by Kate BarrettMay 05, 2016
“…it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” - B. Russell
A few weeks ago, I ran into one of NEA’s retired GPs in our Menlo Park office. This is not unusual—it seems that people rarely retire from NEA, they just spend less time in the office. On this particular day, it felt serendipitous…I’d been trying to chase down a bit of firm history for weeks, and if anyone could restore some of the more arcane details to the record, it would be this man.
Notebook in hand (once a reporter, always a… note-taker) and basking in my good fortune, I tossed him a softball to get things going.
Me: When did NEA adopt its current logo?
Retired GP: NEA has a logo? When did we get a logo?
Me: [mouth opens, nothing comes out]
Retired GP: Wait, do you mean the letters N-E-A?
If I’d ever wondered what if felt like to be smacked upside the head with a 2x4, mission accomplished. I’d been itching for a rebrand for almost nine years—a sentiment shared by many on our team. But it didn’t seem right to dive in until (1) I knew the firm inside and out, and (2) I felt reasonably certain it would not crush the souls of our most senior partners. Well, ok. Check and check.
“Design is the silent ambassador of your brand.” - P. Rand
The truth is, for most of NEA’s four decades, there was no particular mandate for marketing. The only ‘brand ambassadors’ we needed were the entrepreneurs and LPs who chose to partner with us. The partnership was focused on raising capital, investing in great people and big ideas, and building a powerful network—a mission that has held up remarkably well over time.
Until very recently, venture capital was not a mainstream industry. Word of mouth went a long way, and performance spoke volumes. The latter will always be true—performance trumps everything. But today, for better or worse, venture capital is unequivocally mainstream and word of mouth works best with a microphone. Many of our partners were only lured to the
dark marketing side when it was clear that our brand did matter to our portfolio companies (both existing and prospective).
The reticence was long-standing; almost a decade ago I remember having my first ‘media prep’ call with our co-founder Dick Kramlich. He said, “You know, I really try to steer clear of these things. It’s not our way to shout from the rooftops. Now when our companies succeed, that’s the noise I care about making.”
I could fill a novel’s worth of pages with inspirational Dick Kramlich quotes, but I’ll get to the point: just as Dick was not going to wax promotional without a higher purpose, I wasn’t going to mess with a decades-old logo without a really good reason. But the partnership’s gradual acceptance of the new marketing paradigm had shown me that there are many shades of change. Change is not always a path to becoming something else; sometimes, you change to more accurately reflect what you are.
Dick and co-founders Chuck Newhall and Frank Bonsal knew that from day one. Even as they created a fund, they were building an institution. They named it New Enterprise Associates (three words gifted to Chuck by mentor and venture capital pioneer Georges Doriot), but the more interesting story is what they didn’t call it—the firm they built bore none of their names.
Why? So the firm could grow and evolve, rooted in but not bound by its history. And over four decades, 15 funds, and countless market cycles, NEA has been at the forefront of many of the most important shifts in venture capital, evolving into a global, diversified organization. An organization that, remarkably, still feels and operates like the tight-knit partnership it was from day one.
"Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just sum everything up." - T. Linde
We wanted our logo and visual identity to celebrate the firm's history and success, but also reflect who NEA is today. And we wanted those elements to help, not hinder, our ability to communicate our story and connect with people.
That story is not always easy to tell. At a glance, we are a study in seeming contradiction that extends beyond the obvious descriptors like east/west, med/tech, seed/growth. We’re big, but we move fast. We’re venture capital at scale, but we treat our entrepreneurs like family. One designer we worked with described this as a ‘tension’ within our brand. I think ‘balance’ is more apt, because it is the intersection of these elements, working in concert, that makes NEA the partnership we are today. That balance means that we can celebrate our history, with our gaze trained on the future.
As to how this translates to our new logo—well, it’s a little bit like the name New Enterprise Associates, in that the more interesting story lies somewhere in the enormous (virtual) pile of discarded logos. We talked with a ton of designers. We worked with … well, more than we’d planned. I’m pretty sure I have now tried on more prospective logos than I have pairs of shoes (surely there’s a metaphor in there somewhere). Some of the designs were beautiful. Most were not. But for a long time, none felt like us.
Thanks to a wise friend who happens to be NEA’s designer-in-residence (a fancy way of describing the incredible work Albert Lee does with our portfolio companies), we found a design team who understood what this change meant to us, and who was more than up to the challenge.
As the team at Gander quickly gleaned, there is some powerful history associated with those three letters. We weren’t looking for a clean slate. We wanted the balance, or tension, that is such a central part of our firm identity to infuse our visual identity. We wanted to carve out some of the old logo’s best elements—substantive, strong, a bit utilitarian—and carry those forward into a thoughtful, more refined design that celebrates our past and embodies who we are today.Most importantly, we wanted to create a visual identity that is entrepreneur-centric—or, as Dick Kramlich once put it, a megaphone for our companies instead of ourselves.
With our new design NEA is both anchor and lens, but our portfolio is the real story. And that, I am certain, will never change.