CNBC Disruptor 50

Palantir CEO says investors will be 'positively surprised' at the company's margins

Key Points
  • CEO Alex Karp tells CNBC that Palantir investors will be surprised when they see the company's margins.
  • More companies are using Palantir's data-mining software as it expands beyond government.
  • Funds have been writing down the value of Palantir shares over the last two years.
Inside secretive startup Palantir

Palantir, the software maker once valued at $20 billion, has seen its share price marked down by investors of late. But CEO Alex Karp isn't deterred.

In an interview that was airing Wednesday, Karp told CNBC his company is signing on more corporate customers and public market investors will be "positively surprised" at what they see. Palantir is now being used in Fiat Chrysler's North American factories, Karp said, joining a roster of clients that includes Airbus, BP and Merck.

"We have been at this for a while," Karp said. "There are times when people are really over-excited and under-excited."

Founded in 2004 by a group of ex-Stanford students including Karp, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Joe Lonsdale, Palantir provides software that customers use to import volumes of disparate data, such as spreadsheets and images, into a central database where it can be analyzed and interpreted with maps and charts. The company is best known for providing services to government agencies such as the CIA, FBI and Department of Defense.

Palantir CEO says investors will be 'positively surprised' at the company's margins

In late 2015, a wide swath of investors poured around $880 million into Palantir, valuing the company at $20 billion and placing it alongside Silicon Valley high-flyers like Uber and Airbnb. According to SharesPost, the per share price at the time was $11.38.

But investors have been marking down their prices on the stock for the past two years, amid reports of customer defections, discrimination and shareholder lawsuits and a broader reset in private market valuations. BlackRock funds now value Palantir at $5.67 a share, a 29 percent drop from mid-2017 and half of its peak share price. GSV Capital wrote the value of Palantir common shares down to $5.98 in September from $7.56 in early 2016.

"This is a time when people are underestimating what we're doing," Karp said. "That time will be gone very quickly."

Palantir’s Palo Alto headquarters, Palo Alto, California.
Mark Neuling | CNBC

Karp didn't say when or if the company will go public or when it will disclose financials.

"I think people — when we do this — will be very surprised at what they see, and I think they will be positively surprised," he said. Karp was specifically talking about revenue and margins.

He said the company has signed a multiyear deal to expand deployment with Fiat Chrysler. Some 1,500 employees at the carmaker, including assembly-line managers, use the software to identify production problems and potential safety issues, he said.

Palantir is going after a big market. Global revenue for big data and business analytics will grow to $210 billion by 2020 from $151 billion in 2017, according to research firm IDC. The tech giants are all playing in the space, with Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and SAP selling big data and analytics tools.

Karp said he isn't concerned about the competition.

"Most software comes in two flavors: It either doesn't work or it's not useful," he said. "Our software comes in this flavor: It's very useful and sometimes deadly," he said, referring to its use by the military.

'Preserving jobs'

SharesPost estimates that Palantir's bookings hit $3.5 billion in 2017, with about 50 percent coming from government contracts. The company had revenue of up to $600 million last year and could go public with a market cap of about $20 billion in 18 to 24 months, according to the SharesPost report from last year.

Karp also said that while the tech industry has been criticized for destroying manufacturing and industrial jobs, his company's software can help secure employment for many Americans.

"It is preserving jobs," he said. "Once the 1,500 employees are using the software, they are actually doing things that otherwise you would need a Ph.D. to do."

President-elect Donald Trump speaks as PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel (C) and Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook look on during a meeting with technology leaders at Trump Tower in New York U.S., December 14, 2016.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

Palantir found itself on the national stage after the 2016 presidential election and not just because Thiel, a supporter of candidate Donald Trump, served on his transition team. At a Trump Tower meeting in December 2016 with Trump and top tech executives, Karp joined Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Alphabet CEO Larry Page at the table.

However, Karp said that meeting hasn't translated into additional business.

"We work with our agencies directly," Karp said. "I haven't seen a great impact on our business depending on who is president."