Palantir, the CIA-backed, Hobbit-inspired, probably-spying-on-you startup worth billions, has one hell of a leader. Forbes profiles Alex Karp in its latest issue, and he is a drug-smoking, sex-loving, curly-haired star. Is this Silicon Valley's zaniest exec?
As someone who claims their data-mining company is engaged in a righteous battle against global evil, Karp is exactly as paranoid as you'd expect. Maybe that battle is real! It is, at the very least, real enough inside his head to warrant a 24/7 security detail:
“Mike,” an ex-Marine–silent, 6 foot 1, 270 pounds of mostly pectoral muscle–who trails him everywhere he goes. Even on the suburban streets of Palo Alto, steps from Palantir’s headquarters, the bodyguard lingers a few feet behind.
“It puts a massive cramp on your life,” Karp complains, his expression hidden behind large black sunglasses. “There’s nothing worse for reducing your ability to flirt with someone.”
Karp really does love flirting—he tells Forbes "the only time I’m not thinking about Palantir is when I’m swimming, practicing Qigong or during sexual activity.” Those are three very specific, very different things (I hope), and that's a lot of thinking about Palantir. He speaks wistfully of his previously low rent life, pre-Palantir, when "sexual activity" was plentiful:
“I would walk around, go into skanky places in Berlin all night. I’d talk to whoever would talk to me, occasionally go home with people, as often as I could. I went to places where people were doing things, smoking things. I just loved it.”
But his days of Deutsche skankery are behind him: now his job is to run perhaps the world's most elite private sector collection of spooks ever assembled. Their expertise is tapped around the world, helping governments spy on humans, soldiers kill other humans, and nail human traffickers. Of course, since it's done within the walls of a chic startup, we have to mostly take Palantir's word for all of this do-goodery—and what walls they are:
His office, decorated with cardboard effigies of himself built by Palantir staff and a Lego fortress on a coffee table, overlooks Palo Alto’s Alma Street through two-way mirrors. Each pane is fitted with a wired [anti-eavesdropping] device resembling a white hockey puck.
There are "20 pairs of identical swimming goggles" in his office cabinet, just to balance out the spy pucks. This whole schtick is a bizarre mix of hyper-privacy and hyper-ego, a distinctly Silicon Valley blend of wanting to have it both ways, always and forever. When you're fortified in your own corporate bunker, it's easy to maintain one of the world's most expensive personal delusions: "I’m losing my ability to be completely anonymous," he laments to Forbes, in the same article he refers to himself in the third person. Participating in a Forbes profile is also a tricky way of maintaining your anonymity.
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty