At YouWeb, a Constant Quest to Anticipate Social and Mobile Gaming’s Future

It’s not easy to create a successful company in Silicon Valley; by popular estimates, only about 1 in 10 will survive, much less be successful. One of the ways entrepreneurs can try to hedge their bets is by joining an incubator, like YouWeb, a well-known venture started by former tech exec Peter Relan. In three years YouWeb hasn’t yet had an exit, but it has managed to produce three companies – CrowdStar, Aurora Feint and Sibblingz — that look like good bets, with more waiting in the wings.

YouWeb has definitely developed a specialty over its short lifespan. CrowdStar, the first YouWeb company to enjoy some large-scale success with its early Facebook games, is the content producer. OpenFeint, which initially tried to do mobile gaming, is creating iterating on a social platform with over 50 million users, which should allow companies like CrowdStar to succeed in mobile. Sibblingz, a less-known company, is working on ways to efficiently cross-publish web games to mobile. Another, iSwifter, is coming at the same web-to-mobile problem from a different angle, with a model that’s similar to the streaming game companies OnLive and Gaikai.

These companies are obviously related, but are they backed up by a grander plan? We recently got a chance to ask the entrepreneurs and YouWeb founder Peter Relan that question directly.

MeWeb

The structure and rules of YouWeb aren’t terribly unusual for an incubator. Relan invites in expert developers to spend a year working on their ideas. Each gets three tries to succeed, and if their ideas don’t pan out, they have to move on. The rules aren’t ironclad; Jason Citron founded Aurora Feint on his fourth try, according to Relan. Sibblingz founder Ben Savage started as an intern, not an entrepreneur.

Once a company gains some traction, it gets its own offices in the bank building that houses YouWeb in Burlingame. There’s also a YouWeb branch in New York City, started by an entrepreneur who decided he preferred Relan’s job, but it’s at an earlier stage than Burlingame.

As close as the companies are to each other, each told us that it’s focused on its own niche. One, Aurora Feint, may even be preparing to move on from YouWeb. “We’re kind of at the point now where we’re starting to really separate from them in a positive way,” says founder Jason Citron.  “Peter’s whole thing is this incubation, they bring in entrepreneurs and teach business strategy until they grow up and exit the nest. We’re now getting to the part where we’re kind of starting to exit.”

Still, he says, that plan doesn’t prevent a constant interchange between YouWeb’s members. “We sometimes do pretty atypical but friendly collaborations that can be hard to do with a regular company,” Citron says.

For Suren Markosian, a co-founder of CrowdStar, the tie that binds is Peter Relan – doubly so, now that Relan has taken over as CEO of his company.  “On a personal level all the managers are friends … we have a common friend, Peter, who’s very much like us but has a lot more experienced. He propagates our learnings throughout the company,” says Markosian.

Ben Savage, the Sibblingz founder, also has a personal take, having been mentored from his position as YouWeb intern to Sibblingz CEO by Relan. “He has a very good understanding of the whole space, but he can also see how each company’s strengths can complement the other. This is something that most companies don’t have the opportunity to do,” says Savage.

As much as each company agrees that YouWeb is useful for partnerships, though, they don’t express any enthusiasm for the idea of working toward a single objective. Relan, on the other hand, does find the idea attractive.