10-Years of Business Partnership Lessons with Co-Founders, David Steinberg and Aaron James

Apr 1st 2019

If you’ve spent any time around Adpearance, you’ve likely encountered at least one of the co-founders, David Steinberg and Aaron James. They’re highly active and visible in the business that, this month, is celebrating 10 years.

That’s great, and we’re throwing a party. But maybe the more surprising milestone is that this is the 10-year anniversary of David and Aaron’s partnership.

David and Aaron aren’t opposites; they have a lot of similarities in that both men are wildly driven, uncommonly smart, and passionate about doing the right thing. (Shoot, I just gave away that I’m on their payroll.) But it’s a little surprising that they’re partners. Aaron’s a lawyer. David is an inventor. They are fundamentally different and will handle the exact same situation in wildly dissimilar ways.

So in honor of their 10-year anniversary, we asked them to share their best advice on making business partnerships work. They actually agreed a lot.

Aaron James: Yeah. I’d actually start by telling any entrepreneur to partner up. Do not go it alone. To be successful in business you have to innovate and you have to maintain the day-to-day operations. You need both to succeed, but pushing boundaries and removing risk are polar opposite functions.

If you naturally have a legal/operations screen, current limitation can easily stymie new ideas. I love having his mind on innovation and mine on operationalizing ideas. There’s always a way, but Dave doesn’t need to be solving those challenges that while he’s focused on creating something new.

David Steinberg: And there’s a loneliness in being an entrepreneur. Aaron and I can rely on each other in a different way. I can call him at any hour of the night and unload on a work issue and I know he’ll dive in with me.

I think that hints at one of the big lessons in choosing your co-founder: Every part of you has to respect their work and commitment to the work. And I know Aaron’s work is good. In the beginning, we’d both be in the office grinding it out for 70 or 80 hours a week. Today, it’s even more important that I respect his work, because we don’t have a ton of overlap, but our work bumps into one another in massive ways. If I didn’t believe in his work, I’d be frustrated all the time or getting into his business.

One of the big lessons in choosing your co-founder: Every part of you has to respect their work and commitment to the work.

Aaron James: Yeah, that’s one of my major recommendations. You have to find the right amount of overlap and define distinct roles.  

David Steinberg: In the beginning, I thought that part would be easy. We had two distinct skill sets. I’m the inventor. You’re the lawyer. We had a vision and an Excel spreadsheet, and we agreed on so much. We were co-CEOs. But within a few years we were crashing into each other. It was miserable.

Aaron James: That’s when we almost split ways. The pains of bootstrapping cannot be understated. We were under tremendous financial stress. We were fighting all of the time. We were seriously talking divorce, and I called my dad. He was pretty quiet and said, “I always thought you two were more powerful together.”

And like that, I knew he was right. I decided to trust Dave, come hell or high water. I said, “David, you can do this.” And that was it. I took a step back and everything changed. You were CEO. I was COO. And our differences became an asset versus a point of conflict.

Our differences became an asset versus a point of conflict.

David Steinberg (laughing): I am definitely the ***hole in our relationship. But from that day on, there was a marked change in our relationship. If anything I’ve become more stubborn, so I absolutely credit Aaron’s astuteness for our continued partnership.

That’s just one of the many ways we function differently. But a big one where we agree is money. Anyone who is about to co-found a company needs to know two things about money:

One, you and your partner, neither one of you can give a sh*t about money. If you want to make money, go become a business person. When you’re growing a business, you are going to pay yourself last. Plus, money companies suck. Good companies have founders who care about more than making money.

And two, make the equity deal one time and emotionally commit to the belief that it can never be changed. Lots of people feel a care or labor inequity with their co-founders. They feel like they are working harder than their partner and things feel inequitable. Well, that’s partnership. Don’t reopen the equity deal. It’s done. Go solve a different problem.

Join Our Design Week Portland Open House: Adpearance Turns 10! 


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