Janet Bannister @ Bitmaker – Fireside chat

Our latest Fireside welcomed Janet Bannister to the Bitmaker space! Turning our third floor classroom into a buzzing evening event gets us energized. Janet is the General Partner at Real Ventures, a seed venture firm that focuses on early investment. Prior to this she launched Kijiji, one of Canada's most visited websites.

Janet sat down with Bitmaker’s CEO and Founder Andrew Mawer to discuss her background, the effect of the low Canadian dollar on startups and offered advice to young entrepreneurs.

Taking stock of Kijiji’s triumph

When exploring how Janet and her team made Kijiji the success it is today, she emphasized that its conception was very focused. Though colleagues felt that relying on having a nicer looking and overall “cleaner” platform – with more images and no personal ads – would easily bring in users, Janet disagreed. “All that matters is at the end of the day is that if I’m a buyer, I find what I’m looking for. If you’re a seller, all you care about is whether you sell what you have.”

You need to know your audience in order to harness traffic. It was important for Kijiji to stand apart from Craigslist to succeed, and so the team zeroed in on a specific demographic that was otherwise being overlooked. Cut to: Young families. They were not prominent users on Craigslist, and as a group they tend to go through a lot of transitional stages – cribs, bikes, clothing and cars and beyond. These stages present many opportunities for buying and selling.

“When we built Kijiji, I was so maniacal.” Janet grinned. “We did some experiments on what would drive traffic to the site. From there I would continually say ‘We’re going to be the best in the world for these levers of generating traffic and that’s it.’”

Raising with a low Canadian dollar

When asked about the ways that the current rate of the Canadian dollar affect US investment, Janet was realistic. It definitely can be difficult to raise funds in this climate, but having a low dollar here can be helpful so long as you’re not reliant upon it remaining that way.

Though it’s not advisable to build a cost structure that is dependent upon precarious variables such as exchange rate, Janet asserted that it is creating a draw for some US investment in Canada. “They’re saying ‘Oh, Canada’s on sale.’ They see great stuff going on and they want to come here to Toronto and Waterloo.”

When is it time for a founder to leave the bootstrapping days behind and focus on raising? For Janet, it depends on the circumstances. “If you can bootstrap for a while, that’s great. Ultimately, that will make fundraising easier. At the same time, if you can raise some money and raise it easily that can accelerate your growth.

“It really depends on your financial situation, however one thing to consider is, how important is it to be first to market? If that’s going to be the most important thing for winning, then you need to go fast and raise earlier. If you say, No – because of the dynamics of the market or the technology or whatever – I think I can go a little slower; then you don’t have to give away as much of your company when you raise.”

Pitching that startup? Research!

What does Janet look for when she’s assessing a pitch? She seeks hard workers and entrepreneurs who’ve done their homework. She recommends having a co-founder, especially someone who is more tech-focused. “It kills me when someone has begun a startup but hasn’t done the research to see if it’s really going to work. Make sure that you’ve done as much work as you can to ensure it’s viable. Understand the competition. Once you get going, be extremely focused.”

Thank you to everyone who came out to hear Janet! We’d also like to extend special thanks to Toronto startups Neutun, Tack, and Qoints for kicking off the night pitching their work to Janet and the crowd. Good luck to you all!