Sean Parker: At Home and Personal
Star tours helicopters criss-cross perpetually over Sean Parker’s Los Angeles home. It happens to be right next to the Playboy Mansion. He bought the place from Ellen Degeneres for $55 million in 2014. TMZ broke the news.
Naturally, I expected the “Bad Boy of Silicon Valley” to live up to his not-so-squeaky-clean reputation. But rather than grandly emerging 30 seconds before the interview was scheduled to start, Parker greeted our crew hours beforehand. His kids were darting around. His staff was incredibly attentive and gracious. Parker himself spent a considerable amount of time obsessing over the details of the shot — which books, furniture, and other embellishments could be seen in the background, what was in, and more importantly out, of frame. He didn’t want to show off, yet was also exceedingly proud of the home he’s created for himself and his family. He considers himself a “custodian” of this historic property built by Francis Brody, a famous post-war art collector.
Thus, Parker was involved in the smallest flourishes, picking out every single succulent in the succulent wall , for example. He calls it the “first green wall ever documented in America.” He rattles off an endless number of remote facts about his bonsai collection and the backyard foliage pointing out cyads and tree ferns that are “the same species the dinosaurs would have eaten.” But this is not Jurassic World. It’s the first place Sean Parker has ever really called home, and after spending most hours dealing with code, he’s found the nesting process exceedingly “therapeutic.”
Parker told me, “I’m way more eccentric, insecure and probably a lot more reserved,” than the character Aaron Sorkin created in The Social Network. The guy I met was a wicked smart, slightly nerdy, family man. Ahead of the interview, he asked how I could possibly anchor a show every day when I too have little ones (our kids are about the same age) who are prone to getting sick and spreading their germs. He admitted he came this close to canceling the interview because he had a cough. I didn’t admit that that was my biggest fear. Parker also has a rep for not showing up, or being very late to interviews.
My friend David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, tells me Parker doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the enormously positive and profound impact he had on what the social network became, beyond dropping the word “the” from “thefacebook.com,” and convincing a young Mark Zuckerberg to maintain control as venture capitalists begged for a piece.
When the interview began, Parker became suddenly nervous but got more comfortable almost immediately, speaking elaborately and eloquently about tech issues of the day. That’s when I recognized the Sean Parker who helped engineer world-rocking businesses like Napster and Facebook and was once offered a job by the CIA. This was the hacker-at-heart who discovered the internet as a young kid wandering through chatrooms in the cyberunderworld.
Among many golden nuggets in this interview, Parker proclaims his longtime friend and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick would make a good “wartime leader.” He raises the question of whether Facebook should consider buying Snapchat again and bashes managers like Taylor Swift’s who he bets have a vendetta against music streaming (Parker is on the board of Spotify, where Swift’s songs are notoriously absent). And yes, he responds to those who hated on his $10 million Lord of the Rings-themed wedding.
These days, Parker has taken up the cause of civic engagement meeting literally hundreds of Congresspeople and co-founding the voter awareness app Brigade. (He was very disdainful of Trump and proudly endorsed Hillary). He recently committed $600 million to fund research in life sciences and global health and believes his style of “hacker philanthropy” can beat venture capital to the biggest scientific bets, like non-traditional ways to cure cancer.
After three hours of interviews, Parker, finally agreed to let us shoot his home’s most prized possession, a 12-piece collection of Ai Weiwei’s zodiac heads he bought last year for…a lot of money. As we emerged from the prehistoric foliage, he lamented that we wouldn’t be able to see the place in the dark. “Yeah, this is like the Jurassic moment. At night, this place is really extraordinary.” And one last Star Tour zoomed off into the sunset.
Don’t miss the full edition of my sit-down with Sean Parker this Sunday at 9aPT, 12pET on Bloomberg TV or streaming live. And subscribe to the Studio 1.0 podcast which includes extra deleted content.