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Pair Of Aces

May-December partnerships are a good bet for new businesses.

Start-up companies are tough to run at best," says Eric Almgren, co-founder and president of Mixman Technologies Inc., a San Francisco designer and manufacturer of music software. "And it's even tougher if you're going into a business you know nothing about." Many young entrepreneurs solve this problem by teaming up with an older partner, someone who can complement a fresh idea with business acumen.

Such was the case for Almgren, 32, and his partner, Josh Gabriel, 30. When they started Mixman in 1993, they had the vision but not the expertise required to break into a new industry. Enter Roger Summit, founder and recent retiree of Dialog Corp., a database information service company in Palo Alto, California, who came on board as a partner with the experience of growing a successful business from the ground up. "Roger was there any time we needed to have a meeting with an investor, to strategize or to write a business proposal," says Almgren.

Five months later, the three partners brought in Dick Asher, the retired CEO of Polygram Records, who was attracted to the company's marriage of technology and entertainment. "None of us had any experience in the record business," says Almgren. "Dick really knew how record companies operate and was instrumental in helping us develop relationships within the industry."

Although Summit and Asher are roughly twice as old as Almgren and Gabriel, the four partners have found only benefits to their working relationship. When you start a company, says Almgren, "[and] have someone who's done it before and is willing to advise you and lend their experience, they may stop you from going down roads that may be dead ends or may get you in trouble. They can provide [proven] ideas you may not have thought of."

Robert Spekman, professor of business administration at Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says partners of different generations can make up for each other's weaknesses. "One may be a seasoned veteran, while the other one has a good idea," he says. "Or one has a good idea and the other one has money."

And the key to keeping the cross-generational partnership healthy? "You've got to communicate," says Spekman. "[The partners'] sense of long-term vs. short-term or patience with developing the business may not be the same. You'll lessen the chance of difficulties if all these issues are discussed before entering the relationship, rather than waiting for something to happen for you to see your partner's true colors."

Almgren agrees. "It comes down to the personal relationship. If they're good people and you like them, then the more experience [they have], the better."

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This article was originally published in the December 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Pair Of Aces.

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