What does a modern start up look like up close? Pretty similar, it turns out, to those that you might have visited in the late 90s. From the games room to the free food and drink, the bean bags and the lava lamps, to the engineers in their shorts a visit to Palantir in Palo Alto might have been a visit to any start up in the valley before the tech bust of 2000. You find the same hothouse environment, the same passionate commitment to their cause (which some might call arrogance), and the same belief that one day they will all be millionaires.
The difference with Palantir, it seems to me, is in the products. I saw two of the most impressive demos I have ever seen of really well-thought-out products which set out to answer some really difficult and significant real-world problems.
I have no doubt the company will be successful (and I’m not being influenced by the fact that Reed Elsevier Ventures has a stake) because first they have some really, really smart people working there but secondly, and more importantly, the products were developed hand in glove with the customers they were going to serve. I can quite believe Alex Karp, the ceo, when he says the prospective customers are blown away by the products. And it is quite clear there are a lot more areas where Palantir’s data mapping and visualisation skills and scaleability could make a real difference – biotech, for instance, or even CRM. The approach is different, too – open platforms, open APIs and highly configurable by the end-users.
It was really invigorating to visit a company run along meritocratic lines, with little in the way of hierarchy, almost no HR function, and a genuine sense of shared purpose. And at just over 100 people the whole thing seems to function. What it will be like when there are 200, for 500 or 1,000 people remains to be seen. Can the same culture be maintained? I don’t know, but I would love to think so.
By the way, if you are reading this Alex, I forgot to ask – where does the name Palantir come from?