Palantir CEO to investors: Pick a ‘different company’ if you don’t like us

September 10, 2020, 12:30 AM UTC

Palantir Technologies CEO Alex Karp told investors on Wednesday that the company is holding fast to its strategy of helping government agencies like the U.S. Defense Department digest and analyze data — even though those associations have stirred controversy in the past.

In the run-up to a hotly anticipated direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange slated for Sept. 23, Karp also said that if would-be investors want Palantir to change its client base or culture of U.S. government support, then they should “pick a different company.”

“We have certain beliefs and we will stick with those,” he said.

It’s unclear what valuation Palantir could fetch on the public market. Private investors last valued the company at $20 billion in 2015, but research firm PitchBook recently pegged its valuation at $8.8 billion, using revenue multiples from comparable companies.

Palantir makes money by selling data analysis and software to governments and private companies. During the investor presentation on Wednesday and during a livestream question-and-answer session afterward, company executives outlined the hybrid nature of its business — revenue is roughly equal between government and commercial customers — and Karp delved into the thinking that drives executive and board decisions.

Palantir Global Head of Business Development Kevin Kawasaki said that while smaller companies may find Palantir’s products useful, the company is focused on forging ties with the largest 6,000 global businesses. Since Palantir only recently began hiring sales staff — they make up just 3% of its 2,400 employees — “there’s a lot of room for us to grow,” he said.

Palantir has faced criticism from privacy rights groups, and even its own employees, because of its work with the U.S. government. The company has helped U.S. agencies carry out controversial data collection and surveillance policies, and it has recently doubled down on its pursuit of government work. In its filing to go public, the company said that it “has chosen sides.” Several company executives said that Palantir integrates customers’ data, but that it doesn’t own, store, share or sell it.

Palantir has been successful in bidding for government contracts, especially recently. In 2016, it successfully sued the U.S. Army over what it said was an unfair bidding process too focused on boutique, one-off projects. Thanks partly to that move, says Melius Research analyst Carter Copeland, the U.S. government shifted its spending habits. Palantir secured more revenue from the U.S. Army in the first half of 2020 than it did in the previous 10 years combined, according to a slide shown during the company’s presentation Wednesday.

Copeland thinks it would be “dangerous” to read too much into the revenue growth from Palantir’s Army contracts. Those increased to $78.8 million during the first half of 2020, up 47% from all of 2019. But he added that Palantir is well positioned regardless of who wins the Presidential election in November, and will be able to take advantage of a broader shift in how government agencies purchase technology. “I don’t think the election matters,” Copeland said.

Palantir has an unusual power structure, which has raised eyebrows from investors. Palantir’s chairman and major shareholder, Peter Thiel, along with two of the company’s other co-founders, Stephen Cohen and Karp, will control 49.99% of voting shares “for the foreseeable future,” according to the filing.

Palantir isn’t the first company to concentrate power into the hands of a few executives — Facebook Inc. is one of the first and most discussed. But Palantir’s structure sparked a reproach from the Council of Institutional Investors and a call for the company to shift to a one-share, one-vote model within seven years.

In the questions-and-answer presentation on Wednesday, Palantir did not address the issue of voting power. Executives also didn’t answer questions that were submitted about its work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In recent years, the company has distanced itself from Silicon Valley, and has moved its headquarters to Denver from Palo Alto, California. Thiel also broke with other tech chiefs when he supported Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, notable in an industry that skews heavily democratic. As if to underscore that the company does not plan to bend to convention even once public, Karp introduced Wednesday’s presentation dressed in cross country-training gear in a pre-recorded video. Taking off his helmet, he advised: “Be aware of the fact that we are going to keep our culture, and that we’ve not wavered from that.”

Unlike many technology startups that have gone public in recent years, Palantir will eschew a traditional initial public offering. By instead pursuing a direct listing, Palantir will let employees and investors cash out, but won’t issue any new shares or raise new capital, and will let the market choose the stock price. Slack Technologies, Inc. and Spotify Technology also went public via a direct listing.

So far this year, more than 95% of Palantir’s revenue came from existing customers, it said its Wednesday presentation. A large part of revenue has come from a relatively small number of customers — the top three together accounted for 28% of its revenue last year, the company said in the filing. The average revenue per customer was $5.6 million.

Palantir grew sales 49% during the first half of 2020 to $481 million, suggesting an annual revenue run rate of $962 million this year. It grew revenue 25% to $743 million in 2019, but still lost $580 million and has yet to turn an annual profit since it was founded in 2003.

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