- Sean Parker is an American entrepreneur whom most associate with the music-sharing platform Napster. After Napster was shut down, he founded the address book and social networking service Plaxo in 2002.
- Parker then became the founding president of Facebook in 2004 after an acrimonious departure from Plaxo. He was instrumental in transitioning the young social media platform into a viable company.
- Parker was forced to step down as Facebook president in 2005 after an arrest for drug possession in North Carolina, but he nonetheless retained a significant shareholding and informal involvement with the company. He then worked with Peter Thiel at his venture capital firm for a time and then moved into philanthropic efforts.
Education and early career
Parker founded Napster with childhood friend Shawn Fanning and the service was launched in June 1999 while the pair were still teenagers.
Napster’s ultimate demise in 2001 is well documented, but let’s discuss this event in the context of Parker’s professional life and the direction it has taken before and since.
At the age of 16, Parker won first prize in a science fair for a web crawler he developed and received a subsequent offer to work for the CIA.
He ultimately chose to take up a position at Washington D.C. start-up Freeloader under the then-CEO of Zynga Mark Pincus.
This was followed by a brief period at UUNet, an early internet service provider.
Parker graduated from high school in 1998 and was making around $80,000 per year.
He realized that he neither wanted nor needed to go to college and used his attractive salary as justification to put off any thoughts for college for twelve months.
Parker would spend much of his teens hacking and programming and once was busted by the FBI for hacking into a Fortune 500 company.
He met fellow hacker Shawn Fanning at some point with the pair realizing they shared other interests such as theoretical physics.
Fanning and Parker then founded an internet security firm called Crosswalk which provided consultancy services to companies who may have otherwise been in their crosshairs.
While Crosswalk turned out to be a failure, the pair had an idea that would change the face of the music landscape forever.
Fanning came up with the idea of a P2P platform where users could share files, and after learning of the concept, Parker wanted in immediately and became the company’s co-founder.
The pair then moved to San Francisco after securing investment capital, and in an interview with the Financial Times, Parker exultantly described what happened next:
“I got on my hands and knees and installed all the servers for six weeks, got introduced to my first business people and hired them and fired them, and was sued by the record labels and suddenly I’m on MTV and now we’re sponsoring raves and going to crazy parties and then bigger and bigger and bigger.”
While the inexperienced Parker had to navigate intellectual property law, entrepreneurship, and corporate finance, it is likely that a series of emails where he admitted Napster users were stealing music caused the platform’s demise.
Parker founded the online address book and social networking service Plaxo in 2002.
The service, which was integrated with Microsoft Outlook, was a forerunner to companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
It was also one of the first companies to incorporate viral marketing into a product launch, securing 5 million users in the first three years of operation.
Parker was fired from his own company just two years later by Sequoia Capital and Indian-American investor Ram Shriram.
The reasons for his ousting have never been fully disclosed. Some posit that it was due to the dot-com bubble downturn, while others believe Parker had a sporadic or erratic interest in Plaxo itself.
Whatever the reasons for his exit, Parker maintained an interest in social networking and joined a fledgling company called Facebook later in 2004.
The company was in those days confined to college students, but as its founding president, Parker became one of the main drivers of transforming Facebook into a viable business.
For example, he hired former Napster employee Aaron Sittig to design the Facebook website that most recognize today.
He was also responsible for working hard to purchase the Facebook.com domain name and secured Peter Thiel as the company’s first investor.
Parker was forced to step down as Facebook president in 2005 after an arrest for drug possession in North Carolina.
He retained a minority stake in Facebook that was worth hundreds of millions of dollars and continued to be informally involved with the company.
Parker then joined the venture capital firm Founders Fund as a managing partner in 2006. There he once more crossed paths with co-founder Peter Thiel, who afforded Parker free reign to invest in any company he saw fit.
Parker stepped down from his role in 2014 to focus on other projects. During his tenure at the company, he made a $15 million investment in Spotify because of a personal desire to see Napster’s music-sharing heritage continue.
Parker and Fanning launched Airtime in 2012, a group video, audio, and text chat platform.
The web launch was announced in a press conference accompanied by celebrities such as Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg. However, the service did not gain significant traction.
Airtime was relaunched in 2016 as a mobile-first app where users can play party games or share files, links, and their screens with friends.
In April 2014, Parker announced his formal support of an initiative called Brigade, a civic technology platform where users of a similar political persuasion could connect, share opinions, and organize petitions.
Parker contributed to an initial $9.3 million in funding to Brigade and served as its Executive Chairman, holding a firm belief that politics was the next industry to be disrupted by the web.
Parker then invested another $45.5 million to keep the company operating in 2019, but it was shut down soon after.
The Parker Foundation was established in June 2015, with Parker making a $600 million donation to the philanthropic organization that focuses on art, civic engagement, public health, and life sciences.
He donated a further $250 million to the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in April 2016, with the funds disbursed to over 300 scientists across 40 laboratories.
The institute has recently found a link between skin cancer and microbial diversity in the gut and has conducted immunotherapy clinical trials for melanoma patients.
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