Peter Thiel's data firm Palantir Technologies Inc. got an early jump on the coronavirus, recalling staff from abroad ahead of most companies. In recent weeks, it parlayed that knowledge into a growing role helping governments around the world track the pandemic.
Continue Reading Below
That may not be enough to spare the company from pain. Palantir's business is being squeezed as corporate customers pare back spending, leading the Silicon Valley firm to draw up deep cost cuts and consider pushing back further its long-awaited initial public offering, according to people familiar with the matter.
In addition, some within Palantir are wary of government requests to build detailed location-tracking tools, which go against the libertarian ideals that Mr. Thiel publicly espouses, the people said.
Palantir has longstanding contracts with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the firm's top brass worked on confidential models early in the year that showed the potential for a rapidly rising outbreak, they said. Palantir rushed in mid-February to recall staff from abroad and order them into a four-week quarantine.
That was well before most major corporations enacted similar measures, and ahead of most U.S. government warnings about heightened risks to Americans. A Palantir spokeswoman said the company "acted with only public information."
As the pandemic gained momentum, the company began offering modeling and analysis to governments around the world to help them track the effects of Covid-19, according to a person familiar with the matter. The products, which it first began building for the U.K.'s National Health Service, have since been rolled out in more than a dozen countries outside the U.S., including Greece and some German states.
Palantir's dashboards help health officials track, for instance, their supply chain for protective equipment and ventilators, while also predicting what equipment -- and which workers -- they will need where as the virus spreads, people familiar with the matter said. One of Palantir's data-crunching tools is up and running at 10 Downing St. in the U.K.
The U.K. government said publicly late last month that Palantir's software helps "provide a single source of truth about the rapidly evolving situation."
Many of Palantir's international efforts are being offered pro bono for now, one of the people said. Like many companies, Palantir has historically offered products to some customers free of charge in hopes of securing long-term contracts later.
U.S. government entities including the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Coast Guard are already paying Palantir. Some of its work in the U.S. involves helping private companies share logistical data with the government -- for example, offering visibility on the supply chain for products like N95 masks, said people familiar with the work.
The company has recently turned down several projects that included location-tracking components, partly due to wariness about being seen to work on projects that infringe on privacy, said one of the people.
Palantir's board had earlier decided to file for an initial public offering as soon as this fall, after the November election, but it has recently signaled to investors that pandemic turmoil is likely to delay those plans, said a person briefed on the discussions.
The company, which is based in Palo Alto, Calif., was co-founded by Mr. Thiel in 2004 to help governments connect data sets, and it has worked to expand its reach into big business. Mr. Thiel chairs the company's board.
One subject of persistent gripes from investors and employees is that Palantir has wrapped its financial performance in a mix of selective disclosures and unconventional accounting, according to people close to the company.
To employees and investors, Palantir touts so-called cash collections, a metric of contracts signed that counts as current income some payments for work to be performed in the future. The company has described the metric to some investors as revenue and disclosed it to employees earlier this year as greater than $1 billion.
Under traditional accounting principles, Palantir's revenue last year was under $750 million, two investors say.
Another oft-cited figure is "cash-flow." Earlier this year, Palantir's chief executive, Alex Karp, told staff the company was "cash-flow positive," said people familiar with the matter, which employees interpreted to mean the firm was profitable.
In fact, the firm for the fifth consecutive year didn't fulfill promises to investors to turn a profit, investors say. It is unclear what Mr. Karp means by cash flow. He said in a CNBC interview in January that the company was focused on "growth with high-quality revenue." He didn't respond to a request for comment.
Some investors are now pushing the company to hire a chief financial officer, in a bid to standardize its financial reporting. Current executives say they haven't yet found the right fit.
The Palantir spokeswoman declined to answer detailed questions about the company's financials. "In recent years, Palantir has primarily focused on GAAP revenue as a key indicator of success," she said, referring to generally accepted accounting principles. Palantir employees with a stake in the company have access to two years of financial data, and outside investors may request financial information, she said.
She said cash collections are "a leading indicator that lead to revenue."
The company has been valued privately at as much as $20 billion.
The company's high valuation, relative to its growth, is "a little disassociated from reality for the business they are in, especially in this climate," said Anand Sanwal, chief executive of researcher CB Insights.
Messrs. Karp and Thiel have separately sold some of their personal stakes in the company at prices below the company's private valuation, people familiar with the matter say. They didn't respond to requests for comment.
Palantir braced itself early for a coronavirus hit. In addition to recalling staff from abroad, it all but froze hiring -- tantamount to intentional shrinkage, given the firm's consistent staff churn.
Top executives ordered employees to draw up more than $100 million in potential cuts, including reduced spending on travel, for this year, according to people familiar with the matter.
Palantir's largest corporate clients include some of the companies hardest hit by the epidemic, including Airbus SE and BP PLC. Those two companies were slated to pay Palantir about $200 million combined this year, said two people briefed on the matter. Spokespeople for the companies declined to comment on their future plans.
As it did for governments, Palantir has adjusted some corporate offerings to address the pandemic. For instance, the company adapted its Skywise platform for airlines and suppliers to plot the least expensive ways to mothball planes they won't need for the coming months, according to a person familiar with the matter.
-- Kirsten Grind contributed to this article.