On the eve of South by Southwest, Michael Dell, Austin's best-known tech entrepreneur, gave the keynote presentation at the University of Texas's Entrepreneurship Week. Dell said that taking his namesake company private once again has allowed it to accelerate its transformation into a business focused on enterprise solutions, particularly helping companies sort through all the data they're suddenly collecting about their customers and their own performance.

"How much of [the] data that companies or organizations store is actually being used to create better outcomes or better decisions or better results or better anything--particularly in real time?" he asked. "The dirty secret is, almost none of it. Well, that's a huge opportunity, and an area that's hugely interesting to our customers."

The Big Data Opportunity

Dell Inc. began offering more services and software about six or seven years ago. "We started investing in new areas so we could have greater impact with our customers," Dell said. "We changed the conversation to, 'What problem are you trying to solve?' whether it's health care, retail, manufacturing. We built a whole new enterprise business to a little over $20 billion in about a five-year period."

That process has taken "significant investment," Dell said, and added that the company has learned it "can do that faster as a private company, not focused on the short-term results and more on the medium and long term."

Dell said the company has also become increasingly nimble as a result of going private after last year's very public battle with activist investor Carl Icahn.

"Our decision making has been simplified greatly," he said. "It's kind of like it was when we started the company in terms of the number of people involved. It allows us to really dedicate our energy to our customers."

What do his enterprise customers want? One exciting opportunity Dell Inc. is pursuing, the 49-year-old founder said, is data security.

"We have created a business where we are managing the firewalls for the largest financial institutions in the world, companies with lots of intellectual property, pharmaceutical companies, air-traffic control, all kinds of critical infrastructure. And the number of attacks is staggering. In the last year, we protected our customers from 1.06 trillion intrusion events, in 249 countries. The numbers are just growing at an astounding rate."

More broadly speaking, Dell said he's "very excited" about what he calls the data economy. "IT is roughly a $3 trillion industry, so how does it go from $3 trillion to $4 trillion or $5 trillion?"

The answer is in making better use of data. As the cost of collecting data comes down for everyone and more companies collect more data--whether they be retailers, manufacturers, health care providers, you name it--there's an increasing imperative to do something with all that information.