Who Cares What I Think?

NEA has always tended to fly just under the radar.

Our firm turned 34 years old last month, and we’ve had our share of success over the years – and in the process, we’ve helped to build some truly amazing businesses that have transformed or created entirely new industries within technology and healthcare.

Yet as our firm – and our firm’s culture – has evolved over time, we never felt the need to grab the spotlight and shine it on ourselves. We have always preferred to champion our entrepreneurs and our portfolio companies’ achievements instead.

Until recently, I think that approach was consistent across our industry (albeit with a few notable exceptions). Industry returns were strong, money was coming in, and we didn’t need to focus on how – or even if – the public perceived our ‘brand’ or our ‘voice.’ We focused on our entrepreneurs and our limited partners and the rest took care of itself.

But it’s been a tough decade for VC. By any measure, the industry has had a tough go recently: negative 10-year-returns for the first time in the history of our industry; turbulent capital markets; a global economic landscape that is unstable at best; and, in the U.S., a political climate that seems to be focused in all the wrong places when it comes to fueling innovation, creating jobs, and giving the economy a fighting chance.

In an environment where the number of active firms is nearly halved from the peak and dollars coming into the industry continue to dwindle, many VCs are increasingly compelled to make sure they participate in the ongoing dialogue about our industry and its prospects. NEA is no exception. Catch phrases like ‘brand visibility’ and ‘thought leadership’ have become increasingly important to VCs. Why? Because we know that to succeed, we have to see the best opportunities.

At a time when the portfolio metrics and return multiples are uninspiring across our asset class, VCs must find ways to tell their own story and separate themselves from the pack. This is particularly prevalent in technology, especially where it meets with strong public interest, like cleantech and consumer technology.

Even an entrepreneur-first firm like NEA has grudgingly acknowledged that it is essential for VCs to actively shape the discussion taking place both within and outside of our industry. Industry pundits and angel activists cannot write our story for us.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about our industry’s prospects. After a long period of over-capitalization, the industry is finally approaching equilibrium between the availability of capital and quality of opportunities. Coupled with the cyclical nature of our industry, the presence of encouraging macro factors, and the exceptional quality of entrepreneurship we’re seeing right now, I think all the ingredients are in place for an up cycle.

There is abundant innovation, great entrepreneurs and a world economy that is screaming for growth. In the past, venture capital has fueled the development of entire industries, like semiconductors and biotechnology. More recently, the flow of venture capital has enabled a thriving, fast-growing consumer web sector – far more than flash, there is plenty of substance here. Even virtual goods are producing very tangible revenues, and applications where social, local and mobile converge are driving big shifts in how we connect, interact and transact every day.

Venture capital will continue to inspire and shape the cycle of innovation, but the industry is no longer subject solely to the opinions of investors and entrepreneurs. On a global playing field where the stakes are increasingly high for the U.S. economy and leadership in innovation, the role of venture capital must be clear to a throng of other constituents – political influencers, academia, corporations and even the general public.

So in the ongoing dialogue about the path forward for VC and for innovation, what does NEA bring to the table? We believe it’s our vantage point as a single fund investing across many sectors, stages and geographies, on top of more than three decades of experience in the industry. NEA’s broad perspective allows us to see it all real time, and we use that information to inform our sector strategies and dynamically allocate capital. We are among the few firms to successfully scale and create the diversified, global platform that is becoming the norm for top firms in our industry.

In an industry that has seen some seismic shifts, this latest one is among the biggest. But the fundamental motivation that drives venture capital is the same. We make a living by championing entrepreneurship, by helping visionary people realize their vision dream, and by creating enough value in that process that we can wake up tomorrow and do it all over again… with the next big idea, the next life-changing technology.

And even if it means we have to grab a megaphone from time to time, NEA is committed to making it happen. We won’t always be on our industry soapbox – helping entrepreneurs build great businesses is what we do, and we’ll use this forum to highlight technologies, trends and tips for growing companies as well. We hope you’ll join the conversation.