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Dell World 2013: The Very Public Resurgence of a Newly-Private Company


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On the eve of a New Year and the heels of the company’s founder having taken the behemoth private again, we were guests at Dell World 2013 in Austin, Texas, at one of the best of times to be there.

“It’s exciting when a company goes private again,” said Michael Dell, kicking off DellWorld 2013 in Austin, Texas. “It feels like I’m part of the world’s largest startup.”

Every entrepreneur’s dream is to find investors for his or her startup, and most, to be acquired or to go public. Having been through two out of the three, and also having built one of the largest tech companies on the planet, Michael Dell seems happy to be an entrepreneur once again.

For Dell, it all started in college when, instead of studying, he was taking apart IBM PCs, when he realized that most of the parts were made by someone else, and IBM was charging four times what they cost. Figuring there had to be a simpler way to make the machines, he did what any entrepreneur would do: left school with $1,000 loan, and started a company that grew 80% a year for the first eight years. And he feels lucky that he was able to found his company when he did. “I got a front row seat at an extremely transformative time in our industry,” he said.

Returning to his entrepreneurial roots might have been the inspiration for Dell’s focus on fostering entrepreneurship. First, the company announced the Dell Venture Fund, a $300 million fund with a focus on early to growth stage companies in technology across four verticals: software, services, consumers and the enterprise, with long-time Silicon Valley-based VC Jim Lussier at the helm.

“Dell has acquired 20 companies in the last five years,” noted Lussier, who joined the company in 2011 from Norwest Venture Partners. “But we’re not going to buy every company in the world.”

Instead, the fund, called the Strategic Innovation Venture Fund, will be making early and growth stage investments. “From A to E,” he added, noting that B, C and D rounds are in the company’s sweet spot, where they’ll invest from $2 million to $15 million. “We have a ‘doubt bottom line,’” he added, meaning that the company is committed to both the financial return on its investments as well as advancing Dell’s strategy for bringing the most innovative products to market. Lussier also pointed out that Dell does invest with other VCs rather than complete with them, but was quick to note that with their 20,000-strong sales force, channel partners and OEM business, “we can design, build, ship and sell your product anywhere in the world. We have 30 CTOs covering every area.”

The fund is primarily focused on the US but has plans to expand to China, India and Israel.

Nor does the company have an eye on acquiring every company in which they invest. “We like good ideas, no matter where they come from,” said Lussier. And with Dell being a private company again, “we can grow faster, do more and invest more. Plus, it is our founder who took the company private again, and he’s deeply engaged with entrepreneurs.”

Dell Center for Entrepreneurship Pitch Slam

It would seem so and what conference can call itself startup-friendly without hosting an entrepreneurs’ panel and in this case Dell’s Center for Entrepreneurs Pitch Slam, hosted by Dell EIR (and herself a serial entrepreneur) Ingrid Vanderveldt, Michael Dell himself got involved as one of the judges, along with the UN Foundation’s (first) Entrepreneur in Residence Elizabeth Gore and serial entrepreneur and ABC’s Shark Tank shark Damond John. Seven startups each had five minutes to deliver their pitch and three minutes for Q&A from the judges, each of whom had his or her own pick for Best Startup. And the winners were:

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Gauvus, a Silicon Valley-based big data analytics company that takes huge volumes of data, marries it with contextual data, allowing companies to put all their data to work to uncover new insights and make better-informed and more timely decisions. Gauvus was the winner of the online Pitch Slam competition, and Michael Dell’s pick in Austin.

Fantoo – From the UK, Fantoo is the first AI cloud-hosted, intelligence-driven, self-learning email and messaging platform, designed to prioritize the messages in your inbox, bringing the most relevant messages to the forefront. The company, which is still invite only, also categorizes the messages, locating relevant images and breaking them into beautiful tiles (the company has a key partnership with Getty Images) to allow users to visually connect with their messages. Fantoo got Damond John’s vote for Best Startup. “It’s good for people with dyslexia,” noted the shark, who is an ambassador for Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

Neverware. There are any number of startups out there that are disrupting education, but Neverware’s focus is on the computers themselves that are being used in the schools. The company’s first product is a turn-key VDI service, powered by the company’s plug-and-play Neverware Juicebox, that instantly upgrades a school’s legacy system and make the computers run like new again – a big upgrade for cash-strapped schools. Voted Popular Science’s Best New Software for 2013, the company got Elizabeth Gore’s vote. She also offered to broker an introduction to UNICEF. Noting that she likes better than a companies with a focus on a triple bottom line: people, planet and profit, she said.

This year’s Dell World was certainly a celebration of the return to the company’s entrepreneurial roots, if the music that filled cavernous halls of the cavernous Austin Convention Center was any indication, too. It was eighties music from beginning to end, reflecting the decade in which Dell was first founded.

The conference also hosted another keynote speaker: entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors. He was delivered to the stage in no less than a Tesla and his best advice to entrepreneurs, “Just try it!” – advice he no doubt takes to heart, considering his diverse undertakings. “It’s important to know about different industries,” he said, pointing out that his involvement in SpaceX helped to bring improvements and breakthroughs to the Tesla. “People get siloed.”

Michael Dell later joined him on stage and the two discussed the pros and cons of being at the helm of a public company versus a private one – or one that succeeded in going private again.

“Going private, you can do what you want, without capital markets looking over your shoulder,” Dell noted.

“Yeah,” Musk said wistfully, discussing the wild market valuations he experienced with the Tesla stock – and the ensuing shareholder lawsuits. “Worrying about the stock price is a big distraction.”

A distraction Mr. Dell, himself a Tesla owner, knows a thing or two about.

“I went thought that rollercoaster for 25 years,” he said.

There’s no doubt about it that having developed the car was a monumental achievement in and of itself. Although it’s no doubt that it’s even better to be in the driver’s seat.

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