Nine Startup Tips From Michael Dell

Note: This is an installment in the Iconic Advice series. Other installments include: Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson,Walt Disney and Mark Zuckerberg.

Michael Dell1. Degree? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Degrees

"As important as school was, I found that it could be very disruptive to a steady income." [Tweet this quote]

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According to a January 2012 article in Forbes Magazine, nearly 16% of the 400 most affluent Americans do not have a college degree. When the world's 400 richest people are considered, the percentage who did not earn a college degree doubles.

For many entrepreneurs, college has little appeal. Academia's arbitrary, bureaucratic structure, combined with its predominant focus on theoretical issues, causes many entrepreneurs to depart college early.

I generally encourage my UC Santa Barbara students to complete their formal education before joining or creating a startup. However, I Richest People Forbesoccasionally encounter a student who I believe is better suited to learn "on the job," than in the classroom. In case you are wondering, I do not weigh in on such monumental choices, as I do not believe a Professor's opinion is relevant.

In Michael's case, he promised his parents that he would return to school if the sales at his startup did not meet his expectations.

"I had to give it a full go and see what happened. I couldn't resist the opportunity. The deal was, I would start into business full time in May, and at the end of August we would take a look and decide if it was doing well." [Tweet this quote]

Although he has spoken at numerous graduation ceremonies since he left college, Michael never returned to school as a student. "I was, you know, rebellious, an 18, 19-year old and just did what I wanted to do and all worked out OK." [Tweet this quote]

2. Innovations Are More Than Technological Features

"Our business is about technology, yes. But it's also about operations and customer relationships." [Tweet this quote]

Innovation is commonly associated with either the introduction of new products or new features added to existing products. Such innovations are often focused on making products stronger, faster, smaller, lighter and cheaper. Despite the relative dominance of product-oriented innovations, they seldom create sustainable competitive advantages. You can read about the variable impact of the various forms of innovation in Fast Followers.

Dell's primary innovations were operational. It devised made-to-order factories that allowed customers, for the first time on a large scale, to individually configure a personal computer. Along with Amazon, Dell was also an early pioneer of web-based customer service. These two areas of operational innovation allowed Dell to defeat a number of tech-centric competitors which spent significant money researching and developing technological features, ever briefer product lifecycles.

3. Defining The Questions

"It's through curiosity and looking at opportunities in new ways that we've always mapped our path at Dell. There's always an opportunity to make a difference." [Tweet this quote]

Curiosity is a common trait among serial entrepreneurs. The freedom to pursue the answers to the questions that most intrigue us is one of the primary benefits of charting your own course and not working for a Big Dumb Company. As Walt Disney once said, "We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. When you're curious, you find lots of interesting things to do."

4. Small Businesses Face Common Challenges

"The best part was the wisdom of the restaurant owner, which I could capture if I came to work a little early. He took great pride in his work and cared about every customer who came through his door." [Tweet this quote]

Effective startup mentorship can come from unlikely sources. The basic tenets which make a small, lifestyle business successful are surprisingly similar to a high-tech startup: establishing a productive corporate culture, hiring great people, sourcing reasonably priced capital and identifying and satisfying one or more market segments. Look around. You may have overlooked an otherwise highly qualified Advisor, who can help you avoid rookie startup mistakes.

5. Naive Instinct

"One of the things I benefited from when I started this business was that I didn't know anything. I was just instinct with no preconceived notions. This enabled me to learn and change quickly without having to worry about maintaining any kind of status quo, like some of my bigger competitors." [Tweet this quote]

Mark Zuckerberg shared a similar sentiment, which he augments by stating that Facebook has striven to maintain a beginner's perspective. In Mark's words, "…we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner's mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now…" Maintaining the status quo is for Big Dumb Companies. Startups win by changing the rules.

6. Bottle Washing

"There are a lot of things that go into creating success. I don't like to do just the things I like to do. I like to do things that cause the company to succeed. I don't spend a lot of time doing my favorite activities." [Tweet this quote]

During the early days of your venture, you will be forced to perform a number of duties you find displeasing. As you achieve success and have the financial wherewithal to delegate tasks to new members of your team, you can eventually gravitate toward those tasks which you enjoy. However, no matter how large or successful your organization, there will always be responsibilities which you perform for the good of your company, not for your personal entertainment.

7. Winning Per Michael Dell, Not Charlie Sheen

"The key is to listen to your heart and let it carry you in the direction of your dreams. I've learned that it's possible to set your sights high and achieve your dreams and do it with integrity, character, and love. And each day that you're moving toward your dreams without compromising who you are you're winning." [Tweet this quote]

As I note in Nice Guys Finish First, success includes maintaining your integrity. Honesty is a core competency of most successful entrepreneurs. Despite the Hollywood myth, it is easier to succeed in business when you are honest, rather than trying to screw everyone you encounter.

8. The "Right" Opportunity May Be Right Now

"Don't spend so much time trying to choose the perfect opportunity, that you miss the right opportunity." [Tweet this quote]

Great entrepreneurs are action oriented. They cannot always turn a bad situation into perfection, but they are confident in their ability to morph a mediocre opportunity into a positive outcome through thoughtful execution, not thoughtful . In the words of US Army General George Patton, "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week."

9. Sometimes You Just Have To Say…

"Sometimes you just have to belly up to the bar and take a chance. We made some mistakes, but we also had the strength to work our way out." [Tweet this quote]

Internalize Michael's advice while channeling George Patton. Belly up and execute violently.  

Note: This is an installment in the Iconic Advice series. Other installments include: Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Walt Disney and Mark Zuckerberg.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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