Janet Bannister: Finding innovation where no one else is looking

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Venture capital often moves like a tide. Janet Bannister seeks opportunity that's just a bit farther out.

"I like to find that areas that are undervalued, where nobody is looking, where there are better opportunities," said Bannister, a general partner at Real Ventures in Toronto and one of PaymentsSource's 2017 Most Influential Women in Payments. Bannister's role at Real Ventures puts her in a position to determine which companies will change the future of payments.

Take mobile point of sale. For the past couple of years, huge investments have gone into software and hardware that enables tablets and mobile phones to accept credit cards. But a lot of that money has gone in a very narrow area, according to Bannister.

"They're going after micro merchants, and that's a pretty crowded market. I found a company that doesn't do what they do," said Bannister, a graduate of the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School.

That company is Dream Payments. Real Ventures recently made an investment in Dream, a Toronto-based startup that looks to quickly outfit merchants of all sizes with mobile point of sale technology.

The Dream terminal works with iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, or integrates with existing point of sale systems to provide a dashboard with sales, inventory reporting, analytics and customer insights. Dream has won the IVIE award for the Canadian Payments Benefiting Acquirers Innovation, and is the only mobile platform that enables Interac debit and chip-and-PIN credit card payment terminals to be sold off the shelf, a benefit given Interac's deep ties to Canada's technology development scene and its global ambition.

"There are about $20 trillion in payments at the point of sale annually, and about $100 billion at micro merchants. And there's an awful lot of startups going after micro merchants," Bannister said.

In Canadian technology circles, Bannister is probably best known for launching Kijiji, an eBay-owned online classified ad service that's available in more than 300 cities in Canada, and is also available in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy and other markets (in the U.S. it was rebranded as eBay Classifieds in 2010). Kijiji is the most popular classified site in Canada and is one of the country's largest overall websites. Bannister has also worked for Procter & Gamble and McKinsey.

While at Real Ventures, Canada's largest and most active early-stage venture capital firm, Bannister has led investments in a dozen companies including FundThrough, GymTrack, Universe, Vantage Analytics, Plooto, Kooltra, LEAGUE, Hubba and TritonWear. Much of these companies' technology serves merchant needs. Hubba, for example, is a inventory management platform that helps retailers replace merchandise.

Bannister has also backed Instant Financial, a Vancouver-based salary payments company that fits the same kind of diamond-in-the-rough mold as Dream Payments. Instant Financial enables employees to access their salary on a daily basis, instead of once every two weeks.

Instant Financial's model is unusual compared to other payroll plays. Most startups target contract workers and most payment apps in general focus on the party making the payment, rather than the recipient. Bannister sees the company as a financial health play, where people access money at the same time they incur expenses, rather than budgeting salary and expenses that come at different times of the month.

"If there's a lot of investment going into one area, I like to go to another area," Bannister said.

Bannister's entrepreneurial tendencies started at an early age when her father, an IBM salesman, gave her business advice. "When I was very young he said you can do anything in life that you want if you work hard enough," Bannister said.

It's a lesson that's stuck with her as Bannister has successfully navigated the world of venture capital, which suffers from a severe gender gap. The number of women who are partners at VC firms is notoriously low, and Bannister said it's hard to find other women in senior positions at technology investors.

"It's a very male dominated world, and my father's words about being able to do anything have stuck with me," Bannister said. "If I had to pick one person that's shaped my career it would by my father."

Bannister estimates about 3% of partners at venture capital firms are women, a number that's not dramatically improving, but trending toward "not as bad" as it used to be.

"It's inching up," she said. "Not quickly, but there are a lot of women in the lower levels of venture capital firms, such as analysts or associates, that can move up in the future."


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