Net Worth: $2.7 Billion
Wealth Origin: Facebook
Hometown: Herndon, Virginia
Education: Chantilly High School
Prankster Turned Philanthropist
Sean Parker ultimately plans on giving away the majority of his massive $2.7 billion fortune. He has recently donated $4.5 million to UC San Francisco to launch a research program directed by Sir Richard Feachem on innovative and aggressive approaches against the mosquito that transmits malaria. In this fight to save precious human lives, their strategy includes the implementation of improved housing materials, environmental engineering, aerial insecticide spraying to kill mosquito larvae, and a variety of other new tools under development.
In April of 2016, his very own Parker Foundation announced a $250 million grant to form the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, building on his leadership in funding and promoting research into the relationship between the immune system and cancer. Allergic to nuts himself, he also pledged $24 million to Stanford University’s medical school to establish the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research.
“Malaria was successfully eradicated in the western world, and we know that elimination is possible. While incredible strides have been made in combating the disease, we must be relentless to reach the ultimate goal: a world where humanity no longer has to endure the suffering inflicted by this disease,” Parker said in a statement while describing his philanthropic aspirations. “We need to make catalytic changes in the field of allergy research by studying immune mechanisms in order to apply discoveries in real-time to new safer and more durable therapies for adults and children.”
Sean hasn’t always been known for embarking on humanitarian crusades, as a matter of fact, many media outlets tend to go out of their way to portray him as a hard-partying, tech wave riding, billionaire prankster of a playboy. He takes the scrutiny in stride, even going so far as to be sure his donations are on par with the iconoclastic brand image he’s accrued.
“It seemed like there was a point where if I was going to do these things, I’d have to make big bets in a concentrated way,” he told the New York Times in a telephone interview. “That I should do things that were reputationally somewhat weird, or would have some reputational cost.”
Sean Parker was born in Herndon, Virginia on December 3rd, 1979, to Diane Parker, a TV advertising broker, and Bruce Parker, a U.S. government oceanographer and Chief Scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. When he reached second grade, his father taught him how to program an Atari 800. “I think I was generally a good kid, up until a certain point when things went a little bit off the rails,” Sean explains.
Exposing his son to computing technology would later come back to haunt Bruce as Sean began socializing with elite groups of cybercriminals on the internet. He, however, always considered himself a “gray hat” in the hacker hierarchy, which is a status that can be loosely defined as the sort of hacker mischief-maker who thinks they’re doing some kind civic good.
It wasn’t long before adolescent Sean began staying up all night in the family den hacking into Fortune 500 mainframes along with a diverse selection of .com, .edu, .mil, and .gov internet domains from around the world. When reflecting on this period of his life, he is sure to point out that once inside he usually alerted the system administrator—from his or her own e-mail—to vulnerabilities he had discovered.
“My dad did everything he possibly could to stop it,” remembers Sean as his hobby compelled him to skip school altogether sometimes, which ultimately took a toll on his grades. “I had a desire to prove to myself that I was actually in control—that I wasn’t a puppet,” he says. “I didn’t want to kowtow to the system.”
One day Bruce’s frustration towards his son’s reckless academic behavior boiled over. “So,” recalls Parker. “He grabbed the keyboard from my hands, ripped it out of the computer, and took it upstairs. I started crying and saying, ‘Dad! You don’t know what you’re doing! I have to log out!’ But he didn’t let me.”
Just like any other typical 15-year-old, Sean was sitting in his World Civilization class when he received a note sharing that his father was pulling him out of school early for an orthodontist appointment; what scared him most was that he didn’t have an orthodontist nor any plans to see one.
When he got outside, his father rather angrily hurried him into the family minivan. Upon arriving at their modest suburban home, the duo encountered a team of F.B.I. agents toting papers and a desktop computer out of Sean’s room.
“I remember crying and crying, and they had sequestered me in this room, and I overheard these two women talking, F.B.I. agents,” Parker said. “One of them said, ‘He doesn’t seem like such a bad kid.’ And the other one said: ‘You have no idea. You have no idea what he is into.'” In the end, as a minor, he was sentenced to community service.
Vanity Fair touches on one aspect of this story that may help elucidate Parker’s subsequent attitudes toward rebellion. He performed his court-ordered duties at a library with other teenage offenders. There he met a girl whom he describes as his “punk-rock princess.”
One day she wrote her phone number on Parker’s hand—in ballpoint pen, he remembers fondly—and a few months later, he says, “I lost my virginity to her. I thought it was an incredible cosmic irony. This was the most romantic experience of my life and I met her because I’d been raided by the F.B.I.”
At 16, he developed an early Web crawler that won Virginia’s state computer science fair and got him recruited by the CIA – in a twist of fate, the law now hoped to work with an ungovernable Parker. He’d deny them the delight, of course, opting instead to intern for Mark Pincus’ D.C. startup, FreeLoader, and then UUNet, an early Internet service provider.
“I wasn’t going to school,” Sean says. “I was technically in a co-op program but in truth was just going to work.”
Hauling in an $80,000 salary during his senior year of high school, Parker began entertaining an idea that his mother considered “totally insane;” he didn’t want to go to college and from his perspective, he didn’t need to. It was then, that he experienced what he called an existential crisis, torn between becoming an academic like his father (a “diligent normal person”) or something altogether different.
“There came a time when these two incompatible notions of who I was, well, something had to give,” Parker rationalizes. “Either that ‘something’ is where you acquiesce to the world around you and you conform, or you sort of defiantly break whatever remaining bonds connect you to that world and create for yourself a different set of values.”
Before graduating from high school, Sean discovered a fateful friendship in another young hacker named Shawn Fanning. “Right away we were talking about things like theoretical physics. We realized we had a lot in common,” says Fanning. Along with other friends, the duo launched an Internet-security firm called Crosswalk, offering to advise companies that might otherwise have been their targets.
Although Crosswalk ultimately failed, it didn’t take long for the two young men to bounce back with a startup that would forever change the landscape of the music industry. College had to wait.
Fanning originally came up with the idea to develop Napster into a peer to peer file sharing service; after hearing about it, Sean Parker immediately asked to get involved, becoming a co-founder and contributing key ideas. When they received investor funding, the teenagers up and moved their operation to an incubator in San Francisco, having never before spent any time away from home.
Over lunch with Financial Times writer, John Gapper, Parker describes in one long breath what happened when he arrived in California: “[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.”
Whether originally intended by its founders or not, Napster got hi-jacked by people illegally sharing MP3 song files that would subsequently get downloaded by users. Parker and Fanning created the convenient machine that, for the first time ever, mainstreamed music downloads on the internet.
“I kind of refer to it as Napster University—it was a crash course in intellectual property law, corporate finance, entrepreneurship and law school,” says Parker. “Some of the e-mails I wrote when I was just a kid who didn’t know what he was doing are apparently in [law school] textbooks.”
According to Forbes, those e-mails, which admitted Napster customers were likely stealing music, would end up as evidence in copyright lawsuits that would eventually shutter Napster. Therefore, it came as no surprise that tens of millions of file-sharing users later, a federal judge ordered Napster to stop allowing patrons to download copyrighted material.
Eventually finding himself exiled to a North Carolina beach house by elder company executives, Parker received a call from a colleague who told him “Sean it doesn’t look good. I don’t think you’ll have a job when you get back.”
“One day Fanning and I woke up from this dream. It felt like we’d lived through an entire lifetime of experiences,” Parker laments. “I didn’t understand at the time that when someone asks you to take an extended vacation that’s basically a prelude to firing you.”
Following the swift collapse of his second business, the year is 2001, and he is ready to take a shot at launching another Internet company, but this time, on his own. “It had to have the potential to be as big as Napster,” says Parker. “Otherwise it wasn’t interesting to me.”
Having run into trouble with his personal electronic address book, Sean Parker figured he could create a company whose sellable service was to help people keep up with theirs. The idea required some refinement if investors were going to bite and until he received funding he basically found himself homeless – a “couch surfer” at best.
“You have got to be willing to be poor [as an entrepreneur],” Parker concludes. “I lived on couches for something like six months. I had no home. I was totally broke. I would stay at a friend’s house for two weeks, then move because I didn’t want to become this permanent mooch.” His girlfriend at the time urged him to give up and get a job at Starbucks.
Eventually, with the help of partners, he got the funding he needed from Sequoia Capital, a prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firm. “Plaxo is like the indie band that the public doesn’t know but was really influential with other musicians,” Parker says.
In its final form, the company provided automatic updating of contact information. Users and their contacts stored their information in the cloud on Plaxo’s servers. When this information was edited by the user, the changes appeared in the address books of all those who listed the account changer in their own books. Once contacts were stored in the central location, it was possible to list connections between contacts and access the address book from anywhere.
The true long-term genius of Plaxo wasn’t necessarily the service they provided, rather the unprecedented strategy by which the company went about marketing their ministrations. Once a customer downloaded Plaxo, the program would mine their address book and e-mail every contact with a message, coaxing them to sign up for the service; as soon as another person subscribed, that new address book got pillaged for contact information, and so on and so forth.
“In some ways, Plaxo is the company I’m most proud of because it was the company that wreaked the most havoc on the world,” admits Parker. The data mining blueprint Plaxo employed has become standard practice in a world now filled with tech giants vying for further customer insight – hence, the newfangled term “Big Data.”
Sean Parker Gets Kicked Out
Convinced that investors hired private detectives to follow him around and build a case against him, Parker claims it was a top-level conspiracy that had him removed from Plaxo. “Ram Shriram [a former Google board member] played this very vindictive game not only to force me out of the company but force me out broke, penniless, impoverished and with no options.”
If you ask fellow co-founders, Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring, they’ll say that while Parker had lots to do with the companies big picture practices and trajectory, he grew bored with the day-to-day grind that is building a startup.
“It was the sort of thing where he doesn’t come to work, but then maybe if he does it’s at 11 p.m., but it’s not to do a bunch of work, it’s because he’s bringing a bunch of girls back to the office because he can show them he’s a startup founder,” explains Masonis.
“I felt a complete loss of faith in humanity, impending doom, a sense that I couldn’t trust anybody,” says Parker. Once again at square one, he managed to find companionship in a new group of friends based out of San Francisco; this clique included Friendster programmer, Jonathan Abrams, who helped launch the social media site in 2002. Sensing opportunity, Parker became intrigued by Friendster despite a number of shortcomings – for example, their systems couldn’t support millions of users online at once and frequently gave out.
Sean Parker first noticed Thefacebook, as it was known then, on the computer screen of his roommate’s girlfriend, a student at Stanford. Based on his relationship with the folks at Friendster, he had this gut feeling that a social networking site would be most prosperous within a somewhat defined community such as a college campus. After sifting through Thefacebook, he sent an email to the company’s founders asking them out to dinner.
Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin gladly accepted his invitation, leading to a consequential meeting over Chinese food in Manhattan in the spring of 2004. A few months later, an unemployed Parker, by chance, ran into Zuckerberg and Facebook’s team on the streets of Palo Alto – they had all moved out to Silicon Valley.
Ditching the girlfriend he was living with at the time, he shortly moved into the rented Facebook house. Parker was able to sleep on a pad on the floor of co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s room, that is until, as Moskovitz puts it, “things got more serious with my girlfriend, and I had to kick him out.”
His Key Contributions
Parker’s own personal experience and network in Silicon Valley came up huge for Mark Zuckerberg when Facebook needed to raise money. For instance, it was his getting pushed out of Plaxo that motivated Sean to make sure that the same thing could never happen to Mark. Therefore, in the financing that Parker negotiated with Peter Thiel, as well as a much larger deal signed seven months later with the Accel Partners venture-capital firm, he was able to negotiate for Zuckerberg something almost unheard of in a venture-funded start-up: absolute control for the entrepreneur.
“Sean was pretty material in setting up the company in a way that Mark retained as much control as he does, both in being able to get high-valuation, low-dilution financing but also in terms of the board structure itself and details of control,” says Moskovitz. “He’d been coming off the Plaxo mess and was sensitive to that.”
Zuckerberg explains in an email to Forbes, “Sean was pivotal in helping Facebook transform from a college project into a real company. Perhaps more importantly, Sean helped ensure that anyone interested in investing in Facebook would not only buy into a company, but also a mission and vision of making the world more open through sharing.”
From a stylistic perspective, Parker urged designers to keep the user interface as simple as possible. “We wanted it to be like a telephone service,” reveals Aaron Sittig, an early Napster friend who would become Facebook’s key architect. “Something that really fades into the background.”
His final stamp of notable influence that came within the company’s early years was the addition of a “share” feature that would allow users to upload photos, videos, articles, and other forms of content. In classic Sean Parker fashion, he found himself in hot water with investors when, in 2005, while on a kiteboarding trip in North Carolina, he was arrested during a party at his rental house on suspicion of cocaine possession. For the sake of sparing Facebook a sideshow in court and on the news, he agreed to resign from his position.
Parker’s billion-dollar fortune stems from his brief tenure, at age 24, as Facebook’s president.
Sean Parker joined Spotify’s board in 2010 after investing $15 million (£12 million) in exchange for 5% of the company. According to Variety, he played a particularly large role in the negotiations and strategy leading up to Spotify’s 2011 launch in the U.S.
Business Insider reports that he left the board in 2017 amidst a flurry of leadership changes, however, still maintains a substantial stake in the company.
The Social Network
It’s no secret that Sean Parker enjoys having a good time, as most humans do. While others can hide their worst hard-partying moments deep within the bowels of college memories that lack any trace of physical evidence, because of his accomplishments, he is not afforded the same luxury.
“I don’t mind being depicted as a decadent partyer because I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with that,” says Parker, quickly adding that the partying gets exaggerated in the media, too. “But I do mind being depicted as an unethical, mercenary operator, because I do think there is something wrong with that.”
When The Social Network hit theatres all over the world, seemingly overnight, Parker’s reputation became synonymous with Justin Timberlake’s controversy-ridden portrayal of him. “A million dollars isn’t cool,” says Parker’s character at one point in the movie. “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”
“No, it’s not,” refutes the real-life Sean. “It’s not cool. I think being a wealthy member of the establishment is the antithesis of cool. Being a countercultural revolutionary is cool. So to the extent that you’ve made a billion dollars, you’ve probably become uncool.”
If you enjoyed this story on Sean Parker, check out our biography of Bill Gates.