Michael Dellís Play Nice But Win: The Entrepreneurial Spirit (Part I)

A 19 year-old university dropout started assembling computers and 37 years later he has a net worth of about US$53 billion. How did he do it?    

Michael Dell provides a well-written account in Play Nice But Win. This is a quintessential entrepreneurial tale, by an industry leader, which covers entrepreneurship, innovation, and growth strategies. It’s one of the best of the genre.

The book gives a good glimpse not only into the building of a company but also into the personality of Michael Dell. The personal anecdotes strewn throughout the book make him relatable: despite good parents he wanted to get out of the house, he was excited to get his first new car, he wrestled with his parents’ expectations, he fumbled with new-found celebrity status, there was a home burglary, he wanted to get married and have a life, and then there was the pain of losing his cherished mother.

He was clearly born to be an entrepreneur, already concocting successful money-making schemes in high school. As he notes, “Entrepreneurship was in the air my family breathed. I discovered early [by age 13] that I liked to make money.” [26] A few years later he would barely survive his freshman year at the University of Texas as he worked on the side hustle that would become his life’s work.

His glimpses into his family’s dynamics are interesting, pitting his parent’s expectations versus his hard-wired entrepreneurial proclivities. Dell notes that “…my life was pretty much planned out for me: I would go and take pre-med courses and become a doctor.” [39] His parents weren’t keen on him derailing his university education to sell computers.

He promised he would continue with school, but then couldn’t do it. He has a great explanation: “So I arrived at a very eighteen-year-old type of stratagem: I would go back to my computer businesses, and I wouldn’t tell my parents.” [72]

His dad was a dental surgeon and his mother a stockbroker. “They [parents] also taught us [along with his two brothers] the difference between right and wrong, and most of all, to respect all people and take care of each other.” [320] In addition, his parents taught him about charity, and they led by example, “And so I had come to believe that giving back could be the most important part of my job.” [224]

Even as he rose to massive success, he kept active relations with his family. To this day his dad occasionally joins him on overseas trips. His parents even provided the inspiration for the title of this book: “My parents had a saying for when my brothers and I went out to play street ball with our friends: ‘Play nice but win.’” [21]

He is candid about his shortcoming and transparent to some degree (but with his outsized success he doesn’t need to worry about feeling insecure). 

There are good lessons for entrepreneurs in terms of the challenges of company growth: getting the right people and dealing with the wrong people, facing regulatory hurdles, and developing fiscal discipline. Dell also covers strategy issues including maintaining a core business model and yet seeking diversification. He also deals with specific entrepreneurial issues such as risk-taking, getting to scale, and figuring things out as you go.

The book interweaves the company’s long process of converting itself from a publicly-listed company back to a private concern, prominently featuring the bogeyman Carl Icahn (covered in Part II).

Dell says he has always been very curious. He admits to being very brash in his teens and early 20s.  He confesses that he surely rubbed many people the wrong way—but it seems forgivable as part of a unique personality channeled into entrepreneurial ambition.

His foibles are common to ultra-focused people. He forgot to pay speeding tickets—it wasn’t a priority. He comically recounts that there was “a big enough pile of unpaid speeding tickets that a warrant had been issued for my arrest” [102].

He realizes the benefits of timing which helped his education in this chosen field. At age 17 he was learning everything about the computer industry and enjoying the thrill of assembling custom computers. He was able to dramatically expand his knowledge and industry contacts in his backyard, Houston. He notes: “…a miraculous thing happened: in June of 1982 the National Computer Conference, a major annual event, came to Houston.” [37]

Although his company was growing rapidly, he confides that he wanted to settle down. “I’d been happily working sixteen-hour days, eating at the office, sleeping at the office. My work was my life; my company was my second family…I had an enormous desire to succeed, but I was human, and I knew something was missing from my life.” [160] He was programmed for marriage, which came in due course.

While Michael Dell is clearly a uniquely talented and ambitious individual, he keeps everything in perspective. He is refreshingly grateful. He states that, “I realize over and over how I pretty much won the lottery,” just being born in the US and having the opportunity to get quality education [305].