Stop-Gap Measures

Truths For Older Partners

You two are probably at different places in your lives. If you're 38 or 48, chances are good you've met Mr. or Ms. Right and may even have your own share of family responsibilities. Your twentysomething partner is likely to be free of such ties and may expect you to work as tirelessly and relentlessly as a 23-year-old who has nothing but time to grow a business.

"I have three relatively young kids," muses Dan Kaplan, the 49-year-old vice president of Los Angeles-based LowerMyBills.com, a Web site that allows consumers to research, compare and lower their recurring bills. The site launched in February and Kaplan expects it to bring in $1 million in its first year. "I've done the working all hours, where your business is your wife and child. That's one reason I didn't get married until I was 33. Who had time for that?"

LowerMyBills.com's CEO, Matthew Coffin, is 31. If he follows the Dan Kaplan plan, he still has another couple years before he will tie the knot. So while Kaplan leaves his office at 8 p.m.-he's no slouch, either-Coffin is still sending e-mail missives to the business world at 1:20 a.m.

On the other hand, if you're in your late forties, you may be packing your kids off to college, while your younger counterpart is investing in Pampers on etrade. Maybe you are the one who will need to spend the most time on the business.

"[Personal-life] needs . . . are important and human," says 35-year-old Nina Kaufman, a New York City lawyer who advises entrepreneurs and has a partner who is 20 years older than herself. "But they may take time away from your business or create time restrictions, so it's important to discuss your lifestyle with your partner: what kind of time investment you're willing to make, how you see your [life responsibilities] being played out over time, and what you think your business needs."

Get to know each other. Before he co-founded LowerMyBills.com, Kaplan was founder of Anchor Communications, which published magazines and provided Internet content. When Coffin, who worked for a publishing house himself, teamed up with Kaplan to produce a joint project, the two men started talking, and they discovered that not only did they each have their own ideas for a new company, but they also liked each other.

They spent one year working on their joint project-and discussing a possible new company and their places in it. This led them to another important step in creating a strong partnership:

Know your roles. That's good advice for any entrepreneurial partnership, but crucial when you're dealing with egos young and old. "I see my role as the seasoned veteran," says Kaplan. "I'm sort of like a pilot, the guy who comes on the loudspeaker when there's some bad turbulence. And then I tell the passengers that we're hitting some pockets of air, but that we're still cruising at a safe altitude and that we'll be through the bad weather in about 100 miles. I'm the guy who has been through these air pockets a hundred times."

Coffin, meanwhile, has "the absolute passion and energy to make this company a success," says Kaplan. "Plus, he understands the Internet in ways that I can't because I've been working offline in business for 20 years." Coffin is also the person sealing a lot of deals, while Kaplan works behind the scenes.

Kaplan's role as seasoned entrepreneur may seem like one young Generation Y mavericks would reject as old school and unnecessary to their New Economy ventures. Not so. Barry Miller, a management professor at the Lubin School of Business at New York City's Pace University, observes: "The younger entrepreneurs are telling me that they want to team up with the boomers. They want that maturity."

Charles Reed agrees. "[The Gen Xers] really feel their lack of experience," says the entrepreneur and business professor at Brandeis University Graduate School of International Economics and Finance. Reed, along with two other veteran entrepreneurs, advises three company founders in their early 20s. Whenever Reed or the others tell their younger counterparts that they look amateurish-from coming late to appointments to bringing their entire staff to meetings that only need one representative-"they're slightly embarrassed but always glad to hear what we think."

It can be a delicate dance, however. Sometimes, even if a younger entrepreneur wants a mature, experienced partner, you can come across as too old. Simply mentioning your favorite Starsky & Hutch episode might not only date you but cause your partner and staff to discuss entering you in a world tour shuffleboard tournament. Sounds chilling, doesn't it? OK, talking about a favorite old TV show may be a minor sin, but if serious problems exist, like differences of opinions on the basics of your company's culture, it's important to talk them out, says Zemke. "The generation gap between entrepreneurs is more dangerous [than your relationship with your younger staff]," he says. "The employee generation gap problems are the more nagging and will give you the most gastric upset, but it won't kill your company. The partner generation gap will."

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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