Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A (Pretty) Complete History of Palantir

I originally published this article at Maus Strategic Consulting on 4/27/2014. To my knowledge it remains the most complete publicly available history of Palantir.

 
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Fairly eccentric near-billionaire CEO Alex Karp
Palantir Technologies is the darling of the U.S. intelligence community, the terror of many privacy advocates, and most recently the fascination of many high-end investors.

Despite being in the spotlight among such groups, much of the information on it is fragmentary or highly speculative. This history unites those fragments into a coherent whole, probably the most complete publicly available history of Palantir ever assembled.

When Palantir spokeswoman Lisa Gordon was reached for official  comment on the history below, she examined it and replied (with characteristic Palantir casualness) "I don't really have anything to add. Looks pretty complete."




Though widely listed as having been founded in 2004, SEC filings set Palantir’s official incorporation on May 2003 (1) by Peter Thiel (cofounder of PayPal and investor in numerous Silicon Valley firms), who said that he intended the Palo Alto, California-based startup as a “mission oriented company” intending to apply software like PayPal’s fraud recognition systems “to reduce terrorism while preserving civil liberties” (2).

In 2004, Thiel bankrolled the creation of a prototype by PayPal engineer Nathan Gettings and Stanford grad students Joe Lonsdale and Stephen Cohen. That same year, Thiel hired temporary (and later permanent) CEO Alex Karp, a former colleague from Stanford Law School. Karp had been putting his philosophy PhD to unorthodox use as a money manager through a London-based investment firm he had founded called the Caedmon Group,[1] (2) (3) and had been helping to raise funds for Thiel’s investment management firm Clarium Capital (3).

Palantir had difficulties raising capital in the U.S., as suggested by both SEC filings (4) and anecdotes from Karp, (2) (3) but the intelligence community (and Karp’s European investor connections) provided a new channel for funding.

According to the Washingtonian, they consulted many experts to open doors for them in DC, including former White House National Security Council staffer Alex Poindexter, who in 2004 introduced them to Richard Perle, ex-chair of the Defense Policy board. (5)

Even with these experts helping them navigate the halls of power in DC, there seem to have been a number of instances of mutual culture shock. Karp says that in his first meeting with an intelligence agency in 2005 that he was "freaked out" by security guarding the building with firearms, and he mistakenly asked one of the officials their name, not knowing that this was against protocol (6). Some government officials also expressed surprise at the casual attire of Palantir staff during meetings, such as former head of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael E Leiter who had said to himself “There’s Karp with his hair and his outfit—he doesn’t look like me or the other people that work for me,” before becoming a supporter and then consultant for Palantir (7). Indeed, Karp says that “the first hundred meetings or so were fraught with misunderstandings” (8).

Despite these misunderstandings, the CIA became a Palantir customer in 2005 for their intelligence analytics services, (2) and their venture capital arm In-Q-Tel was publicly listed as having an equity stake in the company by mid-2006. (9)

Further integrating themselves into Washington, the company opened an office in 2007 (nicknamed “Rivendell”) in the D.C. suburb McLean with their first intelligence alumnus employee David Worn, (6) a former DoD intelligence officer and engineer for MITRE. (10) It has also sponsored events such as the monthly Palantir Night Live in DC to bring together many speakers and DC socialites together. (11) It has also been active in formal political lobbying, recruiting former senators John Braux and Trent Lott, (5) with its lobbying expenditures increasing steadily from 2010 to 2013 when its total annual investment exceeded $1.1 million[2] (12).

Palantir’s government contract roster steadily grew, Karp says largely via word of mouth (5) (8), asserting that the company “saw massive adoption without a sales force” (8). Though most well-known for its intelligence and defense clients such as the CIA (2) (6) (13), Department of Defense (6) (14), NSA (2), and FBI (2) (3) (6) (13), Palantir has also served other types of government agencies, such as the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (15), CDC (16) (17), FDA (17) and, more recently, the SEC (18).


[1] A 2009 Wall Street Journal article places Karp’s involvement in the company as early as 2003. The same article also implies that Karp had returned to the U.S. from Europe in 2000. (6)

[2] To put this number into perspective, in 2013 IBM spent $6 million in lobbying (57) Raytheon spent over $7.5 million, (58) Lockheed Martin spent nearly $14.5 million, (60) and Boeing spent just over $15million. (59)

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In 2009 Tim Drake, general manager for the 20-year old software defense contractor I2 Inc.[1] derided his new competitor Palantir as “the new sexy thing,” saying that Palantir won't be able to make lasting inroads in a government market that prizes the stability of established companies.” (6) This prediction would seem to be inaccurate in hindsight, considering that an August 2013 Forbes article cited interviews with Condoleezza Rice, David Petraeus and George Tenet to characterize them as a “National Security Darling”, (19) and their advocates in congress such as California Representative Duncan Hunter (20).

This is not to say that that they have been unopposed. Controversy erupted within the U.S. military between implementation of Palantir’s software and the continued use of Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A) by the U.S. Army, in which a 2010 Joint Urgent Operating Statement praising Palantir was accused of having been “clearly ghost-written by a Palantir engineer,” with senior officials in Army Operational Test Command demanding that the endorsement be removed from the document prior to distribution. (21) DCGS-A supporters argue that their system is more versatile, (14) more interoperable with other systems, (20) and have accused Palantir’s supporters of being Palantir stooges. (21) (22) Palantir supporters have countered that their systems are easier to use, more reliable, and faster accuse DCGSA-A supporters of being either out of touch with the needs on the ground or in bed with the many major firms with a vested interest in the software such as IBM (via i2), Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics (20).

This is not the only scuffle involving both Palantir and i2. i2 filed a suit in August 2010 alleging that a Palantir employee Shyam Sankar fraudulently used a shell company SRS Enterprises to license i2’s software in order to steal its trade secrets from 2006 to 2010. (23) In January of 2011 the two companies issued a joint statement that they had settled the agreement "to the mutual satisfaction of all the parties," vowing that neither side would make any future public statement on the subject (24) (25).

Another controversy arose in 2011, when hacked e-mails from HP Gary revealed a presentation with Palantir’s logo about a proposal to Bank of America (26) (27) (28) for how Palantir, HB Gary Federal, and Berico Technologies could collaborate to “combat the WikiLeaks threat effectively” (29). When the issue emerged, Karp quickly released a statement saying that he had directed the company to sever all ties to HB Gary, stating “The right to free speech and the right to privacy are critical to a flourishing democracy. From its inception, Palantir Technologies has supported these ideals and demonstrated a commitment to building software that protects privacy and civil liberties. Furthermore, personally and on behalf of the entire company, I want to publicly apologize to progressive organizations in general, and Mr. Greenwald in particular, for any involvement that we may have had in these matters” (27) (28) .

Karp would later say that he had been unaware of the plan, insisting that the company’s flat structure encourages employees to act like entrepreneurs, not requiring approval for every action by their superiors (5). One could also note that the project was proposed by a team operating out of the DC office, rather than the Palo Alto headquarters (5), perhaps limiting oversight. In response to the incident, Karp also said that he hired a law firm (Boies, Schiller & Flexner (5)) to investigate the company’s role in the incident (5) (30) and placed the lead engineer Matthew Steckman for the project on leave (2). Palantir later rehired Steckman (2) (5), but they also created an internal ethics hotline that engineers can use to anonymously report to Palantir’s directors about work that they consider unethical (2).

            There was also some concern that the Edward Snowden revelations might taint the general public’s first impression of the company (2), particularly when some commentators conflated the NSA’s “PRISM” surveillance program with Palantir’s “Prism” software platform, to which Palantir responded in an official statement insisting that the two programs were unrelated (31). Based on cursory analysis of Google search trends over time and query correlations (i.e. how often two topics or phrases are searched together), it would appear that the public at large does not strongly associate Palantir in particular with the incidents.

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       Indeed, though there was a moderate increase in Palantir searches in June 2013, when the story broke, but it was minor compared to spikes correlated with the leaks of the HBGary e-mails or business-focused coverage of Palantir, such as the September 2009 Wall Street Journal article covering them or announcements of the progress of its latest investment round. However, even if the scandal does not harm Palantir’s public image directly, the effects are still playing themselves out and the evolution of regulations for government intelligence contractors and the use of public data may impact Palantir’s revenues in the long term.

    Mitigating this risk, Palantir has diversified beyond government contracts. Palantir does not solely serve the government, though. Their clients at the New York Police Department recommended them to their first private-sector client JP Morgan Chase (2), with whom they signed a contract in December 2009 for $5-20 million (30) to help them detect fraud and as of late 2011 they also intended to use it to improve their marketing tailoring (7). Other clients include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (5) and SAC Capital Advisors (32). Palantir has also made overtures to pharmaceutical companies (33), insurance agencies (34), healthcare providers (35), legal professionals (36), and commercial lenders (37), as well as providing cybersecurity and intelligence (3). It has been widely reported that less than 40% of Palantir’s 2013 revenue was derived from government clients, though this figure seems to be traceable solely back to the estimate of an anonymous TechCrunch source (38), so its reliability is unverified.


[1] Now a subsidiary of IBM (55) as of 2011 (56)
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            Palantir has not restricted itself to the U.S either. International work seemingly started as early as 2008, based on a Quora posting by Shannon Scott, who lists himself as working as the Engineering Lead in their Australia office and Palantir’s first non-US employee (39), which is consistent with the dates listed on his LinkedIn page (40). Perhaps the earliest known specific international project was in revealed in 2010 when a Canadian security firm used their software to crack the cyber-espionage ring known as the Shadow Network (3), a China-based group that had infiltrated the Indian Defense Ministry (41). Today, the company has offices around the world.


    The firm’s income is a matter of speculation. Analysts estimated that its 2010 revenue was between $25-50 million, though a 2011 Forbes article quoted a “highly reputable” unnamed source as saying that it was “‘significantly north of $80 million’” (30). A 2012 Washingtonian article references estimates for 2011 revenues of over $250 million, but does not name its source (5). An August 2013 Forbes article referenced other Forbes estimates that 2012 revenues were less than $300 million, but that projected total 2013 revenues would be over $450 million (2). Even with $450 million in revenue, however, the company was reportedly not profitable in 2013 (42).

    Growth like this has fueled excitement amongst investors. After financing through steadily growing investment rounds from mid-2006 to mid-2012, the company launched a substantially larger round of investment in September 2013 to February 2014, garnering $586.8 million. All of these deals were primarily brokered by Morgan Stanley, with the single exception of a single investment of $57.5m in late 2013 by an undisclosed party. (43)
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Chart describes the amount of capital raised by Palantir and the estimated number of investors involved during the indicated period.
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Table of distinct Palantir financing events. Caveat: In some cases, this table may underestimate the number of investors if investors from prior SEC filings in the same series increased their investment during the course of the same series.
         Its valuation similarly ballooned, from $735 million in April-May 2011 (44) to (according to unidentified TechCrunch sources) $2.5 billion in August-September (45). Then in 2013 it leapt from $6 billion in September to $9 billion by November-December (13).

    Despite the market potential, the founders seem reluctant for an IPO. In August 2013 Karp told Forbes that an IPO would render “running a company like ours very difficult” (46). Even after the success of the latest funding round an unnamed internal source stated to CNBC in March 2014 “we have no plans to go public anytime soon” (47). One could certainly see how going public could bring the company a host of complications. Firstly, regulations might require that transactions with their clients be more subject to scrutiny—which some of the intelligence and defense agencies might not appreciate. Public investors might also see little immediate profit in Palantir’s more philanthropic work [see below]. Karp has also been quoted as saying that “The minute companies go public, they are less competitive. ... You need a lot of creative, wacky people that maybe Wall Street won't understand” (48).
PictureThe sinister inner-workings of Palantir's Canberra office.
One can certainly see this philosophy permissive of creativity and wackiness at work in Palantir. Even in the face of its ties to high finance and the more secretive echelons of governments around the world, Palantir seems determined to maintain its casual, nerdy culture. The company itself is named after seeing stones[1] from the Lord of the Rings mythos, and each of its offices are similarly named after locations from the series (with the exception of the NYC office named after Gotham from DC comics (2).) Likewise, its two primary analytic software platforms, Palantir Gotham and Palantir Metropolis are named after cities from the DC comic universe (the stomping grounds of Batman and Superman respectively.) But the casual, fun-loving atmosphere would seem to extend beyond the nominal. For example, in its Palo Alto HQ one of the conference rooms has been turned into a ball pit and dogs are allowed in the office (2). The engineers also apparently design T-shirts with cartoon characters for each of their new software versions. As of late 2011, they had run out of Care Bears and moved on to My Little Ponies (7).

This is hardly to say that they don’t take their work seriously. Palantir’s Glassdoor reviews consistently report long work hours (47) for a salary capped company-wide at $127,000—low by Silicon Valley standards (3). Karp says that one of his investors went so far as to ask “Is this a company or a cult?”, but he asserts that “To make something work, it cannot be about the money. I would like to believe we have built a culture that is about a higher purpose that takes the form of a company. I think the deep character anomalies of the company are the reasons why the numbers are so strong” (7). This mission focus leading to profits might seem counter-intuitive on the surface for a company that Karp says walks away from as much as 20% of possible revenue for ethical reasons (2) and that has “lots of clients where we get zero money” (48). He seems to feel that the mission focus makes up for it by allowing them to hire top-tier talent and motivating them: “It's basically very simple. ... We tell people you can help save the world” (48).

Certainly, the company is proud of its more non-profit work fighting human trafficking (49), disaster relief[2] (50), averting human rights abuses (51), improving global food security (52), and other efforts. The “higher purpose” may be even larger than these causes, though, as Karp referred to his early work with Palantir as “building the most important company in the world” (2).

So what is that “higher purpose”? How does the company intend to “help save the world”? The company website is vague on the matter, saying that they are “working for the common good”, “making the world a better place”, and “help[ing] the world’s largest organizations solve their most challenging problems”, and despite the lack of specificity it even insists that “This mission is what makes the opportunity to work at Palantir unique.”

A cynical interpretation might be that it is little more than a means to motivate its staff and help its PR by portraying itself as after more than simple profit, but let us consider the possibility that there is at least some substance to it. Perhaps Thiel’s original stated goal to “to reduce terrorism while preserving civil liberties” has been extended to providing the other benefits of large-scale data analytics while minding privacy. He has argued that providing cutting edge technology, like Palantir’s, to the government with safeguards for accountability is critical to preventing another 9/11, which “opened the doors to all sorts of crazy abuses and draconian policies” (7). Karp has certainly expressed a commitment to privacy, stating “I didn’t sign up for the government to know when I smoke a joint or have an affair” and “We have to find places that we protect away from government so that we can all be the unique and interesting and, in my case, somewhat deviant people we’d like to be” (2).

 Then it would seem that Palantir’s intent is to stand upon the edge of a knife: providing the power to see the world, without becoming corrupted by that power.



[1] Basically they’re like crystal balls, but don’t let a hardcore Tolkien fan hear you sum it up like that

[2] Earning an endorsement from Bill Clinton himself for their work on the issue (59)



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