How League is rethinking traditional workplace health benefits

A new venture from the founder of Kobo aims to save employers money by giving employees more targeted health care benefits

Mike Serbinis

League founder Mike Serbinis at the fall 2013 keynote for Kobo, the e-reader company he sold to Rakuten. (Neilson Barnard/Getty)

Mike Serbinis isn’t a fan of the word “pivot.” It’s an overused term in startup circles that sometimes suggest the entrepreneurs in question didn’t really know what they were getting into, so they ended up doing something entirely different from their original idea.

The reality is that nearly all startups “pivot” as part of their natural evolution, says Serbinis, who is quickly becoming one of Canada’s most respected serial entrepreneurs.

Serbinis sold his first startup docSpace, an email sharing network, to U.S.-based Critical Path in 2000 for $258 million (U.S.) in stock. He then built Kobo into one of the biggest e-book operations in the world before selling it to Japan’s Rakuten in 2011 for $315 million.

He’s back now with League, a health services company that has attracted backing from the likes of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System and BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis’s Infinite Potential Technologies.

Serbinis got the idea for League while taking time off after the hectic travel pace at Kobo. He was at a conference on the future of medicine, where he realized how slowly the industry was adopting innovation. Most companies were focused on servicing doctors or medical institutions, with almost none thinking about the end consumer.

“The more I dug into it, the more fascinated I was with how big the market was and how relatively undisrupted it was,” Serbinis says. “It seemed like an attractive mission to get onto.”

He incorporated League in June, 2014, pulled together some of this old Kobo team, and corralled some funding. By June 2015, the company had a services marketplace—an Uber-like app where users could quickly find, book and pay for health services such as massage, yoga, meditation and so on.

Then came the, ahem, pivot.

Serbinis figured that getting other businesses on board would be a good way to bring in users, since companies could do his marketing for him. But, once he got talking to the people who manage health services within those companies, he found there were bigger fish to fry.

Many were dissatisfied with their health benefits providers. They were either archaic, overpriced or offering services that employees didn’t use or want, or all of the above.

There was clearly room for someone to come in and transform the system. Serbinis and his team began orienting their work toward those group benefits, with a plan to launch an offering soon.

League’s benefits will be a sort of pick-and-pay, where employees will choose what they want. It’ll be a more efficient system, Serbinis says, since the benefits will be more tailored to the employees. A company comprised mainly of young workers, for example, won’t be paying for as many hearing aids or chiropractic sessions.

In the meantime, League has launched a supplemental wellness program management platform for businesses. As I wrote in the Toronto Star this weekend, an increasing number of businesses are offering wellness sessions for employees on top of their regular drug and dental plans.

These can include services, such as yoga or personal trainers, not covered by typical benefits.

Such programs inevitably bring administration costs, however, which League is looking to minimize through its platform. So far, 100 companies in Toronto and Seattle have signed up.

Serbinis considers his company’s progress so far to be a natural evolution, rather than the proverbial “pivot.”

It was no different at Kobo, which started in 2009 as Shortcovers, a cloud e-reading service. The company eventually evolved into a full-on e-book retailer and hardware maker, but it took nearly two years to figure out that leveraging physical bookstores was the best way forward.

“It was just the weekly process we went through,” Serbinis says. “It was one of 50 things we were going to try and not only did it generate traction, it pulled us into it.”

The situation is similar with League.

“I didn’t go into this to create an insurance company or a new kind of benefits company. It was a by-product of creating this consumer experience and just testing it in the marketplace,” he says. “It was pulled from the market.”