Nurturing founders: Janet Bannister’s new VC fund focuses on founder development

April 5, 2023

Written by: Kevin Crowley | 05 April 2023 | FeaturedNews

As a varsity athlete, Janet Bannister learned the importance of nurturing health, well-being and personal development.

Now, as a seasoned entrepreneur and VC, she applies the same approach to supporting new founders.

“My analogy is, if you want an athlete to bring home an Olympic gold medal, it’s not enough to just pick somebody who has lots of natural talent and works really hard,” says Bannister, an avid runner who was a three-sport athlete while studying business at Western’s Ivey Business School. “Yes, I’m going to pick somebody who has lots of natural talent and works hard, but then I’m going to give them the best coaching, the best nutrition, make sure they get good sleep and all those things. It’s the same with funding startups – you’ve got to find the best founders, but you also need to help them be the best they can be.”

Supporting founders is at the heart of Staircase Ventures, Bannister’s new VC company.

Earlier this week, she announced the close of the company’s $22-million Fund I. To distinguish the company, Bannister says she “set out to dramatically change the status quo of venture capital” by offering “unparalleled dedication to founder development.”

This includes a cut of the fund’s “carry,” or profit, and a “founder development platform” built on five pillars:

  • CEO coaching, consisting of one-on-one training to support the founder’s personal development.
  • Peer-support groups with founders across North America.
  • A health and wellness program to help founders enhance their physical and mental health.
  • Access to a personal financial advisor who specializes in supporting early stage tech founders.
  • And a “family stipend” to help cover unexpected child-care costs, elder support or other family needs.

“Staircase Ventures was founded on the belief that founders are the bedrock upon which all companies are built and that by changing how we work with and treat founders, we can dramatically alter the trajectory of their companies,” says Bannister.

The company will focus on seed funding for Canadian-based B2B software startups.

Bannister says she is concentrating on the seed stage for several reasons. First, it’s the stage she has focused on for the past decade. And second, it’s where a VC can have the most influence on an emerging company.

“That stage is the most critical,” says Bannister, who has been an active board member with numerous startups. “By being a strong investor in a company in the early days, you can really shape the culture and the strategy and the character of the organization.”

Bannister – who also serves on the boards of Communitech and the Vector Institute, and is Co-chair of the C100, an international support group for Canadian tech founders – says that helping early-stage Canadian companies is critical for the country’s tech ecosystem.

While U.S. investors are keen to participate in later rounds, Canadian startups lack sufficient seed funding.

“We need to make sure that we have enough Canadians providing seed-stage capital for companies because that is not done in a significant way from anybody outside Canada,” she says.

Bannister’s resumé reads like a model career guide.

She graduated from Ivey with an academic gold medal, which she earned – along with her university athletic letter – while also participating on Western’s cross country, track and field and Nordic ski teams.

She went to work for Procter & Gamble as a brand manager, then spent three years at global consulting firm McKinsey & Company. She later joined eBay and played a lead role in starting Kijiji Canada, moving up to become Kijiji’s Worldwide General Manager. She then spent a few years running her own consulting firm before taking on the CEO role at a startup called Coveteur. In 2014, she joined Real Ventures as Managing Partner. 

Although she’s still connected to Real, she took a step back last fall and now serves as a venture partner.

Bannister’s track record helped her raise Staircase’s $22-million Fund 1 in just four months.

“What I saw was tremendous support from investors for me as an investor, as a person, and also tremendous support for my vision,” she says.

Investor caution has been a major drag on the global tech sector for the past 16 months. But Bannister says this is the perfect time to invest in startups.

First, company valuations are down from the heady days of 2021. And second, the founders who are persevering through the current turbulence are more resilient, determined and focused.

“When times are tough, it takes a lot more courage and a lot more personal conviction to say, ‘Yeah, I know that times are tough but I’m still going to start my business,’” she says. “It just changes the type of founder that launches a business.”

Bannister knows the Waterloo Region tech community through her work on the Communitech board and through past investments in area startups, such as talent-assessment company Plum.

“I love the Waterloo ecosystem,” she says. “I’ve invested in companies that are in Waterloo and I’m looking forward to doing more of that in the future.”

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