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Stop-Gap Measures

Is bringing two age groups together under one business roof brewing success or inviting each other to a nightmare? Meet two sets of entrepreneurs who made their differences work-and one who couldn't span the generation gap.
September 1, 2000
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/31636

ER and Marcus Welby, M.D. E-mail and CB-radios. The Phantom Menace and Star Wars. Kid Rock and the Rolling Stones. Bill Clinton's MonicaGate and Richard Nixon's Watergate. Columbine High School and Kent State.

Every generation is shaped by its environment, whether it's from listening to the news or to Huey Lewis and the News. It's who we are. Just as our grandparents or parents were probably a little warped by the Great Depression of the 1930s, people in their early 20s get to live with the idea that O.J. Simpson, in a sense, had something to do with their upbringings. Like it or not, we are Tonya Harding, John Wayne Bobbitt, Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger. But we're also Mr. Rogers, Marie Osmond, Big Bird and Princess Diana.

Regardless of whether Growing Pains affected your growing pains, maybe you should start thinking outside your generation. Baby boomers and Generation Xers, not to mention the parents of boomers and Generation Y, are all working together-like never before.

In fact, according to a recent study sponsored by several companies and National Small Business United, for the last four years, the number of 25-to-44-year-olds in the labor force has been shrinking, and it will continue to shrink for at least the next six years. If you are anywhere in or near this age group, the odds are very good that you're going to be teaming up with, or hiring, a lot of people who are either significantly younger or older than you.

That can be problematic, says Ron Zemke, who, with Claire Raines and Bob Filipczak, wrote Generations at Work (American Management Association). "The boomers say the Generation Xers are slackers, whiners; they're rude, they lack social skills, they always want to buck the system, and they don't want to spend time in the ranks," observes Zemke. "And the Xers say the boomers are self-righteous; they're workaholics, they're more interested in politics than results, they talk a good talk but don't practice what they preach. They demand constant validation and follow every fad of the week. There are grains of truth in all of that, on both sides."

But if we can cut each other some slack, the generation gap can be a good thing.

Sure, you may find that it's lonely being the only one, or one of the few, in your peer group. Maybe neither your partner nor anybody else in your company will ever understand your love for Paul McCartney, Andy Gibb, Debbie Gibson, or whatever heartthrob was a hit in your time. But America has always thrived on diversity. And so will your company.

 


Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to Entrepreneur and a features reporter for The Cincinnati Post.

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.

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."

Search For Common Ground

"An organization really profits from diverse experiences," says Miller. "The more we can get different ages and different perspectives into a company, the more successful it's likely to be."

Andy Poticha, 33, and Michael Menn, 48, couldn't agree more. The two Northbrook, Illinois, architects run Design Construction Concepts. Their work has been photographed for publications like Better Homes and Gardens Bedroom and Bath, and the two men, who have been working together for 12 years and have seen each other through marriages, births and other life-changing events, see the age difference as something to be celebrated not conquered.

Poticha explains: "I was always searching to learn what I could from Michael's experience. He happens to be a very good teacher, and the way he presented things didn't make [me] feel like an idiot for not knowing something."

Menn completes the other half of the mutual-admiration society: "Andy provided the energy and enthusiasm that I didn't have in my mid-30s," he says. "At [my] age, you're starting to become set in your ways and in the bad habits you've picked up from past partnerships. I think his clearheadedness, his clear view, was what broke me from the bad habits I was in."

So if you're thinking of shopping around for some younger blood, actually shop. Squeeze the grapefruit and make sure it's fresh. Test-drive the car. Try on the jacket before you leave the store. Talk to your potential younger partner about your hopes and dreams-the kind that relate to your company, and the company you keep. And ask about his or her expectations and aspirations. Search for common ground. Then talk about your favorite Gunsmoke episode and look for a grimace.

To get another perspective on the generation gap, see "Bridging The Gap" in September's Entrepreneur's Start-Ups.

 


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