The Self-Made Man: Sean Parker
For the most part, this Self-Made Man column has focused on entertainers, specifically the ones who got big despite the handicaps of childhood poverty, lack of connections in their industry, an unwillingness to play to the status quo, or sometimes all three of those at once. Which is fine, but TSB wants its readers to be inspired by entrepreneurs too, because the successful ones build their own destinies by taking risks and making the most of whatever opportunities they have. And sometimes, like Napster founder Sean Parker, they’re just always the smartest guy in the room.
You may remember Sean Parker as a character from The Social Network, in which Justin Timberlake portrayed him as something of an amoral douchebag (Parker disagreed with the role, but joked that “it’s hard to complain about being played by a sex symbol”). The real Sean Parker, though, is a programming whiz whose dad taught him two very important things: how to program on an Atari 800 when he was in second grade, and that “if you are going to take risks, take them early before you have a family.”
Parker may have taken that second piece of advice too close to heart, because he was arrested as a teenager for hacking into a Fortune 500 company’s network after the FBI tracked his IP address. He got off with community service because he was a minor, which is crazy to think about now; if he’d been a teenager in 2012 and done something like that, they’d stick his parents with a six-figure fine and probably send him to prison.
Oddly enough though, Sean was recruited by the CIA a year later after winning the Virginia state computer science fair, but decided to intern for FreeLoader and UUNet instead. Hard to argue with his decision there; Parker made $80,000 when he was a senior in high school, and used that money to start Napster with Shawn Fanning, who he’d met through an online bulletin board, instead of going to college. He still refers to that part of his life as Napster University, because the myriad lawsuits brought against Napster’s brand of file-sharing made him an expert in intellectual property law and corporate finance.
For all its faults, Napster revolutionized music distribution and was the precursor to services like iTunes, which came about as legal, RIAA-approved versions of what Napster was doing. Parker had a similar effect on social networking with Plaxo, an online service that worked with Microsoft Outlook to keep users’ address books up to date. It also employed a lot of the same viral notification tricks that Facebook (and Myspace, back when that mattered) does now. Looking back, Parker describes it as “the indie band that the public doesn’t know but was really influential with other musicians,” which pretty much nails it. Of course, he still got rich, which is where that comparison ends, but you get the idea.
Parker ended up getting booted from Plaxo by a consortium of other employees, but the details on that are pretty murky (and shady, since they hired a private investigator to sniff up alleged misconduct by Parker), but he was an early investor in Facebook and was responsible for the original, clean user interface and photo uploading system that helped make it an international phenomenon. They should bring him back to take a look at those features now, actually. They’ve both gone to hell without him.
Parker is currently on the board of directors for both Spotify and Yammer, and is a managing partner of the Founders Fund, a venture capital investment firm in San Francisco. Throughout his professional life, he’s been the right combination of smart and fearless, and managed to make something of himself by simply not being afraid if he screwed up or not. Call that arrogance if you must, but there’s something to be learned from it, especially in an economy like the current one.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.