Fee Softly and Carry a Big Carry

While emerging venture managers often make concessions on fees and carried interest, established players have a history of writing their own rules. Some charge fees above the industry-standard 2%. Others seek a share of carried interest greater than the industry norm of 20%.  A few do both.

For New Enterprise Associates, known for raising some of the largest funds in the venture industry, it’s all about carry. For some time, the firm has made a practice of charging unusually low fees by venture industry standards and taking a higher-than-typical share of carried interest from returns on successful investments, Peter Barris, managing director at NEA, told attendees as last week’s PartnerConnect conference in Boston.

Barris says the practice is meant to align interests of general and limited partners in the fund, with the message to LPs being that GPs won’t make big returns unless they do, too. Additionally, Barris says, NEA makes an effort, where feasible, to pay back fees, which it essentially sees as a loan.

That said, Barris did not recommend dipping below the 2% management fee or upping general partners’ share of carry as advisable for the venture industry at large. For smaller funds in particular, he said, the fee is necessary to cover the operational costs of running the firm. “When you’re an early stage firm, there’s a direct correlation between fees and the cost of operating the fund,” he says. Once you’ve been around longer, however, there’s more of a disconnect.

Overall, Barris says NEA’s long-term strategy has been to take an institutionalized approach to venture investing.  While many firms build their reputation around high-profile partners and their compensation strategy around rewarding top performers, NEA pays its general partners the same amount. The idea, Barris says, is to create a culture in which “if I’m a GP, I care about someone else’s deal as much as I care about my own.”

The other notion behind the strategy is to establish NEA as a firm that can outlast the comings and goings of individual partners and operate on a large scale. The thinking there, Barris says, is that NEA’s partners have long believed the venture business is likely to go the way of other industries like banking, in which there are very large, full-service establishments and smaller boutique firms.  Venture fundraising data from the last couple of years seems to support that idea, with a concentration of capital in the hands of a few large, established firms.

Another way the firm tries to institutionalize its operations, says Barris, is through its advisory board, which is made up of many of its largest LPs, as well as some independent advisors. The board functions much like one at a venture-backed company, he says. Every fall, for instance, the firm presents its budget to the board, outlining plans for spending on salaries, travel and other expenses.

Yet while Barris didn’t point to any recent major changes in fund terms or firm processes, he did indicate a shift could be in the works if carried interest becomes taxed as income, as the federal government has long been considering. The current tax treatment of carried interest as capital gains, he said, definitely affects how fund terms are structured.

Photo courtesy of New Enterprise Associates