Why VCs Should Recycle Their Management Fees

I’m an investor in a bunch of VC funds. Some of them recycle their management fees; others don’t. I’ve never really understood why funds don’t recycle their management fees.

Understanding what “recycling management fees” means is a fundamental part of understanding the economics of a venture firm. Here’s how it works.

Let’s assume a $100 million VC fund that charges a 2% management fee and a 20% carry. In the typical case, a fund will get an annual management fee of 2% of “committed capital” (the $100 million) for the “investment period” (usually the first five years, or until a new fund is raised) and then an annual management fee of 2% of “invested capital” (whatever the fund has invested in companies that are still active) over the remaining life of the fund, which is usually 10 years.

Now, there are lots of minor variations on this, but the average “fee load” on a fund over its life is 15%, or $15m paid out over 10 years on the $100m fund.

So – if $15m gets paid out in fees, that only leaves $85m to invest in companies.

That’s where recycling comes in. When a fund has an exit, it can either distribute the money to its investors (the LPs) or it can “recycle it” and invest it in new and existing companies in the fund.

Now, assume that by year three the $100m fund has invested $50m. During this year, it sells a company and gets a realization of $20m. At this point, it would have taken $6m of management fees (2% * 3 years) so it could recycle the $6m (hence, reinvesting it) while distributing $14m to the LPs.

By managing recycling this way, the fund could end up investing the full $100m, instead of just the $85m. The advantage, for all the investors (the VCs and their LPs), is that $100m gets put to work as invested capital, rather than just $85m.

Our view as a firm is that a successful VC fund has a net return of at least 3x to the LPs. That means that if an LP invests $1 in the fund, they get back $3 over time.

Now we get to do the fun math, including the impact of carry on return.

If I’ve only put $85m to work, I have to generate $100m to get to a point where I’ve returned capital, which puts me in a position to get carry. Then for every $100m of additional returns, $20m goes to the VCs and $80m goes to the LPs. To generate an incremental $200m to the LPs, I have to return a total of $250m. So – my $85m needs to generate $350m to get a net 3x return. On a gross basis, my $85m has to generate a 4.1x return to accomplish my “net 3x return to LPs.”

On the other hand, if I recycle my management fee, then I put $100m to work. I’ve reinvested $15m over the life of the fund, so I’ve had to generate this $15m plus the $100m to get to carry and the $250m to get to a net 3x return. In this case, I have to generate a total of $365m (instead of $350m), but I now have $100m at work to do that. In this case, my $100m has to generate a 3.65x return to accomplish my “net 3x return to LPs.”

That’s an 11% difference just by recycling my $15m fee. It’s better for the LPs and better for the VCs.