Innovation is about more than just technology. It’s all about developing and nurturing ideas and putting in the hard work.
That’s the opinion of Janet Bannister, the founder of Kijiji.ca and general partner at Real Ventures, who reflected on the state of innovation in light of her work in Silicon Valley and helping Canadian tech start-up companies grow.
Bannister took the stage for a conversation with Allan Gregg, Canadian research professional and Chairman of Harris/Decima, at The Innovators 2017, an event hosted by the Information and Communication Technologies Association of Manitoba (ICTAM) at the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg on April 19, 2017.
Opening remarks by Minister Cliff Cullen, Minister of Growth, Enterprise and Trade for the Province of Manitoba and MLA for Spruce Woods, highlighted the importance of engaging talented young people and continuing to develop their skills and expertise within the province.
Banister and Gregg echoed the Minister’s sentiments, highlighting innovation right here on the prairies and focusing on the importance of keeping talented innovators in Canada. Their on-stage conversation immediately demonstrated the growing innovation happening in Winnipeg and from Manitobans province-wide.
L-R: Allan Gregg, Chairman of Harris/Decima; Janet Bannister, founder of Kijiji.ca and General Partner at Real Ventures; Dan McKeen, Vice-Chair of Bell MTS and the company’s Western Canada Senior Vice-President of Small Business.
Winnipeg innovation is growing
“I’m really excited about what’s happening in Winnipeg,” Bannister said, pointing to the success of Skip the Dishes, which was founded in Saskatchewan but moved to Winnipeg and was recently sold for $110 million. While in the city, she also met with local companies Permission Click and Bold Commerce.
“There’s a lot of great stuff happening that’s starting to bubble up,” she added. “The great thing about technology is that you really can build a business anywhere.”
Having worked in Silicon Valley for eBay, Bannister understands the tech brain-drain of Canadian talent. In 2005, she came back to Canada (she’s now based in Toronto) after working for four years in California.
“People go to the Valley or elsewhere for two reasons — for compensation, but they also want to be challenged and want the career opportunities,” she said. “We need to think about how we can give these great opportunities to Canadians.”
Canadian tech companies now more valuable
While Gregg said Canada has lagged somewhat in funding innovation over the last decade and a half, both he and Bannister pointed to positive recent developments, including more collaboration between geographic tech clusters across the country and the fact that universities, businesses and government are increasingly getting on board together when it comes to innovation.
Bannister and Gregg discuss Canadian tech innovation on stage.
“It’s exciting to see that,” Bannister said. “We really are at a tipping point, I believe, in this country and it’s incredibly exciting in terms of where we are… I think Canadians are saying they’ve had enough of our best and brightest going down to the States.”
Bannister also said she’s confident the days are gone when Canadian tech companies were happy to sell out for a couple million bucks.
“Ten years ago, if a Canadian had an opportunity to sell their company for say, $10 million and take home $2 million, people would think that’s great,” she said. “If they didn’t take that paycheque, people would think, ‘What, are you crazy? You’ve got money on the table, take a few million dollars and you’re set.’ I think that is changing as we see more and more successful tech startups. The ambition for Canadians is changing, and when I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs now, they really want to build a huge company and build it in Canada.
“I think people are recognizing that manufacturing jobs are going to disappear because of technology and we have to replace it with something. We cannot continue to just rely on what has historically propelled our economy and we need to invest in innovation and technology.”
Audience members listen intently to the guest speakers.
What matters when it comes to funding
With Montreal-based venture capital company Real Ventures, Bannister is working to fund those Canadian early-stage tech businesses and grow them here at home.
“Deal structuring is really a tiny fraction of it,” she said. “Really, what you spend your time doing is meeting with entrepreneurs and figuring out which companies you believe are going to be successful, and then working with them and helping them be successful.”
The big idea is always important, but Bannister stressed that it’s also about the team you create and putting in the hard work.
“It’s tenacity, the willingness to learn, getting feedback, what you do when you don’t know,” Bannister said.
It’s also about reaching out and collaborating with others.
How to take your business to the next level
“I think it takes a community to raise a company,” she said. “There are all sorts of programs out there, here in Winnipeg and across the country. My advice to an entrepreneur is do not sit in your basement and do it all yourself.
“You need to have that support network and learn from each other. Life’s too short to make all the mistakes yourself.”
Bannister said companies on the rise have to realize success does not come overnight — regardless of how media may frame the rise of tech businesses.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is thinking it’s easy,” she said. “With Kijiji, I talk to people now and they say, ‘You guys just took off and it was great!’ It didn’t feel like that on the inside. It felt like a lot of work and that a lot of things went wrong. It’s never that pretty on the inside.”
“Listening to you, it’s very clear that innovation isn’t all about technology,” Gregg said to Bannister on stage. “It’s about an idea, an idea that creates value where none existed before. The fact that when people pitch you, what you’re looking for is ‘tell me a story.’
“But you have to be able to tell that story. That’s a message that is hard-learned, I think, when you’re in the technology sector. That it’s not just about code, that it’s not just about data. It’s about creativity and ideas.”
Bell MTS was presenting sponsor of The Innovators. The event’s platinum sponsor was BDO. Gold sponsors included IBM, Red River College and Manitoba Institute. Silver sponsors were Online Business Systems and DXC.technology. Bronze sponsor was NetSet Communications.