‘America, What a Country.’ Michael Dell on His Life and Business

How did you become interested in technology?

We lived in Houston, and NASA and the Johnson Space Center wasn’t very far away. My parents would take us there and we’d see the rockets launch, and that was super exciting. Then, when I was about 8 years old, I got an electronic calculator, which in 1973 was a big deal. It was a National Semiconductor calculator. I was amazed that this thing could do math — multiplication and division. When I went to junior high school, I wasn’t on the track team or the football team or the basketball team. I was in the Number Sense Club. You multiply three numbers by three numbers in your head, and you compete at the district level, the state level.

After school, I would go to RadioShack and hang out. I’d stay there until they’d kick me out because I wasn’t buying anything. Then, Apple comes out with the Apple II, and I heard about Stephen Wozniak and Steve Jobs and I said, “I’ve got to have one of these things.” I had saved up some money from early entrepreneurial things — trading baseball cards and stamps, trading gold and silver, investing in stocks when I was really pretty young. I bought an Apple II, and immediately took it apart, which totally flabbergasted my parents.

How did you start Dell?

Fast forward to 1981, I’m 16 years old, and IBM comes out with the IBM PC. “OK, this IBM PC’s going to be a really big deal.” I got one of those, took it apart, and I started upgrading those and training other kids. I go off to college, and I go off and I am sort of continuing the upgrading computer thing. And it becomes a bigger business while I’m in my freshman year at college. My parents learn about it, get really, really upset with me and said, “You’ve got to stop doing it. You’re supposed to go to college.”

My parents were the first in their generation to go to college, and the idea that I would give up an education to mess around with computers — they couldn’t understand that at all. They pleaded with me. It was a highly emotionally charged situation. So I stopped for like 10 days, and it was in those 10 days that I really decided this wasn’t a hobby. It was actually what I wanted to do. So I did what any young 18-year-old would do: I just did it, and didn’t tell my parents. I moved out of my dorm room and into a little office, which we outgrew in 30 days. And here we are.

You didn’t graduate college?

America, what a country.

How did you go from essentially upgrading machines to figuring out, “Oh, there’s a market to actually design and build new machines?”

When I took apart the IBM PC, one of the striking things was none of the parts was from IBM. They were selling it for $3,000 but it had, as far as I could tell, maybe $500 worth of parts. It seemed a bit like a criminal enterprise. I mean, in terms of the math.

I started by upgrading the computers, and I would also buy the stripped-down IBM computers and upgrade those and sell them. The business quickly became making these hard-disk drive kits to upgrade IBM computers that didn’t have hard drives, because the early versions didn’t. We were making hundreds and thousands of these kits and selling them all over the place.