Shoe Dog by Nike founder Phil Knight is one of the best business books—among other things, it turns the dynamics of cash flow into a surprisingly suspenseful narrative driver, as Knight and a ragtag band of early associates barely manage to keep what would become one of the world’s most powerful brands afloat.
Michael Dell’s new book Play Nice But Win fits in the same category of founder’s memoir as Shoe Dog, and aspires to similar drama. In Dell’s case, the principal suspense is around whether the founder of the eponymous tech company will win his recurring battles with investor Carl Icahn—who Dell at various moments compares to the Joker, a circus clown, and an unshakeable zombie pursuer—and pull off a string of high-stakes stock market deals and acquisitions.
The conflict with Icahn is worth telling, and Dell does it in vivid detail. He recounts how he impulsively called Icahn directly amid the activist investor’s aggressive maneuvering in the press and courts to oppose Dell’s effort to take the company private, and Icahn invited him to dinner at his home that evening. Over Mrs. Icahn’s meatloaf, Dell pressed Icahn on what his alternate plan for the company was. In Dell’s telling, Icahn couldn’t come up with one, and Dell concluded, “this guy has no idea what Dell does. Doesn’t know whether we make French fries or nuclear power plants. He knows nothing, he’s got nothing, he’s just a circus clown. He’s done.” (p. 128)
As Knight did in Shoe Dog, Dell chronicles his own harrowing moments in the early days, when the company’s meteoric success led it to run perilously low on cash (because it had to cover inventory and other expenses ahead of actually being paid). And Play Nice But Win provides an insider’s multi-decade perspective on the shifts in the technology market that have required many of the early personal computer winners, Dell included, to move into the adjacent but significantly different areas of enterprise hardware, software, and services.
The book is a victory lap of sorts, allowing Dell the cover of “candor” to criticize rivals such as Icahn and former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman. He’s also keen to name the many people who played a role in his successes—including a long list of bankers, lawyers, and consultants—and describe his philanthropic agenda. Play Nice But Win includes some good stories, but doesn’t quite rise to the level of Shoe Dog—if you haven’t read that, we’d suggest doing so instead.
Here are some of the highlights and takeaways:
- You may think you’re entrepreneurial, but Michael Dell is more so, from an impressively young age. Before even starting college, he was running two businesses: One souping up IBM PCs for small businesses, which earned him enough money to buy a BMW, and one doing what he called “fly-and-buys,” flying out to stores that had excess inventories of sought-after PCs and renting trucks to deliver them to places with shortages for a quick markup.
- Michael Dell regrets saying publicly that Apple should be liquidated. Asked in 1997 what he’d do with the then-troubled Apple, he replied “I’d shut the company down and give the money back to shareholders.” (p. 221) Stung by that, Steve Jobs sent him an email saying “CEOs are supposed to have class. I can see that isn’t an opinion you hold.” (p. 221) Dell called him to smooth things over, and now says the comment was stupid of him.
- Dell has a corporate process that “resolves any decision, no matter how complex, in 30 to 40 days.” (p. 284.) The first step is called Facts and Alternatives, where you spend a few weeks collecting the relevant facts and examining the legitimate alternatives. The next phase is Choices and Commitments, where you make a decision and then commit to it. This process was used to rename the company as Dell Technologies after its combination with EMC.
- Dell took the company private in 2013 to escape the doubts of investors. Taken off the stock market, its “transformation as a company could proceed without the tyranny, the ever-ticking shot clock, of a quarterly earnings report,” Dell writes. (p. 8) The bet paid off: the value of the company’s equity increased by over 625% from the go-private date through earlier this year, and the company had record revenue, profits, and cash flow in its most-recent fiscal year.
- The pursuit of profit margins helped drive the evolution of Dell beyond the PC. Michael Dell writes that the gross margins for a PC were 15% or 20%, but a more complex storage array could have 60% margins because it has much more software, and software margins themselves could hit 98%.
- It’s hard to displace incumbents. “To acquire a company that had been number six or seven in its field and take it to number two or three, or even vault it to number one, was almost impossible,” Dell writes. “Companies with leadership positions, if they continue to invest and serve their customers well, are hard to unseat. It’s not impossible, but it rarely occurs.”
- Michael Dell from an early age stressed the importance of treating employees with respect. In a 1988 statement of company values he printed on a dot-matrix printer and handed to staff, Dell, then 23 years old, wrote “Treat people with respect… Employees will participate in decisions that affect their own work and receive the rewards that come as a result of their efforts.” (p. 217)
To be sure:
- Play Nice But Win is self-indulgent in places, as when Dell recites the company’s approach to sustainability and his approach to charitable giving. (Many of the “play nice” parts of the book are less interesting than the pitched battles Dell is focused on winning.)
- Dell is seemingly obsessed with Icahn, who took positions in the company when Dell was going private and then when it became a public company again, arguing for better terms. Dell parses Icahn’s various statements and rants about Icahn’s “complete lack of moral fiber.”
- The vision Dell offers near the end of the book of where technology is headed is disappointingly banal and predictable coming from a tech leader, as he touts the promise of 5G wireless services and artificial intelligence.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Dell acknowledges that when most people come to him in public and ask for a meeting, he deflects them by saying “Sure, call my office,” and then never following up.
- Dell found that when he dissembled an early IBM PC that the parts were made by other manufacturers and marked with their names, and he could buy them separately himself. “It would later become apparent that IBM had created the PC quickly and with off-the-shelf components out of expediency, because they were secretly worried about Apple’s inroads into the consumer and education markets,” Dell writes. (p. 33)
- Dell registered as Dell Computer Corp. in 1984, but for several years did business under the brand PC’s Limited.
- Michael Dell kept a dictionary on his desk with a black leather cover so that he could secretly look up the meaning of words he didn’t know.
- “Some people brag about their ability to multitask—I’m not sure how well I can do that, but one thing I know I’m good at is compartmentalizing.” (p. 49)
- “You don’t start a company if you’re not an optimist.” (p. 53)
- “In business you can surround yourself with the smartest people, you can plan ahead with the greatest care and intelligence, but one thing you can count on is that from time to time you’ll get smacked in the face with a flounder—aka something you’d never anticipated.” (p. 93)
- “Anyone who says you can start a company and have work-life balance is lying.” (p. 160)
- “Daring to fail is the only path to meaningful growth.” (p. 170)
- “Real transformations of major tech companies are extremely rare: I think because companies develop a particular capability, and a set of customers, and change is hard. You can’t take the stripes off a tiger. If you’re born a dog, you don’t die a cat.” (p. 252)
The bottom line is that Play Nice But Win is an entertaining behind-the-scenes chronicle of Dell’s sparring with Icahn and other competitive battles en route to building and transforming his company.