Parker Barrile is a partner at Norwest Venture Partners, one of the oldest and most reputed venture capital firms in the world. Parker has one of those iconic, Silicon-Valley-style career trajectories that people read about in business books. His track record includes working at two of the most generation-defining companies of the internet age--first on the business strategy team at a pre-IPO Google, and later, after getting his MBA degree from Stanford, at an early LinkedIn, where he served as VP of Product. Never someone to follow preordained paths, Parker left LinkedIn after a five-year tenure to take a year-long sabbatical. He moved his wife and kids away from the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley to the serenity of Whitefish, Montana. That respite gave him the time and freedom to advise and angel invest in startups, igniting a passion for working with early-stage companies. Upon his return to the tech scene, Parker worked as Chief of Product at Prosper, a marketplace lending company, before joining Norwest as a partner.
A conversation with Parker flows so easily and naturally that it’s hard to imagine him as that “intense” and “ambitious” kid, whose “ambition to do something meaningful” drove him to graduate Stanford as a math major because of what his professor told him--that people always assumed math majors were smart. He’s a no-frills, no-embellishments kind of guy. While he has a history of working in high-pressure work environments, Parker remains somebody who recognizes the absurdity of life and doesn’t take himself too seriously. This also likely explains why he and his family still reside in Montana, removed from the tech ecosystem in which he works even though he flies across the country for the customary business trips. Living in a house on the lake, Parker likes to do what he calls “pretty normal stuff.” He enjoys taking his boat out on the waters and is an avid runner, running at least six out of seven days of the week. Even though he sometimes ponders whether he is “making a dent on the universe,” it’s out there, in the pristine Montana wilderness, where Parker has found something most others go their whole lives searching for: a sense of self-contentment.
Sam: You graduated from Stanford University as a mathematics major in 2002--right in the midst of the dotcom crash. Could you elaborate on that early part of your career?
Parker: It’s hard for younger folks to understand, but the early 2000s were some very bleak times after the dotcom crash. Coming out of school, I had an offer to go to a couple different companies, including Google, but I took an offer to work as a consultant at Bain because I was worried that working for a tech company was too risky given the broader economic environment. I regret not going to Google right out of school, but it was just sort of a classic, risk-averse move. I ended up having a blast at Bain, but after about a year and a half, I ended up leaving to work at a pre-IPO Google.
Sam: What was your experience joining and working for a pre-IPO Google, which to this day remains one of the most generation-defining companies in the world?
Parker: Working at Google during those times was crazy. Google was the most high-performing company I had ever experienced. The company very quickly struck oil with its business model at the right time. The year I joined, the company did $950M in revenue and, in the year after that, $2.5B in revenue. I got to interact with these insanely smart, ambitious, and talented people all the time. What was interesting was that we were living in a sort of “Google bubble,” where the pace of our growth felt so normal. No one seemed to think our growth was that special or unusual. It just seemed inevitable.
Some people say you learn a lot from failure, but I think it’s better to learn from success rather than failures. Google probably had the most impact on my career in the sense that it changed my appetite for risk and how I operated as a business person. It was a phenomenal experience.
Sam: After leaving Google, what did you do next?
Parker: I left Google to go to business school at Stanford. I was intending to come back to Google, but when I was in business school, I got excited about a startup idea and also met my co-founder, who was a fellow classmate. We decided to give it a try and started a company called Predictify, which was a community-based platform where users could discuss, debate, and make predictions about politics, sports, and pop culture. We raised both our seed and Series A rounds while I was in business school. We had a lot of early success and grew to several million unique users on the platform. But the 2008 economic downturn happened, and we couldn’t raise any more money and couldn’t monetize. We eventually ran out of gas, and we gracefully shut that company down. That experience definitely impacted my career. I’ve been in a founder’s shoes. I’ve raised money, hired and fired, and failed. It’s pretty humbling to fail. I think that gives me a lot of empathy for founders.
Sam: How did you transition from co-founding and operating your own startup to eventually entering the world of venture capital?
Parker: In 2009, I had the opportunity to go to LinkedIn and work for a former Google product leader, Deep Nishar, whom I deeply respected. I had previously done some product work at Predictify, but until then I had been a self-taught product manager. Deep gave me a chance to join LinkedIn and take on a pretty big product role right out of the gate. I was responsible for job postings and the job seeker experience at LinkedIn. During my time at LinkedIn, the company went from 40 million members to 400 million, from making $50M in revenue a year to $2B. I grew up along with it and ended up running a big part of the product organization there.
I was at LinkedIn for five years. It was an incredibly high-octane experience--demanding, exhausting, and exhilarating at the same time. At that point though, I decided to take a year off with my wife and kids. We moved to Whitefish, Montana. I know that not a lot of people--especially VCs in the tech ecosystem--take a year off on sabbatical, but that’s what I did. That freed me up to spend my time on many different things. I started doing a lot of advising, coaching, and angel investing. I realized I loved interacting with companies that way.
A year later, coming out of sabbatical, I joined as VP of Product a startup called Prosper, which provided a peer-to-peer lending marketplace. During my time on sabbatical though, I loved helping and advising early-stage founders and VPs to be successful, and I started wondering if there was an opportunity to make angel investing and startup advising a real job. Those threads came together in venture capital, and I was offered the opportunity to join Norwest as a partner. By then, I felt I had had a great career as a product leader but that I really wanted to explore what had been up until that point a hobby in advising and investing in early-stage companies.
Sam: For a lot of young VCs today, we start off at the bottom rung--often starting off as an analyst or associate and working our way slowly up over the years. You jumped from a long career of product leadership roles directly into a VC partner role. What was that experience like and how did you find your bearings?
Parker: Jumping into venture capital was definitely a learning experience. For sure, it was a tougher transition than I anticipated. I think what’s interesting is that there are certainly folks in venture capital who are former operators like me, as well as those who come up the ranks in finance. I don’t think it’s obvious that one group outperforms the other as check writers. Depending on the path that you took, you have different strengths and weaknesses. As I came from a product background, my strength was being data-driven and evaluating and delivering products. I came in with a different mindset and had to reorient my thinking around the financial aspects of investments.
Fundamentally, investing comes down to four key areas: sourcing, evaluating companies, winning the deal, and then board service. One of my strengths was in board service because of my former operating experience and that empathy I have for knowing what it’s like to be in the founder seat. The other three areas were all learning experiences for me when I started.
Sam: What kind of companies do you get excited about as a VC?
Parker: There are a couple ways of how I would answer this question. The first way is the framework I use from my experience in product. I like to invest in painkiller products versus vitamin products. Painkiller products are ones that really solve the immediate problem; they provide instant and meaningful gratification versus a vitamin product, which is something that you should probably use because it’s good for you but that you could likely wait to use. I like to focus on painkiller products because they typically have a lot faster uptake in adoption. Additionally, you want to make sure that a company, in addition to having a painkiller product, builds a competitive advantage as it scales--that its product can establish a competitive moat. This is easier said than done, but this painkiller/moat framework is how I think through the investments I make.
In terms of areas that get me excited, I’m heavy on Fintech because of my work at Prosper. I’m heavy on HR tech because of my experience leading product for the recruiting business at LinkedIn. I’m heavy on companies using data as a competitive moat, as I’ve seen the power of data at Google and LinkedIn. I’m also passionate about human health, as I think there are so many unsolved problems around the frustrations of modern life, such as how to eat better, how to exercise more, and feel better physically and mentally. Lastly, I’m very interested in crypto. We’re still in the early innings for crypto, though I’d love to deploy more into that space.
Sam: What's the key learnings that you would take away from your career? That is, what advice would you give to EVCA members as they think about the next steps in their career?
Parker: The first thing I would tell the younger generation of VCs is to be thoughtful about the platform where they decide to spend time. I believe that this is the most important consideration because, for me, a big factor in my success was spending time at Google and LinkedIn, and now, spending time at Norwest, which is also a phenomenal platform. Make sure the platform is worthy of your time and investment.
My second piece of advice is to be patient. I think the biggest setbacks in my career happened when I got impatient and acted impulsively. I still regret leaving Google. I also regret leaving LinkedIn when I did. Even though I was there for five years, I should have stayed, as there were a bunch of great years ahead. I left because I was young and ambitious, though also impulsive and impatient. I wish I had been more patient.
Lastly, my third piece of advice is to define who you are and what you stand for. Define your competitive advantage and find a way to make sure that that’s perceived by the people with whom you work. This is critical because peoples’ careers are not defined by the million things you do but by your greatest hits. They’re about the big success you have and the way that you establish causality with those successes.
Parker Barrile is a Partner at Norwest Venture Partners, where he invests in consumer apps, marketplaces, and B2B SaaS companies. Prior to Norwest, he was Chief Product Officer at Prosper, a marketplace lending company, and VP Product at LinkedIn, where he led a product org responsible for 80% of LinkedIn’s revenue during a period of 20x growth from $100 million to $2 billion. Earlier in his career, Parker founded a venture-backed startup and held strategy roles at Google and Bain & Company. Parker has served as an advisor to startups such as Medallia, Doximity, NerdWallet, Procore, and Thumbtack. He holds a BS in Math and an MBA, both from Stanford.