Palantir Technologies Inc. pitches itself to new recruits as a place where they can build data-mining software that will help thwart terrorism and feed the hungry, all while earning shares in one of the world’s most valuable technology startups. The proposition worked for much of Palantir’s 15-year existence.
But in 2015, Palantir’s private stock value plateaued. By some measures, it has tumbled to less than half the $20 billion valuation bestowed by Peter Thiel and other investors.
So, in recent months, the data-analysis company took the unusual step of slashing the price of employee stock options to about $6 a share, which would value the business at about $11 billion, said people with knowledge of the matter. The revised stock plan in some cases allows employees to buy Palantir shares at a discount of more than $1 off their original option price. Last week, it also told workers they would be eligible for more generous bonuses this year paid in two increments, said one of the people, all of whom asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to discuss the moves.
The compensation changes were designed to boost morale, several people said. The response comes after years of private stock transactions with diminishing returns, shareholders writing down their holdings and a drumbeat of political controversies tied to Thiel. It could create a small fortune for staff, if a plan to take Palantir public this year is successful. Until then, recent employees are stuck holding rights to buy shares that still cost more than most investors are willing to pay today.
The stock adjustment raises an important question: What is Palantir worth? For Thiel, the company’s billionaire co-founder and chairman, it’s $20 billion, based on his most recent investments. For Morgan Stanley, the bank that hopes to win the IPO business, it’s as much as $41 billion. For mutual funds, which are obligated to report an objective market value of their holdings to the public, it’s anywhere from $4.4 billion to $14 billion. For new and prospective employees, who might be tempted by better-paying jobs in Silicon Valley, it’s $11 billion after the latest discount, with potential for a big payday later. And for investors shopping for shares on private markets, it’s quite a bit less.
The vast discrepancies highlight the subjective nature of valuing private companies. At the same time Palantir was cutting option prices to address challenges with hiring and retaining talent, advisers were gearing up to pitch a substantially higher valuation to the public. Further complicating the process: Palantir remains unprofitable as of 2018, according to people with knowledge of the matter. A spokeswoman for Palantir declined to comment.
After Thiel helped establish Palantir in 2004, he helped bankroll the business through his various investment funds. The company got its start as a high-end consulting firm, dispatching software engineers to analyze data and sniff out patterns for three-letter U.S. spy agencies. In the last few years, Palantir has made headway in the corporate world, thanks in part to software automation. It now generates about half its revenue from companies, including Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Airbus SE. Governments account for the other half.
Palantir’s reputation is tightly associated with Thiel, a controversial figure who picked the company’s name from the lore of his beloved childhood book series, the Lord of the Rings. Thiel helped fund the 2016 presidential bid of Donald Trump and said he will support the 2020 campaign. The moves rankled staff at Palantir, including its chief executive officer and self-professed socialist, Alex Karp. It also made some job candidates unwilling to consider the company, said a recruiter, who cited opposition to President Trump and concerns over law enforcement misusing the company’s software.
Because Palantir typically offers lower salaries than many nearby tech companies, equity is a big part of the sell. But the stock options were overpriced, according to Palantir shareholders and prospective investors. All seven mutual funds that own Palantir shares have slashed the value of their holdings since their 2015 high of $11.38. SP Investments Management values Palantir at $7.87 a share as of September, the most recent data available. Morgan Stanley’s mutual funds have decreased prices seven times in three years, to $2.49.
The ups and downs of mutual fund prices tend to track closely to transactions on shadow markets, where investors buy stock in closely held companies from employees and other shareholders, said Javier Avalos, a senior director at private stock trading platform Forge. For Palantir, it’s been mostly down over the past few years. Palantir shares across various marketplaces go for $4.75 apiece on average, said Tim Sullivan, CEO of Oceanic Partners, which helps arrange private stock transactions.
Companies rarely reissue stock options to employees at lower prices, said John Aguirre, who leads the employee benefits and compensation group at law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. When a startup does reduce prices, it usually comes after the business receives a new round of capital at a lower valuation than before, he said. This wasn’t the case for Palantir. Although Aguirre declined to discuss Palantir specifically, he said such a move would be “the rational thing to do,” following a decline in price on private markets.
Palantir’s arrangement is complex. It created multiple pricing tiers for employees depending on when they were hired and received their previous batch of options. Several current employees said they were pleased the company addressed the value gap in advance of an IPO.
Equity is one of the most powerful tools private companies can use to attract and hold onto talent, said Jeff Schnitz, head of wealth advisory for Silicon Valley Bank. But shareholders shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, he said: “Ultimately, the only price that matters is the sale price.”