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Investor Q&A: Janet Bannister

Janet Bannister is a General Partner at the early-stage Canadian VC firm, Real Ventures. Previously, she founded a startup, headed a consulting firm, and had positions at eBay, Proctor & Gamble, and other notable companies. Below, she talks to us about her transition from being an entrepreneur to being an investor.

Startup Angels: What did you do before you became a venture capitalist?
Janet Bannister: After graduating from Business School, I joined Procter & Gamble in Brand Management. I spent four years at P&G and then joined McKinsey & Company as an Engagement Manager. At McKinsey, I worked on a wide variety of strategy projects with companies around the world. Following my time at McKinsey, I met Meg Whitman who at the time was CEO of eBay. She persuaded me to move to California and join eBay, which was growing very quickly. At the time, eBay was primarily a collectibles website; I was given the mandate to grow the non-collectibles categories such as Home & Garden, Clothing, Jewelry, and Books.

After three years in California, I moved back home to Canada and launched Kijiji, a local classified site similar to Craigslist. It quickly became the largest classified site in Canada. I later left that to run my own consulting firm for several years, and then launched joined a start-up as their CEO. I met the Real Ventures partners when they were looking to hire a General Partner in Toronto and joined shortly afterwards. I have now been at Real Ventures for two years and have led ten investments.

SA: Are there any verticals that you prefer?
JB: I am interested in a wide variety of verticals; I have done investments in fintech, hardware, and analytics companies. I’ve also made an investment in a marketplace, where my expertise is very helpful. All of the companies that I have led the investments in have been based in Toronto, Waterloo or Ottawa.

SA: Why do you work in Venture Capital?
JB: I love what I do. I realized two things about myself: I very much enjoy being in a mentoring/coaching/advising role; and I am very passionate about working with entrepreneurs. I find being a VC combines both of these things very well.

SA: How many investments do you make a year?
JB: Real Ventures makes about 20 to 25 investments a year. The initial check is typically between $250k and $1 million.

SA: How did you feel when you made your first investment?
JB: I was excited to begin working with the entrepreneur, to support him, and to be a small part of helping him grow his company.

SA: What does Real Ventures look for when they invest?
JB: Because we invest early, there are not a lot of numbers to look at. We look at the both the team and the vision. For the team, we typically invest in companies where there are at least two cofounders with at least one of them being technical. We look for people who are ambitious, smart and hardworking. In terms of vision, we look for a compelling vision that we think can be materialized and become a large, valuable company.

SA: What do you want out of your fellow investors?
JB:We often lead, and always there are other investors around the table. The most important thing is that we expect them to do what is right for the company.

SA: How was the transition from being an entrepreneur to an investor?
JB: The transition was relatively smooth. My background in consulting and entrepreneurship as well as my management style helped me make quickly adapt to life as a venture capitalist. Consulting taught me to quickly understand what is important in a company and to understand how the dynamics of an industry will impact the players. My entrepreneurial experience helped me relate to and provide perspective to the founders. And my style of being a team player rather than an authoritative manager enabled me to work well with the entrepreneurs in our portfolio.

SA: What is the biggest mistake you’ve made?
JB:As a manager, my biggest mistake was not firing people quickly enough. They say “hire slowly and fire quickly”, and I should have followed that more closely.

SA: Where do you see the Toronto startup ecosystem in five years?
JB: The Toronto ecosystem is very exciting. There’s huge growth in the number and quality of startups. There are also many companies that have “graduated” from being a successful startup to a rapidly growing, mid sized tech firm. And that is very exciting because “great begets great” and as more and more companies are successful, that will bred more winners.

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