Stop-Gap Measures

Experience Vs. Age

Experience and expertise: It was just what Jaye Muller, 24 years old at the time, was looking for in 1997, when he hired 38-year-old Richard Ressler to be his company's CEO.

Muller certainly had no experience, save his one year on the job at JFAX.COM, a company he had created. Before that, he wasn't even in business. He was a rock star. Really.

Granted, you're probably in the minority if you listened to Muller and his rap album, We Are the Majority, so maybe rock star is overselling it a little. But Muller was on tour when he found that he kept missing important faxes, and he started wishing there was a way that people could send him faxes to his ever-dependable e-mail account.

So Muller, an East Germany native who had studied technology, created a system to do just that. One year later, the firm had a staff of 15 and sales to subscribers in the United States and several other countries. By then, Muller's company had thrown voice mail and a variety of services into the mix. But Muller, who was a lot more comfortable with R&B than b2b, originally planned to make his millions and then sell the company so he could perform in front of millions. And JFAX.COM, while doing nicely, wasn't a bona fide success.

That's why Muller chose to hand over management and the CEO role to one of his investors, Ressler, now 42. Business was Ressler's life. He'd been a top executive at several companies, including a Fortune 500, and, at the time, was running Orchard Capital Corp., an investment and consulting firm. Ressler's modus operandi was to invest gobs of cash in a company, take it over for several months, and then, as a wealthier man, hand back the reins and move on. He was a serial entrepreneur.

With Muller's company, Ressler stayed longer than he ever had, stepping down just this year, and remains with the company as chairman of the board. Muller, who had been handling most of the marketing and long-term visionary strategies, has also recently scaled back his role in the firm while he records his second CD, a progressive pop album.

It was a working relationship that worked. JFAX.COM has clients in 200 countries and brought in over $7 million in 1999.

"Age isn't really that important to me," explains Muller. "Experience is." And without Ressler's valuable experience, he adds, "I don't know where things would be. I think JFAX.COM would have still grown, and it would still be pretty close to where it is today, but maybe I'd still be running the company."

Ressler agrees that the partnership has worked but adds that you should exercise the same caution when partnering with a young entrepreneur as you would with any other business-person in those situations. "Just because somebody's new and young and fresh, it doesn't mean they're necessarily good at what they're supposed to be doing, just as age and experience don't always equal excel-lence," he says.

Nonetheless, it's hard to deny that youth, energy and passion are good qualities when embarking on a business venture-especially if you often find yourself staring in a mirror, thinking your eyes are home to more bags than LaGuardia, and that you could only run a mile in six minutes if a pit bull was chasing you. So if you're thinking of partnering with somebody younger, here are a few things you should consider:

 

Don't get stuck in a legal battle-check out "Howdy, Partner" and put your partnership agreement on paper.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Stop-Gap Measures.

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