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Venture Firm at Home With In-House Businesses

The recent narrative of companies coming up in L.A.’s growing tech sector has largely been one of entrepreneurs developing an idea, perhaps finding some mentorship and then going through rounds of traditional venture capital financing.

Now, two new companies are looking to turn that model on its head by turning back the clock.

Santa Monica’s Zuma Ventures, which launched last week, and MobLabs, which made its debut in September, are taking a page from Idealab, the Pasadena tech innovator founded by Bill Gross in the 1990s, by positioning themselves as venture-backed, incubator-style “studios,” where the goal is to birth tech startups dreamed up by studio founders.

“In our first iteration, the companies are ones we’re going to be creating ourselves, which is truly the Bill Gross model,” said David Carter, a Zuma principal and tech entrepreneur who was a co-founder of accelerator Amplify LA.

Carter and partner Allen Hurff, a former executive vice president of engineering at Beverly Hills’ MySpace Inc., plan to launch at least three companies over the next 18 months. Carter said the first would be focused on the travel sector; the second is expected to concentrate on data security.

MobLabs, co-founded by former Zynga and Scopely exec Andy Kleinman and three other principals with vast mobile gaming experience, plans to focus exclusively on the creation of mobile apps outside the gaming space, some of which it might start testing as early as next month.

“It’s not hard to build a mobile app,” Kleinman said. “You can usually build those things pretty leanly and fast.”

He said the studio hopes to open an office in Venice soon and is close to closing a seed investment round.

He doesn’t like to use the word “incubator” to describe MobLabs’ approach, preferring to compare it to the business models employed by large tech companies with different divisions, such as Facebook Inc., Yahoo Inc. or Apple Inc.

“Is Facebook a social network?” Kleinman said. “Yeah, but they have all these other products and things that they do that are not just a social network.”

This studio model adopted by Zuma and MobLabs differs from incubators and accelerators such as Science Inc. and Amplify that have nurtured a number of the tech success stories in Los Angeles. Rather than bringing in entrepreneurs with an idea for the next big thing, their attention will for now be focused solely on creating companies around ideas generated in-house, or the “Bill Gross model,” as Carter put it.

Gross was unavailable for comment, but a spokeswoman said that since its inception, about 80 percent of Idealab’s 125 companies have been generated internally. Science produces companies from within, too.

The in-house model allows entrepreneurs like Carter and Kleinman to have a more active role in the creation of companies while not having to go out and raise money each time.

Carter and Hurff acknowledge that they’ve drawn much of their inspiration from Idealab, as well as incubators such as Science, where Hurff served as one of its first entrepreneurs in residence.

Meanwhile, investors will be betting on the track record of the studios’ co-founders and trusting they know how to steer these companies toward successful returns and exits. Zuma, for instance, brought on Richard Wolpert, a venture partner at Palo Alto’s Accel Partners and managing director at Amplify, as a venture adviser.

Zuma has a clear strategy for bringing in outside talent to run its companies after the ideation and development stage is complete and the product is ready to hit the market, Carter said. The company will look for experienced tech leaders to take the reins, preferably those with an exit or two in the same sector as the product they’re developing.

As a way to entice executives who might otherwise focus on their own ventures, Zuma plans to offer chief executives “co-founder” status, plus a 20 percent to 30 percent equity stake in the new company. An additional 15 percent will be made available for them to divvy up among their incoming team.

“We have already identified people that we’re looking to go after,” Carter said. “We have to wait until the perfect time when we feel like we have something really good to offer them. We give huge deference to the CEO.”

Amplify co-founder and Executive Director Jeff Solomon said Zuma is offering a good deal since many entrepreneurs wind up with less than a 20 percent stake in their companies by the time they make an exit, particularly if there are multiple co-founders.

“If you’re more of a product-oriented CEO, it’s a great situation,” Solomon said. “You’ve got a built-in infrastructure to hit the ground running.”

Carter said this model could also lead to quicker returns for investors than those offered by traditional venture capital funds because Zuma is not looking for exits north of $100 million due to its large equity stake in multiple companies.

“We are able to make great internal rate of return with exits that are $40 million to $100 million,” Carter said. “It’s generally a faster return. Most venture funds take 10 to 20 years. We can take exits that come in a couple years.”

At MobLabs, Kleinman said his group also plans to bring in management teams to work with the company’s core product development, engineering and marketing staff.

However, it plans to negotiate equity stakes on a case-by-case basis.

“It depends on how much we want somebody and how much value they can add,” he explained. “There’s no template.”

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