The world-changing aspirations of Twitter and Facebook are a drop in the bucket, a single bloom in an Arab Spring, compared to what former Palantir cofounder Joe Lonsdale wants to do with Formation 8, a venture capital firm that raised $448 million to modernize and disrupt all of Asia's power centers, basically. The leaked emails (below) show how Lonsdale intends to recruit engineers to his cause: by making them “feel special because they think they've been identified by technology [i.e. Palantir] that helped locate bin Laden.”
You may not know about Palantir, but Palantir probably knows about you. The CIA-backed company mines massive data sets for clients like the NSA, Defense Department, the FBI, and many more. In the book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, author Mark Bowden cryptically says that Palantir's software "actually deserves the popular designation Killer App." There's no proven link, but that hasn't stopped Palantir's phone from ringing off the hook.
The rumor also apparently makes a handy recruiting technique for Formation 8, whose goal is to bring technological advances to influential, but hard to break into sectors like healthcare, government, logistics, and energy all over Asia.
Here is an email thread between Lonsdale, a Peter Thiel protégé who also worked at Thiel's hedge fund Clarium Capital, Drew Oetting, an associate at Formation 8, as well as Rob Dennis, the CEO of a stealth tech recruitment startup called People.co, which barely even sounds ominous at all! (Formation 8 is an investor in People.co, as are SV Angel and Mark Gerson from the Gerson Lehrman Group.)
In the email thread, Lonsdale was planning a visit to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and People.co identified potential candidates to recruit from their student body. Oetting asked Dennis advice on how to reach out how to the students identified by People.co, wondering if he should pretend he heard about 'em from a friend:
My thought was to have a message from Joe which said something to the effect of “we heard from a friend that you were one of the top guys and I’d love to have you come to a small gathering before my speech on campus” … but I’m not sure if this is the right approach at all
And here's how Dennis responds:
I don't think the "we heard from a friend" thing is the best way to go — introduces a creep factor that could be a turnoff, so I'll type something up that's better (though the fact that Joe was a founder of Palantir actually helps mitigate the creep factor since some students may think "of course" and feel special because they think they've been identified by technology that helped locate bin Laden).
Gotta love that the less creepy option was letting students think their talents had been identified by the secretive Middle Earth software.
In response to questions from Valleywag, Lonsdale said:
I cant comment on bin laden - I know that some books have said as much and i think Rob was speaking facetiously about Palantir based on these printed remarks :).
People.co's client list also includes other startups like Art.sy, which counts Thiel, Jack Dorsey, and Wendi Deng as investors. Dennis, who once ran technical recruiting for Bridgewater Associates, the world's weird hedge fund, also told Valleywag the bin Laden thing was a just a joke:
Joe and I are friendly and we joke around when we email back and forth. In the email it wasn’t meant to be a serious comment, it was just that everybody associates Joe Lonsdale with Palantir and there's always a lot of speculation about the tech company.
You don't say. People.co mines data from public databases. "None of Palantir's technology was used for anything," Dennis assured us.
Lonsdale also clarified that he was recruiting students for both Formation 8 and Addepar, the money management company for the uber-wealthy that he launched after leaving Palantir:
As the founder at Palantir who was most focused on hiring / hired the majority of the first 200 ppl, I got to learn a lot abt recruiting and then do it again in other contexts.
Lonsdale is one to keep your eye on. The pomaded waves and Patrick Bateman smile may look like they belong in a Goldman Sachs elevator, but Formation 8's big swagging investment thesis seems perfectly engineered to make Silicon Valley sticker salesman look like they're missing the big picture. As soon as Formation 8 came out of stealth mode, Fortune crowned them "the hottest VCs since Andreessen."
In New York a lot of people are really passionate about new media. I’m not personally as passionate about new media. I’m passionate about fixing all these really hard problems that matter for our society
He had a similar line about the backward fascination with consumer-facing products. And last, but not least: the misguided focus on payments, over more unwieldy aspects of finance:
You have all these young people starting companies and they’ll start the company in the area that they’re most exposed to . . .
For example, finance—there’s hundreds of really important problems in finance, it’s a really vital sector for how the world works, and all these kids maybe have seen payments because they’ve paid for things themselves, maybe they’ve never worked with the multi-trillion dollar mortgage backed securities industry or maybe they've never worked with credit defaults and all these kind of things. So there's probably way too many payments companies and it's not because it's a bad sector to try to innovate in, it’s just because it’s the one thing everyone knows.
Sick burn. No really.
[Image via Getty]