Letter #25: Michael Dell (2003)

2003 University of Texas Commencement Speech

Hi there! I go by KG, and I love studying the history of business and investing. I’ll be sharing some notes from one Investor/Shareholder letter per weekday (mostly from my compilations) here.

Today’s notes are on Michael Dell’s 2003 University of Texas commencement speech.

You can find this essay in my Dear Graduates… Compilation. This particular essay starts on page 51.

Notes

Though I left UT prior to the achievement that you’re all celebrating, this school has been a big part of my life in many ways: as a source of guidance and counsel for a young start-up company, as a constant resource of talent and support for a growing and established business, and as the foundation for a dream that this community has helped to build. I feel a tremendous connection with this university, and that’s why I’m so honored to be with you this evening.

  • Despite all the anti-college talk, there are still value-adds of the University system that, even in post-COVID times, exist. You can make all sorts of argument for why University isn’t needed — but it’s still the best place to “discover yourself,” a purgatory of sorts between the home bubble one grew up in and the real world.

I’d like to share my remarks tonight in memory of Dr. George Kozmetsky—a longtime friend of Dell, the University of Texas, and the Austin community. George was a visionary leader who recognized the potential in people and helped fuel their success with his wisdom and counsel. I was fortunate to be one of those people.

  • Kozmetsky is best known for his helping lead Teledyne and the book he wrote about it: Distant Force

  • It’s important to recognize/pay tribute to your mentors

  • Visionary Leaders: recognize potential energy and help turn it into kinetic energy

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel a less-traditional path. But I’ve managed to cover a fair amount of territory. There may be some lessons that I’ve learned that could help you in some small measure on your road ahead.

  • The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

  • Have there been any super-successful people who HAVE walked “traditional” paths? (As Buffett, Marks, and Thiel say — you need to be contrarian)

As you stand here tonight, you are at the starting point of a wonderful journey. But it’s a journey that can only begin with your decision to embark. We are a nation of accomplishment, and this ceremony is a great testament to that. But the unspoken requirement of a commencement is that you now must commence. There are countless contributions and achievements that never occurred, all due to a failure to begin.

  • It’s Day 1 — but for your journey to start, you have to actually start

  • Mental Model: Inertia (Newton’s First Law) — An object at rest stays at rest. It’s all about getting started (See Zero to One). You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Early in the history of Dell, we recognized that our path to greater success led us out of Austin, out of Texas, and even out of this country. So as a three-year-old company, with just 150 employees, we opened our first international operation in the UK … to great skepticism. The only true believers were the Dell team … and of course, our customers. Since then we’ve expanded to serve customers around the world. But it all started with that first decision to embark.

  • Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans

  • Li Jin’s 100 True Fans

  • Steve Jurvetson: “If most people laugh at your or say it will never work, and a handful think it is brilliant, you may be on to something” — it’s great if those who think it’s brilliant are customers

  • “A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step”

And now you’ve accomplished something great and honorable and important here at UT, and it’s time for you to move on to what’s next. But you must not let anything deter you from taking those first steps. You have an abundance of opportunities before you—but don’t spend so much time trying to choose the perfect opportunity, that you miss the right opportunity. Recognize that there will be failures, and acknowledge that there will be obstacles. But you will learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others, for there is very little learning in success.

  • Avoid decision paralysis — if you want to do something, go do it — “The first draft of anything is shit” — “if your first release isn’t shit, you’re too late”

  • Learn more from failure than success — Charlie Munger studies history’s greatest failures, and looks to avoid them (inversion)

Fourteen years ago, Dell had the opportunity to learn two big lessons … the hard way. One lesson was from a failure to manage our inventory properly, and the other was from a failure to listen to our customers when it came to developing new products. But we followed the advice that Dr. Kozmetsky gave me, and we fixed our problems as fast as we found them. Today, we set the standard for managing inventory and listening and responding to customers, and we owe those strengths to a willingness to try, and to fail, and to learn.

  • Listen to your mentors

  • Speed matters — Fix your problems as fast you find them. Peter Kaufman once explained why Glenair paid their bills immediately — “When a downturn comes, and suppliers are constrained, who do you think they will supply first? The people that pay their bill immediately, or the people who take the full 90 days?”

  • LISTEN TO YOUR CUSTOMERS

With the understanding that you will face tough times and amazing experiences, you must also commit to the adventure. Just have faith in the skills and the knowledge you’ve been blessed with and go. Because regrets are born of paths never taken.

  • Commit to the journey — both the ups and the downs

  • Believe in yourself

  • Mental Model: Regret Minimization — I don’t really have regrets because anything I do, at that time, I really wanted to do. Don’t do things you’ll regret

  • Biggest regrets are regrets of omission/inaction — I wish I did this, I wish I did that (mostly — in some instances it will be I wish I didn’t do this/that, but for the most part it will be regrets of omission)

Then, as you start your journey, the first thing you should do is throw away that store-bought map and begin to draw your own. When Dell got started, it didn’t come with a manual on how to become number 1 in the world. We had to figure that out every step of the way. And with each new product and new market, the industry “experts” said we’d fail. Just a few short years ago, we announced plans to build powerful computers at the center of the Internet (“servers” for those of you from the engineering school.) Through the chorus of naysayers, we emerged as a world leader in servers, and we continue to gain momentum. And as always, we did it our way, with customers—not the experts—in mind.

  • The Tao Te Jing starts with a phrase that can be translated as “The Way that can be known is not the Way.” Which is to say — there is no recipe for success. If there’s a recipe, it’s not the true recipe.

  • There will never be another Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg. You stand on the shoulder’s of giants, but you do your own thing. Every act of creation is singular (Zero to One again lol)

  • Optimize for your customers, not “the experts”

You too have an advantage that you’re not encumbered by years of conventional thinking. You have a new and fresh perspective with which to view the world. Your time at this great university has helped sharpen your sense of discovery, and there is no better catalyst for success than curiosity.

  • See George Dantzig who solved two “unsolved problems” because he thought they were homework problems. If he had known they were “unsolved,” he may have never solved them

  • Steve Jurvetson: Celebrate the child-like mind"

  • Success comes from curiosity

It’s through curiosity and looking at opportunities in new ways that we’ve always mapped our path at Dell. Of course, we didn’t invent the concept of selling directly to customers, and we didn’t invent the personal computer … and we certainly didn’t invent the Internet. But there’s always an opportunity to make a difference. There is always the chance to refine something, to eliminate unnecessary steps, or to look at something in a new light. You can stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before and see a little further. And sometimes there’s an opportunity to achieve a major breakthrough with a completely new idea that re-defines the subject.

  • Let curiosity guide your roadmap — some good frameworks are the “5 Whys” and the “5 Ws”

  • You don’t have to invent things — but you have to refine things (kind of the very basis of the PE industry — at least the operational improvements)

But whether it’s evolution or revolution, there’s always a better way to build a computer, or map a genome, or liberate a country, or take a basketball team to the Final Four. Just work to understand the world around you. Read books. Read websites. Read other people. Circle the pitfalls and highlight the opportunities. Then build a vision of how it could all be better and work like hell to make it happen.

  • There’s always a better way — nothing is perfect

  • For inspiration — look around you. Read, read, rad (books, websites, people). Look for the opportunities — what are people struggling with most? Put these things together and craft a vision for how things can work — then make it work

We are fortunate to live in a country that accepts and even encourages experimentation and new ideas. America’s greatness is based on the fundamental belief that our greatest individual contributions are achieved along the course we chart for ourselves.

  • Walk your own path — since creation is singular, if you copy other people, your achievements won’t be as large as those who created their own

As you walk the path you’ve chosen, remember that the road ahead is paved with relationships. I’ve enjoyed some great fortune, but none of it would have happened without the people who shared their wisdom, the hard work of the Dell team worldwide, and the love and support of my family and friends. Remember … there’s no such thing as a self-made success.

  • At the heart of life, business, whatever (even if you’re a massive introvert), it’s all about the relationships you make. Even if your business fails, you’ll have your friends, family, mentors who will be there to make sure you don’t.

  • Always a fun interview question to ask people who has helped them get to where they are — if they attribute it all to themselves, think twice about funding or working with this person

As Dell has grown over the years, many critics have asked me when I would finally step aside and let others run things. But the truth is, other people have been helping run things at Dell for a long time. The greatest mistake you can make is thinking you can do it all by yourself.

  • Similar to Reed Hastings — who spends half the year abroad

  • No one can do everything — build a great team and trust that they can do the jobs you hired them to do

My most important role at Dell is growing and developing a strong team … and I give all of myself in that effort. I learned very early to surround myself with talented people who challenge convention, offer new ideas, and relentlessly drive for improvement. And to let those people thrive.

  • There’s a saying at Dropbox that your biggest contribution to the company wouldn’t be the code you write or the job you do, but the people you hire

  • Hire the most talented people and get out of their way (but help when needed)

Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room. In professional circles it’s called networking. In organizations it’s called team building. And in life it’s called family, friends, and community. We are all gifts to each other, and my own growth as a leader has shown me again and again that the most rewarding experiences come from my relationships.

  • I have a rule (kind of) — always be the second dumbest person in a room. If you’re the dumbest, you’ll be taken advantage of. But if you’re the second dumbest, you get to learn from the best

  • Networking, team building, family, friends, community — if cultivated correctly, these are all the same. I used to lowkey be a snob and say “I don’t network, I make friends” but at the end of the day, they’re one and the same

  • Life is about relationships — most journeys are about the friends we made along the way

And even as you keep traveling the road ahead, you must always remember where you came from. Each of us carries the dust and dreams of the places that helped shape us, and all of us can count our blessings that our path has taken us through Texas.

  • Don’t lose sight of where you came from — stay grounded

  • Remember where you’re from — what’s shaped you

There’s no other place that so purely preserved a centuries-old heritage of hard work, self reliance, and initiative like Texas. There’s no other place whose sons and daughters have so consistently set the standard—from government, business, and music, to sports, education, and technology—like Texas. And there’s no other place that can stir such jealousy in New Yorkers, such disdain in Californians, and such contempt in the French—yet hold their utmost respect—like the Lone Star State.

  • lol — appeal to your audience

The spirit of Texas is the purest concentration of the American spirit. Texas is to this country, what America is to the world. And there is no greater embodiment of that spirit than The University of Texas at Austin. During your travels, remember where you came from, and do right by Texas.

Finally, many times along the way you’re going to ask why. Why am I on this path? What is it all about? You’ll ask yourself those questions in 10 years and in 20 years as often as you’re asking them now. Well … I have an answer for you. It’s all about winning. That’s right, winning.

  • If you ever question yourself, think back to what drives you

  • #winning

But I’m not talking about the most points, or toys, or market share. (Though I certainly like market share.) I’m talking about winning in a contest with your own potential. I’m talking about believing in yourself enough to become the best accountant, engineer, or teacher you can possibly be. I’m talking about never measuring your success based on the success of others – because you just might set the bar too low.

  • Winning isn’t about beating other people — it’s about beating your past self, always improving yourself

I was fortunate to find my passion early in life. I started as a UT biology major and soon realized that all of those stacks of computer parts in my room were trying to tell me something. (And my roommate had a few things to say as well.) So 19 years ago, when I was 19 years old, I started Dell in that dorm room right over there. And despite juggling my classes and a computer company … I just knew there had to be something easier than organic chemistry!

  • Business idea: what’s something that you just can’t stop doing? That you can’t keep going back to? That you’re obsessed with no matter what else you’re doing?

But many people find their passion later in life, and others never find it at all. And for some, their greatest passion is the search itself. But whether you’ve found your calling, or if you’re still searching, passion should be the fire that drives your life’s work.

The key is to listen to your heart and let it carry you in the direction of your dreams. I’ve learned that it’s possible to set your sights high and achieve your dreams and do it with integrity, character, and love. And each day that you’re moving toward your dreams without compromising who you are, you’re winning. Look around you. At a school this size, with an international reputation for greatness, you might think of yourself as just a number. However, I recommend that you choose the number 1.

  • Let your heart guide you and your head move you

  • Core values: integrity, character, love

  • As long as you keep moving, building, improving, you’re winning

I’ve talked today about a journey, one that each of us travels. Often we travel together, as all of you have during your time at UT. But in the end, it’s your journey. Your path to travel and your responsibilities along the way. You are free to choose, and you are free to succeed. It just takes hard work and a dream. Most who finally leave this great university never imagine that they’re going to change the world. Yet every one of you will. How you change the world, is all up to you to decide.

  • At the end of the day — no one can make your choices for you. Your life is your own. You are responsible for how it turns out.

  • Everyone will change the world — Family saying is that we seek to leave the world a better place, no matter how small or big the impact, than when we arrived. As we know from the butterfly effect — small actions can lead to LARGE results

I wish you all a great adventure on the road ahead.

  • Hopefully the Road Less Taken xP

Wrap-up

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