Dell, Tesla, Space X, and Taking Chances: From the Floor At DellWorld 2013

DellWorld 2013 showcases the newly-private Dell’s rediscovered sense of mission: Founder and CEO Michael Dell described the new company as the “world’s biggest startup.” Freed from the short-term orientation required of publicly traded companies, Dell can accelerate its innovation and risk-taking while following through on its emerging vision.

That vision is to help enterprise customers Transform (e.g. migrate from mainframes to the cloud), Connect (e.g. provide mobile devices and device management services), Inform (e.g. leverage big data analytics through software and services), and Protect (e.g. employ comprehensive security solutions).

Michael Dell spent a good deal of time emphasizing that Dell now has the opportunity to make bigger bets. To underscore that message, he invited Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk to appear onstage. Musk knows how to make an entrance, riding into the convention center in one of his company’s cars:

Elon Musk told several stories while onstage, including the revelation that, during Tesla's darkest hours, he pretty much figured the company would fail. But he listed his favorite aspect of the Tesla business as creating a sense of "delight" among the car's buyers -- including Michael Dell, who purchased one online.

Musk's presence emphasized a number of admirable qualities to which the new Dell aspires. Risk-taking, entrepreneurialism, disruption, and strategic vision. “We need more people like Elon out there taking big risks,” Michael Dell said at one point, reemphasizing the theme of taking chances. 

The only problem? A paucity of evidence -- so far, at least -- that the new Dell has begun taking a whole lot of new risks just yet.

In a product-centered speech, Michael Dell outlined examples of new offerings to drive the Transform, Connect, Inform, Protect vision of the company. Some of these were interesting products, but few of them rose to the level of “taking big risks.” Already a leader in monitors, Dell will bring to market a 4K ultra-HD monitor for under $1,000 sometime in 2014 – an aggressive, promising move, but hardly involving any Earth-shaking levels of risk. A new Chromebook offering will leverage Dell’s powerful direct and partner sales channels and strong brand reputation to target education and potentially other verticals. A good move, but one that plays catch-up to rivals like Samsung, Acer, and HP in the Chromebook space.

Perhaps the biggest chance-taking in evidence was the announcement of a $300 million strategic investment fund to identify, seed, and cultivate startups that can lead to Dell innovation down the line.

So while the sentiments of risk-taking and startup culture are bold – and appropriately so – Dell still has a burden of proof ahead of it. The company continues to evolve into a software, services, and security company – areas of the business that are growing rapidly. Yet two thirds of the lead generation for sales of these new services come from enterprise customers engaged in conversations with Dell about PCs and tablets -- a.k.a. the legacy business. The next step for Dell is to make strategic moves commensurate with its new risk-taking image. Our recommendation? Following Elon Musk, Dell should focus on "delight": On helping enterprises implement technologies that will help them to delight their own customers

J. P. Gownder is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research serving Infrastructure & Operations Professionals. Follow him on Twitter at @jgownder.