Mike Serbinis is a serial entrepreneur who has founded companies in Silicon Valley and Toronto. His most recent endeavour, League, seeks to build a truly global company headquartered in Toronto. Read on to see his global idea for tech and innovation.
How did you get involved in tech?
In high school, I was a nerd. I won the International Science and Engineering Fair, which gave me the chance to meet and interact with the CEO of Intel. I also won a few awards from NASA for my work in rocket science, and while I was at Queen’s University studying engineering and physics I was a year-round co-op student at Microsoft.
The fateful decision to move to tech came one morning after graduating engineering school.
I had an offer to work at Microsoft – a sure path to making a lot of money – and I had an offer to join Zip2, a young startup founded by then-unknown entrepreneur Elon Musk.
I chose the latter, and spent the next decade in and out of California. After my experience with Zip2, I founded and exited two other companies in California.
When I moved back to Toronto in 2006 with a wife and kid, it felt like I had left a tech Mecca and arrived in a city that was not doing much. I did some consulting for a few years, but my mentors told me to go build the global company that I felt was lacking in Toronto.
I took their advice and built Kobo in 2009, which I grew to a $300 million-plus exit in 2012. I stayed on as CEO until 2014, then left to found League.
You have 3 hours to make someone fall in love with Toronto – where do you take them and what do you show them?
It all depends on the time of year.
If it’s the end of summer, I’d take them to a TIFF party.
If it’s basketball season, we’d get court-side seats to the Raptors game.
Any time year round, though, we’d go for dinner in the west end at Ossington and then go for tequila shots at Reposado.
Elevate Toronto is founded on three principles (#DiversityIsOurStrength, #DisruptTogether, #ItsOurTime). Which one resonates most with you?
I’ve had the benefit of building four companies – two in California and two in Toronto – and in the past five years, Toronto has gone through a multi-dimensional acceleration of tech capabilities. We’ve passed the tipping point on talent, dollars, access to mentorship, and a humongous influx of new company creation.
When I founded Kobo and built it to be a successful global brand, it felt lonely. Now, I can’t even keep up fully with everything going in Toronto tech despite sitting on multiple boards, advising entrepreneurs, and investing in new companies.
What is your “global idea” for tech and innovation?
My global idea is to remind people that tech is a global-podium sport, like the Olympics.
Opportunity only happens every so often, it’s always global, and no one remembers third place. You have to realize that and always aim to be first or second on a global scale.
Thinking to my own business, League, we’re disrupting a trillion dollar industry and are doing that by bringing health benefits into the digital, customer-centric age.
There is no “18th place” in tech and there is no “3rd place” in any one country. If you want to be truly disruptive, aim for the global podium.
What should the world know about the Toronto tech community?
The world should know that we have superpower companies and opportunities here in Toronto, such as AI. Whether it be companies raising millions, the Vector Institute, or large corporates setting up their global AI hubs in Toronto, we have a lot going on here.
More than that, though, Toronto has a high concentration of financial services and healthcare companies, meaning the potential for AI to massively disrupt FinTech and HealthTech is especially high in Toronto.