Mike Serbinis gives “all-in” lesson for startup founders at #TechTO

mike serbinis

For entrepreneurs eager to create massive, world-changing companies, LEAGUE founder and CEO Mike Serbinis has some words of advice.

At the latest TechToronto, Serbinis shared his journey of moving on from building Kobo to a startup disrupting the health insurance industry, and how the Toronto startup ecosystem has transformed for the better since his Kobo days.

When he launched Kobo, he thought about the future of reading and because the idea was new and innovative, the company scaled quickly and efficiently.

“This year, the goal is to do $10M months, and a year ago we didn’t even know what the hell this was.”

“I learned that there’s not many companies that have done [this] before, and when I think back to how we did it, [it was] all right here from Toronto,” said Serbinis. “The one thing that I come back to…is this idea of being in it to win it. Startups are hard; most of the time you’re in the suck where things are not working and it’s not a lot of fun…so if you’re in it, definitely be in it to win it.”

Serbinis added that while he was busy going back and forth between Toronto and Silicon Valley growing Kobo and competing against big competitors like Amazon, he didn’t notice the massive growth Toronto’s tech ecosystem had experienced during that time until he sold the company.

“I came up for air and everything had changed here,” said Serbinis. “[I] came back…there were more exits, accelerators, incubators. None of this shit existed when I started. If I had a penny for every innovation event I went to, I’d be a wealthier guy.”

Recognizing the “massive opportunity” to build what he couldn’t at Kobo, Serbinis looked to the future of health insurance, which led him to launch League, a digital health and wellness platform that raised a $32 million CAD Series A last year.

Serbinis suggests that this funding round was a sigh of relief for him. “No matter how many times I’ve done this, there is a point where you think this might be it. We might not get funding. And regardless of whether you think you can fund it yourself thereafter, if no one wants to join in, there’s a strong signal being sent to you.”

Initially, Serbinis admits the company did not have a prime focus, offering a consumer health network, payments and appointments processing, and software for employers and insurance providers. It wasn’t until he had a meeting with a health insurance CEO did he realize he should just focus on building the next generation of health insurance.

“We went all in, and as a startup founder, this is something you come to learn. You can’t try five different things, you have to jump in. You can’t spread your chips across every number on the roulette board, you have to go all in.”

Serbinis points out that a startup can be a fly on an elephant — providing tools to banks and insurance companies — or it can become the elephant. They decided to become the elephant and completely change the health insurance industry. The startup already seems to be well on its way with a recently-announced partnership with RBC.

“This year, the goal is to do $10 million months, and remember a year ago we didn’t even know what the hell this was.”

The next TechTO takes place on February 13. And don’t forget to celebrate the best of Toronto’s tech ecosystem at TechTO’s upcoming Best Of event!

Amira Zubairi

Amira Zubairi

Amira Zubairi is a staff writer at BetaKit. As a fourth-year journalism student who has written primarily about entrepreneurship, Amira has developed a growing interest in Canadian startup, business, and tech news. In her free time, Amira enjoys reading, baking and watching legal shows.