Some infographics are valuable because they focus a complex mass of information down to a single sharp message. Sometimes, though, the most powerful message is a more expansive one.
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published a long, thorough examination of Palantir Technologies, Inc., a lavishly funded and well publicized data-analysis company that has been in business for 14 years without ever turning a profit, and with no really solid timetable for ever starting to turn a profit. (Peter Thiel, the company’s co-founder and main investor, also directed a secret multi-year conspiracy to drive Gawker Media, where I worked, into bankruptcy, which I mention here both as a journalistic disclosure on my part and because every article about Peter Thiel should mention that fact about him.)
The text of the article mostly dealt with Palantir as a specific phenomenon—its enthusiastic spending habits, its changing messages and strategies, and its self-indulgent cultural oddities (the beanie-wearing CEO “has three Tai Chi swords visible in his New York office and one in Palo Alto”; its software was “written in a bespoke programming language and taught one-on-one”). But the graphics that go with the story had a broader and more sobering message.
The first one was a timeline, showing Palantir along with a selection of other Silicon Valley companies, from launch to profitability, if profitability had ever come. “Palantir,” the caption said, “is among a host of highly valued startups that have spent longer losing money than some in previous generations.” Apple made money more or less right away. Even Amazon’s famous years-long march of losing money, as it sacrificed profit to gain market share, wrapped up within a decade.
But then come Palantir, Tesla, Twitter, Uber, and WeWork—their timelines stretching out all the way up to the present without ever turning the green of a profitable company. Year after year, they keep burning money without leaving the category the Journal kindly labels as “Not yet profitable.”
After the timeline comes another graphic, putting Palantir into context in another way. It is a depiction of “Most highly valued U.S. startups,” with their valuations as fuzzy pink circles, except for Palantir’s, which is set off in yellow. Here it is:
What most of these companies have in common, besides their immense valuations, is that they are somewhere between useless and actively destructive. The biggest pink circle is Uber, which is valued at $72,000,000,000 and which has revolutionized transportation by recruiting more and more people into working longer and longer hours for lower and lower pay—while still, itself, losing money along the way. There’s Airbnb, which does the same sort of damage to housing markets that Uber does to employment. Or SpaceX, a rich man-child’s model-rocket set scaled up to full size. Or WeWork, which enables employers to make their commitment to physical workspace as vaporous as their commitment to every other aspect of stable employment. Or Juul, which has made itself worth $15.1 billion almost overnight through the creative business model of selling a highly addictive drug to children. Behold the pillars of your 21st century economy.