Janet Bannister on Leading with Authenticity, Empathy, and Operational Excellence
Janet Bannister sits at the helm of one of Canada’s top early-stage venture capital firms with seemingly endless optimism– a valuable resource in 2020.
With an investment portfolio of over 280 companies across five funds since 2007 and around $330 million in assets under management today, Real Ventures is deeply intertwined in the Canadian startup ecosystem, and many of Canada’s game-changing entrepreneurs view Janet as a beacon of support.
Janet herself is also viewed as a trailblazer: she is one of few women to lead a large Canadian venture capital firm. A July 2019 report from Female Funders and Highline Beta found that women account for 15 percent of partners at Canadian venture capital firms, and 85% of all LP dollars are invested in funds with no women managing partners.
Prior to joining Real Ventures in 2014, Janet accumulated a deep pool of operational experience in two distinct tranches: startup and corporate.
Janet began her career as a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble in 1992, and later joined McKinsey & Co. as an Engagement Manager. It was during this period that Janet developed an intimate understanding of building and executing consumer marketing plans, brand extensions, strategy, M&A, and operations in a world entering the nascent stages of the digital revolution.
“I loved consulting because it brought out such unique intellectual challenges from the variety of work and the satisfaction that came from solving tricky problems,” says Janet. “What I loved about my line of work was being able to work with operators and see projects through to completion. I realized venture capital really combines the best of both of those worlds.”
After seven years in the traditional corporate world, Janet took her talents to Silicon Valley to help eBay transform from a niche collectible site to a mainstream marketplace. After moving back to her homeland of Canada, Janet launched and built an online marketplace Kijiji.ca and grew it to become one of the most visited websites in Canada.
After her foray into tech startups, Janet steeled her experiences as a consultant – this time at her own newly founded consulting firm. After this, Janet spent two years as the CEO of a venture-backed tech startup The Coveteur.
“I hadn’t really considered venture capital as a career,” Janet comments. “Some friends talked to me about it and I realized that venture capital doesn’t have to be only about maximizing the profits from your entrepreneurs – there’s also a very human component to it. It’s about building trusted relationships and caring about your entrepreneurs and genuinely trying to do the best for them. When I realized that, I felt I would love to be a venture capitalist.”
As the sole Managing Partner (Real Ventures is structured to only have one Managing Partner), Janet feels a calling to usher in the next wave of generational change by overcoming the multi-faceted global challenges of today.
We had a chance to chat with Janet (Kauffman Class 24) about her winding road to venture capital and lessons learned along the way.
Janet was named the Managing Partner at Real Ventures in January 2020; she hardly had a week to acclimate before the world started shutting down due to COVID.
“This is an interesting experience for me, including a global shutdown within the first month,” Janet laughs, a key trademark of her sunny disposition. “This is a dynamic opportunity for me to lead our firm, entrepreneurs and LPs forward in a positive direction.”
Janet views empathy as a primary tool to tackle the palpable challenges ahead.
“It’s about genuinely caring about the outcome and caring more about the success of the entrepreneur than your own ego,” says Janet. “The ultimate test of a successful meeting with a founder is, in my opinion, whether or not that entrepreneur can walk away from meeting with you being able to be a more effective leader. This doesn’t mean straying away from hard conversations; it’s more about how and what you communicate in that short time you have with another human being, such that they maximize their chances of success.”
Janet also borrows from a deep trove of operational and consulting experience to help founders of early-stage companies lay the foundation for scalable and rapid growth.
“We sit down and I try to add as much value from my operating experience as possible,” says Janet, before going into what seems to be a reflexive to-do list. “What are the KPIs you should be tracking? How do you set up your balanced scorecard? How should you think about structuring your organization? What are your marketing plans? What are the big strategic decisions with which you are wrestling? How is the current go-to-market approach working? How do you prioritize a new launch or a new market relative to further penetrating your existing market? And so on.”
To Janet, being a venture capitalist means magnifying your opportunity to make a difference in each individual entrepreneur’s life for the better.
“Work as a venture capitalist is more like a long-term relationship than a typical consulting assignment because you really are there to make them successful,” comments Janet. “I fundamentally believe all success needs to start with making those people around you successful. If my mandate is to make other people successful, and we’re aligned on what that looks like, then we’ll all be successful by default.”
As a triathlete, long-time entrepreneur, and experienced operator, Janet has learned a thing or two about endurance and mental fortitude.
“How you talk to yourself is very important, whether in athletics or anywhere else in life. How you approach things and your mental attitude makes all the difference.”
Having been a competitive athlete for so long, Janet finds those uncomfortable moments of uncertainty somewhat comforting in their familiarity.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the same self-talk from my athletic days,” says Janet. “If I go into a situation, knowing that I have done the hard work and am prepared, and I do my best in the moment, then I will be okay with the result.”
This “preparation” within the context of venture capital seems to run parallel with Janet’s operational and founder experience. Janet sees her professional advantage as the culmination of pushing towards the next biggest challenge.
“Part of it is working with other people who are constantly pushing me to improve, who are continually teaching me new things,” comments Janet. “If I’m not working with people or companies on the leading edge, eventually I myself will no longer be part of that leading edge. The world is changing so quickly that without constant new challenges and growth opportunities, one’s professional value gradually recedes.”
As a recent Kauffman Fellow, Janet describes her experience with the network as a source of inspiration and growth.
“I absolutely love Kauffman,” says Janet. “It’s consistent with these themes of surrounding yourself with people from whom you can learn and who inspire you. Not only is it full of smart, hard working and accomplished individuals from around the world, but the generosity of spirit that exists within the Kauffman network is fantastic.”
“Kauffman is unique and particularly important in an industry where there’s not a lot of movement between organizations,” says Janet. “Traditionally in venture capital, most people spend the majority of their professional career at one firm, in contrast to other industries such as advertising, where people move to new agencies very regularly. Most people in venture stay with the same firm, and with primarily the same partner group, for years. That helps to develop continuity but it can also lead to a lot of insular thinking. I’m a huge believer in learning from others and searching the world for best practices.”
Janet views investing as a vehicle to create positive change for the world, starting at the individual entrepreneur level, weaving into the startup ecosystem, and ultimately, creating a tangible positive difference for everyone.