by Gloria Welton
During Small Business Week, the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce provided information to local entrepreneurs to help them prepare for what is on the horizon. This year’s theme was Seizing the opportunity to build the way forward.
The keynote speaker this year was Janet Bannister, Founder of Kijiji.ca. Janet is passionate about helping entrepreneurs reach their full potential.
She lives in Toronto and is now a Managing Partner with Real Ventures, which invests in and supports the development of early-stage, visionary founders who are building innovative, impactful tech companies. She works actively with them to help accelerate growth and create meaningful impact.
She has founded and built successful entrepreneurial ventures and has made an impact at leading companies such as Procter & Gamble, McKinsey & Company, and eBay. She founded Kijiji.ca and grew it to become one of the most visited websites in Canada. She also founded and built a successful consulting business and is an avid long-distance runner, competing in international triathlons. Today she balances her active lifestyle with being a wife and a mother to her 10-year-old son.
Janet started by saying this was the first in-person event she had been to in over 18 months and was so excited to be on PEI. She loved the Island right from the first time she visited as a child.
Her talk was about her professional journey and the lessons learned. “I hope my story will help you gain insight into how to adapt and thrive in the business world today. The present is unlike any time we have ever seen in our history in terms of the pace of change.
“The three key lessons I have learned is (1) to take initiative and make your own path (2) to always be learning, experimenting, and growing and (3) to invest in personal relationships because as much as technology is transforming our lives, personal relationships matter more today than ever before.”
Initiative and persistence
“I was the youngest of four children, and I got my start in business when I was 14 years old. We were always expected to work and make money so we could afford to go to university. At that point, I read a book called Iacocca, which described how Lee Iacocca turned Chrysler around in the 1980s.
“I was fascinated by the business world and couldn’t wait until I turned 15 to get some real business experience. I didn’t think anyone would hire me at that age, so the next summer I wrote a business plan and started a muffin business.
“When I first started, every business I approached said no. I wanted to quit until I remembered my plan. I kept going and all of a sudden, five stores agreed to carry my muffins. I learned a lot about business, but more importantly I learned a lot about persistence.”
After she graduated from university, she joined Procter & Gamble as a brand manager, then moved to McKinsey & Company as a management consultant. Although both were great experiences, she really wanted to be an entrepreneur.
“In 1999, technology seemed to be the future. I didn’t have a background in that area and thought it was time to learn about entrepreneurship and technology by working for a small but fast-growing tech company.
“I went online and researched the top venture capitalist firms. Benchmark Capital seemed to be the one to connect with. I got the phone number and email of the contact and asked to join one of the companies’ firms. I stayed persistent in trying to connect for about three weeks before I received a reply.
“Finally, the company’s assistant called me and said my messages had been received but there was no opportunity for me. I said I was still very interested in meeting with the owner, and a few weeks later I called and a meeting was set up. As I did research to get ready for the meeting, I found out he was a legend in this city and he was the first to put money into eBay.
“We had a great meeting, and he asked me to join eBay. He said it was growing quickly from starting as a site to buy and sell collectibles. The next thing I knew I was moving to Silicon Valley in northern California to work for eBay.
“My role was to build categories of buying and selling products other than collectibles. This is a story about taking initiatives, which was a pivotal time in my life, because I got to work with incredible people.”
An entrepreneurial spirit embraces failure
“We quadrupled the business year over year and really expanded what they were all about. The biggest thing I learned and witnessed in Silicon Valley was that entrepreneurial spirit combined with a lack of fear of failure. I saw that failure was not a discouragement, but a turning point to move on. The mentality of trying new things is so critical in business.
“At that point in my life, living in the United States, I realized I am a proud Canadian at heart and I wanted to come back to Canada to live and raise our family. I spoke to my friends at eBay, who were so cooperative with the plan to find me a position in Canada.
“They offered me a job overseeing the website and being responsible for product. It didn’t sound as exciting as what I was doing, but that was my ticket home, and I went for it.
“We moved from California to Toronto in January in the middle of a snowstorm, but it was the best thing for us.
“The first thing I did was to see how Canada was responding to eBay. I found more Canadians were visiting eBay than any other nationality in the world. However, they were not buying from the site. Online purchasing was half what it was in other countries, so I saw that as an opportunity.
“I found out that Canadians at that point in time were reluctant to purchase online because they didn’t see it as a secure way to shop. I thought a different model would work better.
“I came up with about five different models. One was an online classified site, which would allow researching online but transactions would be in person. I went back to eBay with the idea, but they were not as enthusiastic as I was.”
Entrepreneurs have a passion to create
“Business owners can relate to that passion of wanting to create something. I didn’t give up, and eventually this idea turned into launching Kijiji.ca in Canada.
“It was not an overnight success. We tried so many ways to approach this concept that didn’t work. However, within a few years it became one of the most visited sites in Canada, and I was overseeing all the Kijiji sites around the world.
“It is very true that an overnight success is 20 years in the making. It became incredibly successful, but the key was to seek out a target group where there is less competition and fulfill needs.
“We started by marketing to young moms to help them sell their used baby products. What worked to build this business was to continue to experiment.”
Taking initiative and believing in yourself
“In the early days of Kijiji.ca as I tried to build awareness with a very small budget, I looked for press coverage. I set up an interview with a large Canadian newspaper.
“However, it was a very discouraging experience. The reporter flat out said this idea was not going to work. I remember driving home on a beautiful day and I saw people playing in the park. This helped me process the experience and get back to believing in myself and continuing to work.
“This was another pivotal moment. I now have a quote on my desk that says Don’t get discouraged – get determined. We will all experience discouragement, but it is about how we respond and what we learn.”
It takes courage to ask yourself if you are on the right road
“In this role I was having amazing experiences and traveling a lot. After our son was born, I continued to travel all over the world but I felt I was missing something.
“It is important to listen to your passions and your heart. When my son was about four years old, I made the difficult decision to leave my job and stay at home for a year. That was very important to me, yet I felt a bit of opposition from others who wondered why I would leave this awesome career to stay at home.
“It takes a lot of courage to ask yourself if you are on the right road for yourself and your family. The year off was amazing and a great time.
“When I came back to working outside the home, I started a consulting business, and then seven years ago I joined Real Ventures. We focus on investing in early stages technology companies. I absolutely love my work, and I have never been happier. I am the most fortunate person in the world because I get to work with entrepreneurs and invest in their businesses, support them, and help them grow.”
The pace of change today is faster than ever before
The ecommerce industry is the buying and selling of goods and services, or the transmitting of funds or data, over an electronic network, primarily the internet. “As a result of the pandemic, this business area has grown faster in the last almost two years than what would have been predicted over 10 years.
“The question now is how to respond. One example is an Island business called Experience PEI. COVID-19 ended the high numbers of tourists coming to PEI. So they brought PEI home to them by delivering boxes of PEI food and other products. I applaud that kind of initiative.”
Always be learning. “I do not consider myself to be a technology person. I need to understand it but it is not my primary talent or interest. We all must apply technology to our business. Don’t be intimidated. Instead, figure out how can it be used to transform your business.”
How can you always be learning and growing? “The tech world has shown us that we must have the ability to learn and be a sponge for knowledge. You are never too old or too young to learn. It is not about age, it is about the mental mindset to be willing to learn, test, and iterate.
“I spend time each day learning about things I don’t know about and I reach out to people who are knowledgeable in areas I am not, so I can learn. Some of our more successful businesses are doing something very different from what they started out doing.”
Invest in strong relationships
In a world where technology is becoming so dominant, personal relationships have never been more important than they are today. “We all crave interaction and COVID-19 has challenged this need like never before.
“It is amazing how businesses and teams of people are coming together, supporting each other, and are stronger together. Invest in those relationships.
“Your personal reputation is your most important asset and that must be protected. The people around you can make you or break you. No one can do it all alone, and as entrepreneurs, we must be able to attract and inspire others to build and run a successful business and have loyal customers.
“It is important to maintain relationships in your personal life, in business, and in your community. A rising tide lifts all boats. At Real Ventures we talk all the time about making Canada the best place to start and grow a business.”
For more information about Real Ventures, visit www.realventures.com