became a much more patriotic, loyal Canadian living away
“You learn and see so much,” she says of her stints there. “And you get exposure to a ton of different companies and different business problems.” But Bannister wanted to do something more entrepreneurial. “I wanted to join a young company where I could learn a lot,” she says.
So she joined fledgling eBay in Silicon Valley in 2001. At the time, 80 to 90 per cent of the products sold were collectibles and most were second hand. Bannister was handed responsibility for all the other categories including clothing, home and gardening, jewellery and books, mainly because “a lot of the executives did not think eBay could be successful in them.”
She proved them dramatically wrong, tripling the growth of her categories annually. But even as her star rose, she felt the pull to return to Canada. “Interestingly enough, I actually became a much more patriotic, loyal Canadian living away,” she says.
The only Toronto job available was as head of product for eBay.ca, which Bannister saw as “a step backward.” But she took it, launching Kijiji.ca as a side project in 2004. It turned out to be the biggest winner in a winning career.
It all started when Bannister benchmarked how eBay was doing in Canada. She discovered it was one of the leading countries in the world in terms of driving online users to the eBay site, yet Canadians were only half as likely to transact online.
“There were some systemic problems that were more than we were able to address,” says Bannister, pointing out that Canadians sometimes faced higher shipping charges and taxes and duty on items coming from the U.S.
She began to wonder if a classified ad site would work better. Her bosses at eBay resisted. “We don’t think it’s going to work,” they told her. “Canada is a small country and Craigslist is already there. We don’t have any money for it.”
But Bannister discovered that eBay was working on a classified site for launch in Europe. “Why don’t I just take that platform, localize it and we can launch it in Canada on the side,” she argued. “You don’t need to give me any money.”
Since Craigslist was English-only, Bannister got the green light to tackle Quebec. “If you can win there, we’ll talk about other markets,” she was told. The rest is history. Kijiji became the top classified ad site in Canada and Bannister began the work of taking it global.
In the meantime, though, she had given birth to son, Andy. By the time he was in kindergarten, the stress of managing a gruelling travel schedule and her role as mom had begun to wear on her.
“For everybody in my work world, I was trying to pretend that I had no kids and no husband – that work was my only focus,” she says. “But for my son, I was trying to pretend that I didn’t work and I was a stay-at-home mom who could be there for every single event. I finally realized that it wasn’t sustainable.”
In 2012, Bannister quit; she signed on as CEO of online fashion site Coveteur.com and joined Real Ventures two years later. She continues to put in long hours, but prioritizes her family and her health.
“One of the things that helped me was realizing it’s okay to occasionally miss one of my son’s swim meets or an evening networking event,” she says. “But when I am somewhere, I bring 100 percent of my energy, enthusiasm and focus. It excites me to help passionate entrepreneurs pursue their dreams.”
Story originally appeared in the Financial Post