Lessons That Are Worth Billions
Entrepreneur|October - November 2021
How did Michael Dell build one of the most valuable technology companies in the world? By being willing to try, fail, and learn.
JASON FEIFER

In 1984, Michael Dell told his parents he was going to drop out of college to sell computers. They were concerned, to say the least. The gamble worked out, of course—his namesake company became one of the largest players in the computing space, then went public and made him a billionaire. But when, in 2013, Dell announced that he was going to take his company private, industry insiders and the press were even more skeptical than his parents back in the ’80s. That didn’t bother him. “I think most people are careful and risk-averse,” Dell says. “They don’t achieve their full potential because they don’t want to fail. And I think a big part of my success is that I wasn’t, you know, 50 percent smarter than everybody else or something—I was just willing to take more risks and experiment and learn and ask questions.”

In his new book, Play Nice But Win, Dell details his career origins and the long saga of taking his company private. Here, he talks about the hard lessons learned along the way, and why he still appreciates his failures from long ago.

You seem to be very aware of your critics. Throughout the book, you quote what naysayers said about you in places like the Times and the Journal. How do you make bold decisions while also listening to the people who say you’re wrong?

Going private was an epic media extravaganza. I developed a bit of a Teflon skin, because, you know, people are always criticizing you. When you’re leading a company, if things are going really well, greatness is ascribed to you way beyond what you deserve—but the reverse is also true. You’re the front person. So you just learn to not take things personally and to stay focused on the long-term plot.

Do you have advice for people who struggle with that? Teflon skin does not grow naturally.

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