I recently attended Dell World 2013 along with some of the world's leading tech and business press, CMOs, CIOs and analysts. I think I was inadvertently invited -- perhaps part of a clandestine plan to convert next-gen entrepreneurs into Dell fanatics -- but jumped at the chance to engage in conversations with some of the best and brightest. Needless to say, I was blown away.
From that experience, where arguably two of technology's greatest (if not controversial) entrepreneurs shot the breeze with Techonomy's David Kirkpatrick in front of thousands of people, came five major insights for aspiring and established entrepreneurs:
Talented teams of people ultimately solve problems. It's easy to get our panties (or briefs) in a bunch about the amazing things technology can do for society and culture. True, technology has democratized certain aspects of business and broken down barriers for young entrepreneurs, but it's still about the people.
"Tech solves computational problems, but just having technology doesn't solve problems," Dell said. "You need cultures and governments and institutional support. And this requires people to apply critical thinking and creativity."
When asked how he got to where he is today, Musk was swift in his reply: "I've enlisted very talented people."
The takeaway: If you want to succeed, find people who understand your vision and have the skills to make the tech work. And fire bad apples fast.
Innovation happens by continually asking: "Why not innovate?" One of the more interesting moments of the conversation came when Kirkpatrick posed this question to Musk: "Do you ever look at other people and think they should just try harder?"
His response: "Umm, yeah. I think people are very self limiting. It takes a lot of mental energy to innovate. Entrepreneurs wake up and ask: Why not innovate?"
Dell, for his part, is touting the privatization of his company as the opportunity of a lifetime where they can now operate like the world's biggest startup. And a startup's only mandate is to innovate.
Delight and engage your customers. The downfall of extreme intelligence (I will refrain from saying "ego") and gusto in entrepreneurs is often this: They forget that they can't build or sell anything without an engaged customer.
Although their approaches and industries are quite different -- Musk builds luxury/otherworldly machines, while Dell's prerogative is to provide end-to-end technology solutions (infrastructure) for businesses such as Tesla and StartX, there is one outstanding thing they agree on: The customer is central to everything. Everything.
"People buy things that make them happy," Musk said. "If you can create a product that delights a customer, you've won."
Dell added, "We ignite engagement through our content, this inspires our teams and our engineers. We have an ongoing dialogue with our customers."
Failure isn't an option. True, small failures can fuel innovation and provide learning opportunities for entrepreneurs, but epic failure is simply not an option.
When Tesla was having financial problems in 2008 and essentially standing on the brink of "failure," Musk rallied, invested all of his own money and borrowed money from friends to cover his living expenses. He asserts that, because he put everything on the line, others were willing to invest. In his words, once the funding was secured, he "innovated to avoid death."
Do I even need to mention Dell here? His public showdown with the privatization of his company speaks for itself.
Take the long-term view. Perhaps my favorite insight about entrepreneurship came from Dell, an individual who launched a company from his college dorm room nearly three decades ago.
"It is the affliction of today's society to take the short-term view," he said. "I appreciate what people like Elon are doing. He's taking huge risks, knowing his vision will take years to realize.
"For us, we are looking to provide infrastructure for the next billion people to rise out of poverty, while continuing to support small businesses and entrepreneurs as well as enterprise."
He's right, innovation often takes years, if not decades, to materialize -- and big wins require big risks.
So if you are an aspiring or established entrepreneur, keep these extraordinary insights in mind as you build, iterate, fail, innovate, engage and anything else required to put your "ding" in the universe.
The world is waiting.