knobel-- Lance Knobel is a guest columnist. The views expressed are his own. He is an independent strategy advisor and writer based in the United States. His professional site is www.lknobel.com --

The promise was certainly seductive: Lock up your money with me for five years and I'll give you double-digit annual returns.

For years, that was an accurate equation for venture capital. From 1981 to 1998, there were ups and downs, but the 10-year return generally hovered around 20 percent, well above most other asset classes. That return came at a price of course. It was illiquid and there was no secondary market. And there was a further catch. Most potential investors were excluded: Venture funds were relatively modest in size, there weren't very many of them and they were picky about whose money they'd take.

The dotcom boom changed all of that. Venture capitalists became business magazine stars, new funds sprouted up all over, and established firms with a decent track record were suddenly able to raise nine- and ten-figure funds. The 20 percent mark began to look pallid. In 1999, the U.S. venture industry was boasting five-year returns of nearly 50 percent, as a flood of IPOs provided swift and lucrative exits. The end-to-end return, net of fees, expenses and carried interest, for the year ended March, 2000, was 310 percent.

Alas, that was then. New York VC Fred Wilson, principal of Union Square Ventures, reckons average returns over the last 10 years are in the range of 6 to 8 percent. Aggregate industry figures are still flattered by the anni mirabili of the dotcom era, and the staggering venture bonanza of the Google IPO for a handful of elite firms. But when 1999 drops out of the 10-year calculation, average returns will slump to the low single figures or negative.