This week was Dell's industry analyst conference where several hundred of us descend on the company and compete to see who can ask the pithiest question. As expected, they walked us through some of their initiatives and strategies while showcasing a number of partners and new capabilities. Dell continues to put much of its effort into the mid-market and, in its class, has the most resources focused on this segment of any of the major firms, which mostly have remained focused on the large enterprise. As a result, it has some rather interesting unique initiatives. This follows up on the interview I did with Michael Dell, on Dell's Rebirth, last week in preparation for this event. Two very unusual ones stood out, however, and I think they showcase Dell as a very different company than any other technology firm currently operating in its class.
The two efforts involve a major unique initiative in the company and a product that Dell actually helped build that is very un-Dell.
Dell's Woman Entrepreneur Network
Dell is one of the few companies (the only one I work with) that has an Entrepreneur in Residence. Normally you find this job in venture capital firms to help evaluate potential investments or to help existing investments in companies pay off. In this case, part of the task appears to be to help Dell behave like a much younger and more agile company and to create a network of woman entrepreneurs who favor Dell as a vendor and may turn into advocates. What is also fascinating is that while the technology market has traditionally been largely staffed by and focused on men, Dell's Entrepreneur in Residence is a woman.
Now when I say historically, I'm not saying that women don't have a major role in technology today. Two of Dell's largest competitors are led by women after all, and from technology in the home to technology in business, women not only are significant, but their significance is growing massively as buying decisions shift out of IT and to line organizations that are often run by females.
Dell, through its Women's Entrepreneur Network, created what appears to be the most focused effort to understand the unique needs of the most active members of this already powerful and growing power block and here it nearly stands alone. For instance, IBM is even having trouble getting its woman CEO the respect she deserves.
Often companies tend to live in the past by as much as two decades and don't see the changes going on, even when those changes are happening inside the firm. Women have risen sharply in status, influence, and power in the technology industry and it is to Dell's credit that it both sees this happening and is uniquely positioning to take advantage of this trend.
The Dell Scooter
There often is a hard line between what a technology company in Dell's class provides and what one of its clients creates. While it is far from uncommon for a parts company like Intel or NVIDIA to provide technology that goes into other industries like the automotive industry, it is relatively rare for a firm like Dell to engage deeply enough to help create someone else's product.
This premise is what made the presentation by Current Motor's executive chairman, who coincidentally is a serial entrepreneur, a software expert, and a woman, interesting. It wanted to create the most advanced electric scooter in the industry. It also wanted to address issues like battery anxiety, connect the scooter to cloud services, and find a way to make the scooter very personal but not unaffordable.
The core technology for electric vehicles remains relatively expensive so the effort couldn't add excessive cost. The task was daunting to create a unique riding experience, using electric power, still allowing the result to be relatively (this is a big word with electric vehicles) affordable. It created a unique offering. This was important because the pioneer in this high-end electric Scooter class, Vectrix, has had both quality and financial issues with its similar VX-1. The Vectrix has been around longer but the hub motor design of the Current Motors offering is more elegant. While hub motors increase unsprung weight, they tend to be quieter and less complex (virtually no maintenance) than gear or chain designs.
Dell worked with Current Motor on the electronics in the bike, on creating a unique web service that surrounds the bike and helps users plan their trips around power availability (a major issue with electrics), and on building the first OEM vehicle wrap process. This last is kind of ironic given you'd think HP's printing division would lead in this kind of effort in Dell's class.
For some time, I've thought that wraps could revolutionize car buying because they can be done at dealerships, are both cheaper and more robust than paint, have finishes that you can't duplicate with paint, and are trending in the aftermarket. (Currently I'm looking to have this done to one of my cars. If you haven't seen a wrap, you should check out these pictures.)
But in the end, the scooter likely wouldn't exist, certainly not in its full form, if it weren't for Dell. And Dell is clearly promoting the product at events like this. And, if it wants to make sure this doesn't become another kind of story, Dell will likely want to assure this scooter succeeds.
Wrapping Up: A Very Different Company
The technology industry is undergoing what is increasingly looking like a massive change. What once was an industry of specialization, where companies like Microsoft and Oracle ruled, is becoming one of solutions which, if Dell is the example, are starting to penetrate down into customer lines. Even the historically male-oriented gender of the industry is changing.
I think, at this week's analyst event, that we are beginning to see these changes take place. Technology vendors using their unique skills to help ever more technology-rich products in other markets become successful, and to ride the wave of women executives that are transforming every industry.
Dell showcases that vendors can often do things that you haven't considered, like promote groups or drive down into your products to make them more successful. Lord knows the auto industry could use some help with how they integrate technology in cars and I still think wraps could transform the level of customization that dealers could provide to car and motorcycle buyers. In fact, wraps can be used on walls so they can transform homes and businesses as well.
So it isn't just vendors who are thinking out of the box. Business buyers are as well and if you aren't, you're likely missing some unique new opportunities to leverage the vendor relationships you already have. Something to noodle on over the weekend: What else can your technology vendor do for you?