Airtime man keeps feet on ground

11 Jun, 2012

Doing justice to Justin Timberlake's Hollywood interpretation of his character in The Social Network, Sean Parker, the internet entrepreneur and billionaire, yawned and burped his way through an interview with the Financial Times at his large home in New York's West Village.

Talking ahead of this week's launch of Airtime, his latest start-up company, he said: "The fact is that I have done so many of these in such a short period of time. I have great confidence in my ability to build the right product."

But drinking a Red Bull energy drink and speaking at rapid pace with his attention cut by constant pings from his computer, he did admit his stress levels were "close to the max". But added: "Somehow, it always magically comes together at the end."

And the resolve of the larger-than-life technology entrepreneur was publicly tested at a glitzy New York venue on Monday as a group of celebrities recruited to promote his new video chat site Airtime mocked its glitch-filled unveiling.

The site, which allows users to video chat with their Facebook friends or talk anonymously with people who share similar interests, sputtered out as the line-up of actors, musicians and comedians, including rapper Snoop Dogg, singer Alicia Keys, actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and comedian Jim Carrey, attempted to demonstrate how it worked.

"We really have no business being in the technology business right now," Mr Parker told the crowd of reporters and bloggers furiously documenting the mishaps. "We totally failed."

The event marked a disastrous start for the new venture from one of the internet industry's biggest personalities. Airtime says the site has been working well since and the technical glitches were the result of the "custom-built intranet at the venue".

Expectations are high for Mr Parker, 32, whose reputation ripples beyond Silicon Valley into pop culture. During the past two decades, he has been involved in a series of lauded digital companies, including music file-sharing site Napster, which he cofounded with Airtime business partner Shawn Fanning and is credited with disrupting the music business. Mr Parker was also an early executive at Facebook, with a stake valued at $2.65bn.

Mr Parker and Mr Fanning said in the interview that the site was an attempt to solve a social problem that had emerged amid the rise of social networking sites such as Facebook, where face-to-face conversations had been reduced to impersonal clicks and status updates.

"You are just clicking and never really engaging in a deep way with anyone," Mr Parker said. "There is a lot lost, and the result is this sense of dehumanisation."

Perfecting video chat is an enormous technology opportunity, but competition is stiff with similar products from companies including Facebook, which works with Skype.

Many have struggled to attract users, and Airtime will probably face similar challenges, said James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Mr Parker said he was confident Airtime would succeed and that the company could not pay attention to the hype.

"One of the problems that goes wrong in the careers of creative people, whether they are musicians or entrepreneurs or filmmakers is that first of all, they believe the hype. Dangerous," he said.

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