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A new venture

Janet Bannister, HBA'92, continues to see opportunities after Kijiji success

by Angie Wiseman

If you’ve ever bought or sold something on Kijiji, you’ve experienced Janet Bannister’s brainchild first-hand.

Bannister, HBA’92, founded Kijiji Canada, which has become the largest and most visited classified site in the country. She later led Kijiji Global, which included businesses in Europe, the United States and Asia. Her success with the company was unparalleled and, at the height of it, she walked away.

“I realized I wanted to be there for my son. I thought, ‘Ugh I’m missing out.’”

While at the time a bold business move, every decision Bannister has made in her successful career has led her to where she is now – overseeing 10 start-up companies as a general partner at Real Ventures, a venture capital firm.

“What I’ve realized is, through my career, I’ve jumped back and forth from consulting to operating roles. While I love operating, I think it makes me a better business person, and I’ve had some success there, I actually prefer advising, consulting and mentoring.”

The perfect mix for a venture capitalist.

And while it wasn’t always clear where her career would take her, she knew the entrepreneurial spirit she had cultivated from a young age would serve her well.

“Students get stressed out about should I do this, should I do that? The reality is, often it takes years. And people shift and change and you don’t really know until you get there. If you do something you love, and at the same time, you are learning and growing, you are in a better position than you were yesterday.”

Bannister ’s keen sense of adventure and willingness to explore the world was born at Western with an exchange in her fourth year that later landed her a position at Procter & Gamble in Brussels, Belgium. It was an opportunity to be immersed in a place with history and culture. It would not be her last international experience – it was just the beginning.

After spending four years at Procter & Gamble, she took time off and went backpacking around southeast Asia for four months. She was offered a position with McKinsey & Company when she returned.

“I was single and young and wanted to work as much as I could on interesting projects and was happy to go anywhere.” With projects in the United States, Montreal, Vancouver, Ireland and Poland, Bannister explored parts of the world while building her business experience.

After a brief stint in Boston, she connected with Meg Whitman, then president and CEO of eBay. Whitman convinced Bannister to move to Silicon Valley to work with her.

“It was really the heyday of eBay” she said. “When I joined there were 2,500 people worldwide and when I left there were 25,000. There was such huge growth. I felt very fortunate to have that experience.”

As a proud Canadian with a yearning to be back on native soil, Bannister asked to be moved back to Toronto so she could start a family with her husband. eBay was supportive of the move but required Bannister to take a lesser role as product director of eBay’s website. She wasn’t excited about the role but could see it might lead to bigger things.

When Bannister came back she noticed eBay was doing a great job of getting people to the website but their conversion (the ability to get those consumers to do something) was half of what it was in other countries. She tried to make changes to their approach but soon discovered it wasn’t going to close the gap.

“I realized this was a bigger problem. Canadians spend a ton of time online but they were very reluctant to purchase online.”

It was then she explored different models that might work in Canada. “I thought maybe classifieds would work better where you buy online but you transact in person.”

And that’s when Kijiji was born. She recognized that while craigslist was going strong, it wasn’t going after the market aggressively. Bannister saw this an opportunity to do something more entrepreneurial and interesting. She convinced the executives at eBay in Silicon Valley to let her launch Kijiji in Canada. Although eBay agreed, they didn’t want to put a lot of resources behind it.

While Bannister was getting product categories ready, executives in California were busy working on creating a name. And it wasn’t one Bannister liked immediately.

“They called and said, ‘We’ve got the name – it’s Kijiji. It means village in Swahili.’ I said ‘It’s what? How do you spell that?’ I wrote it down and couldn’t even read my own writing with all of the j’s and i’s. I thought, I don’t really care what it means, you’ve got to be able to spell it.”

But Bannister decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting. “It is what it is. We will just have to live it with and make the best of it. In life you figure out what you can change and what you live with.”

After successfully launching in Montreal and Quebec in French, Bannister went on maternity leave. She came back six months later and the business in Quebec was doing so well she convinced eBay to roll it out across the rest of the country.

“We didn’t have much budget and my philosophy was to focus on a couple of different marketing levers and on the user experience and it went well, it really took off.”

With all her success in Canada, Bannister was promoted to head global Kijiji business. She tripled revenue in one year and launched the site in the United States, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria.

Despite much success leading the international division of Kijiji and travelling the world, Bannister had a young son at home. She was missing too much of his life.

“I remember my husband said to me once, ‘What if you just quit?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘I can’t just quit.’ It felt like such a wimpy thing. ‘I don’t just quit,’ I told him. ‘I work.’ He said, ‘You’ve done amazing at this. Why don’t you take some time off to be with Andy (our son)?’

“It was just like being on a diet and someone giving me permission to eat a bowl of ice cream. I thought ‘I could really do that?’”

The decision to walk away from her success with Kijiji became an easy one. “I thought if I really want to be a stay-at-home mom, now is the time to do this. I wanted to be there for my son. I wanted to drop him off and pick him up from school.”

From there, she started her own consulting business helping large companies develop their online strategies, working with Indigo, ING direct (Tangerine) and Starbucks. It was a way to do more of what she loved while allowing her to make her own hours.

After four years, she felt the entrepreneurial itch once again. “I wanted to get my hands dirty again in terms of entrepreneurship,” she said of her decision to join a start-up company called The Coveteur, an online fashion and commerce site.

Not long after, she heard from the owners of Real Ventures asking if she would be interested in becoming a partner. Surprisingly, she didn’t think she would ever be interested in venture capital but that quickly changed.

“I like the individual challenges. I like working with different industries and taking learning from one industry and applying it to another. But I really love entrepreneurship.”

Working at Real Ventures allows Bannister to marry her love of mentorship and entrepreneurism. She currently leads 10 investments and spends her time evaluating and sitting on the boards of her mobile- and Internet-based start-ups.

“I see myself doing this as long as I’m working. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It just really makes me happy. I feel as though I have found my true passion.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Alumni Gazette
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