Listen to How Dell Started Before the Dorm Room


“Here I am, supposed to be going to college and I’ve got this thriving business in my dorm room,” Michael Dell recently told Guy Raz when being interviewed for his “How I Built This” podcast.

It’s the story that most people are familiar with when they think of Dell. And while those dorm room computer sales may have grown into today’s Dell Technologies company, it’s not where the story really begins.

Michael Dell speaking at Dell EMC World in 2016

No, before he was buying computers, “souping them up” with more capability and reselling them from the campus of The University of Texas at Austin, Dell had a fascination with how things worked and an innate acumen for business.

Dell told Raz he had a wide variety of businesses as a kid – from selling baseball cards to a stamp auction, to working in a gold coin and jewelry store buying item for resale. But to me, it’s his story of selling newspaper subscriptions that really gives insight into his ability to understand customers.

He said he observed three things that helped him formulate a plan that would earn himself an income equal to my first job out of college when he was just 17 years old:

  1. If you sounded like the people you were talking to, they were much more likely to buy the newspaper from you,
  2. People that were getting married were much more likely to buy the newspaper, and
  3. People that were moving into a new house or residence were also far more likely to buy the newspaper.

So, he lined up some high school buddies to go to local county courthouses and bring back public information on who had applied for marriage licenses, then sent those people letters with newspaper subscription offers. And he went to local condominium and apartment complexes that were under construction and pitched them on trial subscription offers for their new residents.

I did plenty of things that didn’t work, but that worked, so I kept doing it

“I did plenty of things that didn’t work, but that worked, so I kept doing it,” he told Raz.

That willingness to try many things and tenacity to keep at it when they didn’t always work probably helped when it came time to try to reassemble some of the things he took apart.

You see, while a fascination with his father’s adding machine, led to the purchase of his first electronic calculator at age seven or eight. And the proximity of a Radio Shack store between home and school meant much time hanging out there checking out new technologies. Just looking at them wasn’t enough.

“What else would you do?” Dell replied when Raz was amazed to hear that he’d taken apart an early IBM PC he bought to determine that the $3,000 system was actually made from about $600 worth of parts. (Now you really see the beginnings of that dorm room business.)

“I wanted to understand it,” Dell explained. “And to understand it, you had to take it apart.”

If you want to understand the vision and leadership that drives our company, then I encourage you to take time to listen to the full interview:

Another opportunity to hear from Michael Dell is coming at the SXSW Conference in March. Dell will be joined by Clay Johnston, the inaugural Dean of the Dell Medical School, to discuss “When Health Care Goes High-Tech.” Conference attendees can also see innovation in tech and meet other disruptive leaders making transformation real at THE EXPERIENCE coming from Dell Technologies at SXSW.

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