Some of the most successful tech companies in U.S. history started from humble beginnings. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs built the tech giant’s first computer model in a garage—and Dell’s founder started his $62 billion legacy from his dorm room. Another thing they have in common—they were both college dropouts. 

While many businesses have modest beginnings, Dell says risk-taking focused his mind. 

“If you want to really make it big, you better come up with something unique,” Michael Dell, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Dell Technologies, told Fortune in a 2017 interview. It better be differentiated that nobody else is doing.”

His other piece of advice for entrepreneurs is to take feedback with a grain of salt. Instead, he says he empowers people to trust their gut instincts on whether a new product or business idea will be successful in the long run.

“If you go and ask people if it’s a good idea, most of them will tell you ‘no,’” Dell told Fortune. “So don’t go ask.”

To please his parents, Dell took up pre-med at the University of Texas in 1983, according to Entrepreneur. But Dell had long been fascinated by computers and technology, having disassembled an Apple II model at the age of 15 to see how it worked, according to a 1999 biography, Direct from Dell: Strategies that Revolutionized an Industry. It was at the age of 19 that Dell started selling upgrade kits for personal computers to other students in his dorm—a move that started his tech empire.

Taking a risk

Dell Technologies was born from risk. Only part-way into his college career, Dell had just $1,000 to invest into the business and his manufacturing team consisted of “three guys with screwdrivers sitting at six-foot tables,” he said in the Direct from Dell book.

“You have to embrace risk, and you have to accept failure,” Dell told Fortune. 

Even before the inception of Dell Technologies, Dell had long had an entrepreneurial spirit. While attending Memorial High School in Houston, he sold subscriptions to the Houston Post (later acquired by the Houston Chronicle), and was hugely successful by learning how to target specific populations instead of just the classic cold-call sales technique. He made $18,000 in one year from that venture, which was even more than some of his high school teachers made, according to a 2021 Fortune Leadership Next podcast

Dell had figured out that newlyweds were more likely to buy newspaper subscriptions, so using FOIA requests, he found the marriage licenses—and subsequently, addresses—of the people he thought would be most likely to purchase a newspaper subscription from him. 

“Jackpot!” Dell said in the 2021 Fortune podcast. Dell then used those addresses to send direct-mail campaigns, and even hired a few friends to help him with his venture.

Growing from a dorm room operation into a full-blown tech empire, Dell remained steadfast in taking risks. By the age of 27, he had become the youngest CEO in the Fortune 500 in 1992—and by 2001, Dell Technologies became the world’s largest personal computer maker. The company’s success in the 1990s owed a lot to what Dell learned selling newspapers, with a similarly innovative direct-marketing strategy.

The numbers tracking Dell’s trajectory as a public, then private, then public company are headspinning. Valued at over $120 billion in 1997, when Apple was floundering at $2.3 billion, the company’s devotion to its core PC business threw it for a loop after the dotcom crash. By 2007, it was time for a change amid slower sales and greater competition. “The direct model has been a revolution, but it is not a religion,” Dell wrote in an April 2007 memo to his 80,000 employees. Even Dell admits in its company history that “many believed that it was a dying company that would perish like Kodak or Motorola.” That led to leadership changes and new corporate strategies, with Dell’s knack for creative solutions ultimately breathing new life into his creation again and again.

The founder ultimately took Dell private in 2013 for $24.4 billion in the biggest leveraged buyout since the Global Financial Crisis and with help from private equity sponsor Silver Lake, Dell retooled, especially via the highest-valued tech acquisition ever, EMC Corporation for $67 billion in 2015. The company relisted again the next year at a $16 billion market cap, which had climbed to $62 billion as of February 22, 2024. And as for Michael Dell himself? His own net worth is estimated at $87.7 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Dell told Fortune that risk-taking has been his greatest advantage in business, and a downfall of other major corporations.

“Big companies generally [aren’t good at taking risks],” Dell told Fortune. “If you talk about risk, they’ll talk about the risk reduction, and the risk committee, and the risk management, and all those say the risk is bad. Well, if you don’t have risk, you don’t have innovation.”

In fact, Dell says that his company actually does “all sorts of things internally to promote risk innovation,” including investing billions of dollars in research and development.

“We’ve got hundreds of projects, and they’re not all going to work out,” Dell told Fortune. “That’s okay.” 

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