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May-December alliances can make sweet music

The pairing of an older professional and a not-so-experienced younger person — a sort of May-December business enterprise — can be effective and profitable.
/ Source: contributor

In the film “Music and Lyrics,” audiences are treated to an odd pairing. Hugh Grant plays Alex Fletcher, an eighties pop music star whose pelvic thrusts of yesteryear have deteriorated into a bum hip and whose dwindling reputation barely gets him gigs at state fairs. Desperate to get back into the game, the lyrics-challenged Fletcher teams up with the younger Sophie Fisher — a gifted but ditzy wordsmith, played by Drew Barrymore — who has little professional chops and tons of emotional baggage.

But because each has what complements the other — Alex’s experience and Sophie’s fresh take on things — they become an entrepreneurial team more successful than anyone at the start might have ever expected.

In the real world, this pairing of the older professional and the not so experienced younger person — a sort of May-December business enterprise — can be just as effective and profitable.

One such business is the company created by Ray Krauss, 57, and Matthew Schurman, 36, who formed GlucoLight Corporation together four years ago. At that time, Schurman, who came from a telecom background, had an idea for a medical product. His attorney advised him to find a business partner with experience in the medical device field, and then connected Schurman up with Krauss, a 30-year veteran of the industry.

Krauss, who was open to hearing good ideas, liked the sound of the product Schurman wanted to create. Two months after meeting, they created GlucoLight, based in Bethlehem, Pa., whose purpose was to bring to market a non-invasive medical device that measured blood sugar and which would be used in an intensive-care hospital setting. The device is now in clinical trials and may be on the market as soon as late 2008. GlucoLight now employs 15 people.

Krauss underscores how these enterprises should not be entered into lightly. Before they formalized their business, Krauss introduced Schurman to colleagues whose expertise would play a role in the company. “I watched how Matthew interacted with the people I trusted,” says Krauss, who is GlucoLight’s CEO — Schurman is chief technical officer — and who raises money from private investors. “Success in small companies is totally dependent on the team. Partners have to like each other, and share their feelings and thoughts on every facet of the business.”

In the case of Krauss and Schurman it wasn’t a case of the older, more seasoned business person putting in the money. “Both Matthew and I invested in the company to get it started,” says Krauss, who acknowledges that sometimes age differences can trigger off problems. Recent college graduates, he says, often lack maturity. On the other hand, some former CEOs have trouble accepting a partnership of equals. “Egos sometimes get in the way,” he says.

Jason Ryan Dorsey, author of “My Reality Check Bounced!: The Twentysomethings’ Guide to Cashing in on Your Real-World Dreams” (Broadway Books, 2007), has seen the advantages that such pairings bring to both parties even though, to outsiders, the age difference may seem odd.

“Often, all that people see is an old person and a young person,” says Dorsey. “They wonder why they’re working together, and what’s in it for the old guy, and why is this young guy hanging out with someone so much older. They don’t realize the short and long-term benefits of that sort of partnership.”

Such partnerships make sense, says Dorsey. “When you’re in your twenties, many of the people you need to reach are not yet in your network so, having someone older [as your partner] who can open those doors is huge,” he says. Also important, he added, is having someone to say, “Okay, that’s a good idea, but we need to think it through a little more.”

Dorsey described a friend, now 28, who was able to raise considerable money for a business that subsequently imploded, and who decided to do things differently when he started his new business. Dorsey says his buddy gave up equity in the new company to bring on more seasoned entrepreneurs, including his former college professor. “They got him his biggest customers through their relationships, yet he has the energy and creativity and puts in a lot more hours than they do,” says Dorsey. “That’s his contribution.”

“He recognized from his previous failure, where everybody was young, that there was a real value-add having a partner who’d been down the road and had been successful,” says Dorsey. “Before that, he thought he knew it all.”

Dorsey says young people can “short cut their learning curve dramatically” by bringing on someone who’s done it before. The time factor is especially critical for technology-heavy businesses, he says. “To grow fast, you often need money and contacts and experience which, many times, the younger person doesn’t have,” he says.

If the benefits are ample for the younger person, there are advantages for the more senior member of the business, as well. Dorsey says an older person often wants “to leave a legacy that’s more than financial,” and sometimes teaming up with younger blood is the way to do it.

Despite his enthusiasm for these types of businesses, Dorsey has caveats. “Check every reference and do due diligence,” he says. “Just because they have a good title, it doesn’t mean they’ll bring what you need to the table.” He also suggests doing a project or research together, which “helps you see how they think, and how they view the market and the opportunity.” Making sure your time lines are similar is important too. A young person may want a win, but is willing to spend ten years to build it. In contrast, an older person may not want more than a three- to five-year commitment. “The older person may want a ‘second act’ but not a long second act,” says Dorsey.

Psychological issues also need to be examined.

Tom Gegax, a management consultant with offices in Minneapolis and San Diego, says it’s not so bad for the more senior person to be fatherly or motherly. “It can be protective caring,” says Gegax, author of “The Big Book of Small Business: You Don’t Have to Run Your Business by the Seat of Your Pants” (Collins, 2007).

But Gegax says there can be a downside. You can revert to what occurs in your family of origin, he says, where mother and father issues may have been the source of dysfunction. “Some emotional components don’t go away,” cautions Gegax, underscoring that partners need to report to each other as equals.

And what about that all important notion of branding a company when the partners are of sometimes vastly different ages?

“Brands are a kind of short hand for what a company does, how it works and where it has been,” says Ira Matathia, a partner in the brand consultancy NoFormula and co-author of “Next Now: Trends for the Future” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Whether such a pairing of young and old can make for a good brand, he says, “depends on the nature of the pairing, whether they are effective or ineffective at what they do.”

“I don’t think age is significantly relevant,” says Matathia. “The culture moves so quickly now. An average 24-year-old person probably knows more and has done more things than a 60-year-old person a generation ago.”