I run a startup. We have a powerful product, an amazing team, great customer reactions, huge market potential and strong financial backing.
What we don’t have is Sean Parker.
By Sean Parker, I don’t mean the Appletini-pushing charmer Justin Timberlake played in the film The Social Network. Reminiscences about dating Britney or duetting with Madonna would liven up our office chit-chat, but we’re after something more substantial.
We want Sean Parker, the Internet catalyst.
In the room when everything changed
An Internet catalyst is a tricky role to define, and not everyone agrees it’s necessary or even desirable in a start-up. Read The Accidental Billionaires and it’s easy to think Parker’s main contribution was removing the definite article from Facebook’s web address. Listen to buddies like Sean Lennon and you end up wondering whether Parker is a Wonder of the Modern World (“His brain is like the technological equivalent of the Library of Alexandria…he’s an artist, a business artist”).
Industry analysts are equally divided: either Parker is a temperamental loose cannon who wrecked more businesses than he helped, or he is the one guy who recognized world-changing technologies when others saw a couple of teenage hackers with online record collections or a band of students in hoodies who could not be bothered to lift an actual face book down off the shelf.
What is clear is that Sean Parker was in the room when everything changed.
Catalysts are like that. Sean probably deserves less credit for turning Facebook into what it is than he thinks he does, said Dustin Moskovitz, one of the social network’s founders, but also more credit than anybody else thinks he does.
Parker plugged Facebook into Silicon Valley’s circuits. He introduced the founders to investors like Peter Thiel and influential advisers like Reid Hoffman. He may have played pranks like getting Mark Zuckerberg to turn up at Sequoia Capital in p.j.’s, but he also helped him structure the financing so he retains control of the company long term.
Crucially, he encouraged the Facebook team to think big and build the social network for the digital age. Probably Sean Parker is the only person alive who is not surprised that Facebook now has over 800 million active users and controls more personal data than any government on earth.
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Few Internet start-ups get this level of insight – or luck – but most could use a dose of that magic.
No guidebooks, only cautionary tales
My company has the potential to transform work – who does it, how it is measured and what results it gets. We are at the point in our growth where the future of our industry is ours to map. Take the wrong path and that potential could elude us. Chart the right route and we could change every business more fundamentally than Napster changed the music industry or Facebook changed the way we socialize. We know where we want to go and we have the proven science to get there. We just have to choose a path to follow, and we have to choose it now.
The challenge is that there are no guidebooks to building a high-stakes, game-changing Internet start up, only cautionary tales of What Not To Do. Our collective expertise and competencies have spared us the classic errors, and we have also learned a lot in our first year of operations. We’re in a good place, but I want to be in a better one, and fast. To help us get there I want a jungle guide, an Internet catalyst, a proven Sean Parker.
Then again, maybe there is no proven Sean Parker. Parker’s deep insights seem to be part of a mix that includes unpredictability and unreliability. Even when he turns up to the meeting, he doesn’t always make the right call. His recipe of rigorous analytics folded in with market savvy and the courage to see his convictions through is a great way to go about formulating strategy. But it’s no guarantee of success. Nobody – not even Sean Parker – can short circuit risk.
And that’s part of the start up thrill. If every new online business could access an internet catalyst, where would the challenge go? What kind of returns could we expect? Part of our winning formula is that our team can make this happen where others can’t. We’re excited about the risk… most of the time.
Still, nobody ever changed the world alone. If you’re reading this, Sean, and you think I’m wrong about your ability to guarantee success, please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise I’ll stand you an Appletini when we meet.