In 1984, I dropped out of college with $1,000 to start my own company, PC's Limited. I knew little about business other than flipping simple profits in childhood schemes, but I really loved computers. After decades of hard work and a significant name change, PC's Limited transformed into Dell Technologies, a company now worth billions. It wasn't all smooth sailing--especially as Dell grew at a global scale, and investors sought to take control. Through the ups and downs of the last 37 years, certain principles have proved to be invaluable in keeping Dell in the game. Here are a few that I discuss in my new book, Play Nice But Win: A CEO's Journey from Founder to Leader.
Competition is nothing to be afraid of. I loved competing with the other companies in our field, and respected their CEOs, whether it was Rod Canion at Compaq, Bill Hayden at CompuAdd, or Ted Waitt at Gateway. They were what drove us to succeed. In the early days, we put up a cheeky billboard outside the Houston headquarters of our archrival, Compaq. It read: 158 MILES TO OPPORTUNITY. Under the slogan, to drive the point home, was a big arrow pointing west toward Austin, and to seal the deal, our corporate logo. Compaq had great talent, and many of them were already following that arrow to join our rebel band. As my mom would say when we were kids: Play nice, but win.
Trust your gut.
When I first began to explore taking Dell from publicly held, multibillion-dollar business back to private company a decade ago, there were many naysayers. They said the PC market was dead, and that there would be grave risks in relying on it to fund the growth of our new businesses. But I believed new mobile devices would complement the PC, rather than replace it. And I saw going private as the best way to liberate the company, reinvigorate its entrepreneurial spirit, and allow us to get more aggressive on gaining share, investing in R&D, and adding sales capacity. So I ignored the experts. And once the battle to go private was won, the shackles really were broken. We could implement important corporate decisions at the moment they could be most effective. Dell was faster and more agile than it had ever been.
Fight for what you want.
By 2013, a plan had been formed to take Dell private. Suddenly, Carl Icahn, a guy I'd never given much thought to before, was coming after my company--the thing that means more to me than anything in the world except my family. Icahn said he believed that the transaction was not in the best interests of the stockholders, and proposed an alternative plan. He also indicated Icahn Enterprises' intent to start a proxy fight for control of Dell if our stockholders didn't approve the buyout. Much of the ensuing battle played out in the public view, but when you're a founder and your company is fighting for its life, you do whatever it takes--which sometimes means confronting your adversary head-on. And that's how I ended up eating Mrs. Icahn's meatloaf and talking to Carl face-to-face. I realized then that he had no idea what Dell does and no real plan for the company. And in the end, he conceded and called me to say, "It was a hard fight, but you won fair and square."
When you're passionate and curious about something, chase it. Learn as much as you can, and stay humble. If my years growing, nurturing, and running Dell have taught me anything, it's that there's always more to learn. And that's what Dell is really all about: changing, transforming, and constantly learning. With that spirit, there's no limit to what you can achieve.