Not the Sean Parker You May Have Been Introduced To
Like many of the players and events in the early days of Facebook’s story, the image most people have of wunderkind entrepreneur and infamous social climber Sean Parker is most commonly the one portrayed by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network. That Parker is presented as a cunning and ambitious boy genius, who also seems to be placed in the role of Mark Zuckerberg’s Rasputin, eliminating potential rivals and manipulating himself into a position of great power and influence.
While these events, and many others in Parker’s life, have been the subject of constant debate and question, the facts behind his meteoric rise to the forefront of Silicon Valley investments and start-ups today reveal a life of seemingly unparalleled genius and innovative thinking. While the character flaws and notorious stories of Parker’s social adventures seem to have basis given the wide variety of stories out there, his role as a mentor or co-creator in some of the most successful web ventures of the past decade (namely Napster, his personal baby, as well as his past time as president of Facebook and current role as investor and advisor for music phenomenon Spotify) is reason enough for us to consider what he has demonstrated as keys to entrepreneurial success.
Boy Genius to Boy Genius Mentor
The legends and mystery that have been associated with Parker’s time in Silicon Valley began with the kind of mythical entrepreneurial story that every new venturer dreams of making their own. Parker’s legend began with the story that, at 16 years of age, he hacked the network of a Fortune 500 company but was unable to log out due to his father confiscating his keyboard. As such, the FBI was able to trace his IP and bring up criminal charges against the then-high school junior.
As if this wasn’t enough of a story, Parker followed this up by conspiring with fellow high school techie Shawn Fanning, whom he had met through online forums years earlier, to develop and release a free digital music file-sharing and download platform. The concept, which had been tried in rudimentary phases before but never successfully, was meant to challenge the established practices of the music industry, which at the time was reaping record profits from CD sales (at their height, commanding nearly 20 dollars a disc). Parker and Fanning identified a simple reality that provided the basis for their idea; If people shared everything else over the Internet, including images, video, and personal documents, why couldn’t they share music?
Napster was born, and the rest was history. File downloading platforms emerged exponentially, following Napster’s model even as Fanning and Parker were named plaintiffs in lawsuits by almost every major figure in the recording industry. But the entrepreneurial legacy of the two high schoolers was cemented. Parker and Fanning decide to tackle an established industry with a mountain of resources at its disposal, by attacking the very business model at its core. By allowing people to assume control over the music they acquired and shared, Napster accessed a very new and (in 1999) recently developing phenomenon on the web – the growth of common interest communities, especially to share resources, information, or programs via the Internet. Napster merged this phenomenon with the desire of many people for affordable music, and while the company would be submerged under the weight of litigation, the model proved a lasting one. As Timberlake’s Parker famously quips to Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, “We changed the music industry for better and for always….you want to buy a Tower Records, Eduardo?”
Parker and Fanning demonstrated the success of choosing, as an entrepreneur, to attack or challenge the business model itself of a successful industry. By identifying a combination of new services and communication capabilities (especially in terms of file sharing), and combining it with an understanding of people’s frustration with the state of the music industry, Fanning and Parker were able to literally invent an entirely new way to share music. One that Parker, ironically, continues to define through his investments and involvement in Spotify nearly fifteen years later.
From Facebook to Spotify, a Track Record of Innovative Success
Years later, depending on who’s version of the story you believe, Parker was either contacted by or contacted Mark Zuckerberg upon accidentally stumbling on Facebook on a friend’s computer (which, at the time, was still ‘thefacebook’, and still listed the individual college networks it managed on the home page). Parker proceeded to embed himself in both the company and its founder’s psyche, moving in with Zuckerberg and working personally alongside him to grow the company’s investment partners and future projects.
Parker’s innovative talents are numerous for us to examine as entrepreneurs, but his time at Facebook may give us more takeaways than any other period in his life. Aside from Parker’s role in helping to conceptualize and introduce Facebook Photos, which is perhaps the single most-used aspect of the service today, he was instrumental in helping connect the brilliant but immature management team of thefacebook to experienced tech investors, including Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen. With the resources, management experience, and legal protection afforded by early Parker-brokered investment partners like Sequoia Capital, thefacebook soon exploded into just Facebook (also Parker’s idea; he thought it would be cleaner) and has since become the international and market phenomenon that it remains today.
The Sean Parker Lessons for Entrepreneurs
During this critical time in Facebook’s growth, Sean Parker demonstrated the importance of an entrepreneur in not only focusing on innovative ways to adapt or grow one’s own business model, but also in working towards fruitful partnerships in order to ensure the resources to implement said ideas. Every entrepreneur enjoys the ideation process, as it allows us each to dream up the most exciting and elaborate possibilities for our respective ventures, but any experienced entrepreneur can tell you that without capital and legal support, ventures can remain just that; dreams.
Sean Parker’s ability to identify an idea in need of support, and then convince both the management team and his own VC connections of the importance of each side buying in, may remain his single most impressive entrepreneurial victory. Whether you love him, hate him, or don’t know him, Sean Parker’s fingerprint can be seen on some of the most successful and memorable Internet companies of the past 15 years. While his non-conforming and out-of-the-box style has caused him to be followed by controversy and nay-sayers, his track record as an innovator and grower of new ideas is indisputable. Every entrepreneur can study the Sean Parker story in depth (and there is much more depth than what we’ve considered here; take a look into Plaxo or Airtime to find out more) and understand the numerous lessons we can take back to our own businesses and ventures.
Go cash in on today,