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Recipe for Start-Ups: Mix Older and Younger Partners

When retired execs launch companies with hard-chargers in their 20s or 30s, the combination can be powerful

By Kate Ashford | May 3, 2012
David Horn
At 65, David Horn left retirement to start a new daily-deal business with Francisco Gonzalez, 37.
courtesy of David Horn

It makes so much sense: A 60-something retired executive with decades of business expertise joins forces with a less-experienced, 20- or 30-something tiger to launch a company. So it's no surprise that these December-May entrepreneur partnerships are happening more and more.

“Right now, the job market isn’t a wonderful thing, for younger people or for boomers,” says Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. “What you’re seeing is a shift away from the traditional job market to one that is more start-up friendly. And it’s bringing together the best and brightest on the younger levels with the most savvy and experienced on the upper levels.”
 
Teaming up often offers big benefits for the younger and older partners alike.
 
Just ask the folks at SCORE, a nonprofit supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration, whose 13,000 volunteer mentors (typically retired executives) counsel small businesses. (SCORE is a partner of Next Avenue and our site has some of its small-business articles.) Shalini Karnani Bonjour, a SCORE communications manager, says start-ups that receive mentoring are typically more successful than those that don’t.
 
“They produce bigger revenues and stay in business longer,” she says. “We know that mentoring works.”  The more involved the mentor is in the business, the greater the benefit.
 
Take David Horn and Francisco Gonzalez, who met in 2009 while on vacation in the Caribbean. Horn, 65, was a retired former head of global private client marketing at Morgan Stanley in New York City, and Gonzalez, 37, had worked at Morgan Stanley in London before leaving to start a real estate development business. Gonzalez persuaded Horn to read a book on the female brain, which led to a discussion about creating a daily-deals website for women. From there, CoupTessa.com was born. 
 
Horn brought his management experience and contacts to the business; Gonzalez had the engineering background and tech expertise. “Even though David is retired, he’s got the energy of five 30-year-old men,” Gonzalez says. “It was obvious that I would be smart to partner with him.”  Horn says, “It’s a very good marriage.”
 
There are three reasons why you might want to team up with someone much younger to birth a business:
  1. The younger partner gains credibility. David Greenberg, 26, created Parliament Tutors in 2009 when he couldn’t find a job he wanted. He soon hired Bill Haley, a 64-year-old retired attorney in the Chicago area, as one of the company’s tutors. After seeing that Haley was pulling in revenue and loads of customers through effective marketing, Greenberg brought him on as the company’s national program coordinator. “I needed someone to groom our existing relationships and reach out to more organizations,” Greenberg says. “Given Bill’s professional experience and his sales background, he seemed like the ideal candidate.”
  2. The older partner gains flexibility. Before joining Parliament, Haley had retired from practicing law, but wanted to keep working part-time, with a flexible schedule. Hooking up with the younger Greenberg on a start-up let him do just that. Haley says the arrangement is ideal. “It’s very rewarding work,” he says. “And that's what I want to do now — enjoy myself.”
  3. Both partners can play to their strengths. “A lot of the older generation isn’t tech savvy and don’t understand social media or even sometimes e-commerce,” Gerber says. But what they do have are some key skills young entrepreneurs lack and need to strengthen to grow their businesses: an understanding of relationship building, organizational structure and procedure.
David Swartley, 61, and Rob Rohena, 34, say their backgrounds offer a perfect combination of know-how for the two marketing and PR companies they run together — the David Swartley Agency and DIR Inc. in Goshen, Ind. Swartley handles traditional requests, while Rohena runs with the social media and online projects. “Back in the '90s, there was no social media,” Swartley says. “Now we can go to a potential client together and sell ourselves as one entity.”