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Michael Dell: “Entrepreneurship is innovation and e-commerce adds fuel to the fire”

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Michael Dell, founder and CEO of the namesake computer company, hosted a SXSW panel on entrepreneurship that included Carley Roney, co-founder and Chief Content Officer of XO Group (parent company of The Knot), Stephen Kaufer, co-founder and CEO of TripAdvisor, and Jeff Housenbold, CEO of Shutterfly. Each of these panelists is currently featured in Dell’s latest campaign New Beginnings, which tells the story of the humble places where businesses begin. The panel, entitled Beginnings: A Panel About Entrepreneurism with Michael Dell, covered everything from from starting and scaling a business, trying to balance work and life (or “the work life imbalance” according to Roney), innovating beyond the startup phase and corporate reinvention.MikeDellBlogPerfect[Tweet ""Entrepreneurship is innovation, and e-commerce adds fuel to the fire." @MichaelDell #sxsmb"]Dell opened by describing his modest dorm-room beginnings in 1984, proving that innovation can happen anywhere, at any time and in any place. Whether you are a college kid tinkering with computers in Room 2713 or stay-at-home mom sketching out a business plan at your dinning room table, the sky is truly the limit. Dell went on to say that “entrepreneurship is innovation,” to which Shutterfly's Housenbold added that “entrepreneurship is simply a mindset” and anyone can dream of new, bigger, better things to add to the world.

The key to business is your clients

Although the panel spoke on a variety of topics, there was a common thread that ran through their discussion of starting and running a successful business: clients. Client should serve as your home base for nearly every decision you make. And note that these folks called them clients, not customers, just like we do at Bigcommerce. There is an essential difference — customers refer to a once-and-done transaction, while clients indicate a relationship. This idea fostered a great deal of conversations between the four panelists.

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Roney, co-founder of The Knot, attributes her entire business model to her clients. She first started bridal message boards where she listened to brides and pinpointed their true struggles. “You must listen, deeply listen,” she said. Through these message board conversations, she was able to understand the need that drives The Knot. Her business provides women a single place where they could find anything and everything they need to plan their dream wedding. Interestingly enough, Roney said she then expected her brides to leave the message boards upon their big day, but they didn’t. When they had another major life decision to plan for, they returned to the last place they were heard and supported. This trend led to even more opportunity, spawning The Nest, for finding and setting up your home, and The Bump, for pregnancy and parenting advice.

At TripAdvisor, learning from your clients is of the utmost importance to Kaufer. He feels that clients will guide you in the right direction, showing you where the business needs to go. He states that this can lead some of the scarier aspects of running a business, like pivoting. But Kaufer believes pivoting is key in any business. “Many business plans end up half right and half wrong,” he said. Adjustments are inevitable, so long as you have your finger on the pulse of your client base, you will always uncover room for improvement in your business. In turn, this will keep your current clients coming back and create buzz so new ones find you.

But all the panelists did point out you can't just listen to clients, you must do some business research as well. Shutterfly's Housenbold feels this idea relates to the well-known Henry Ford quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” With this, the panelists agreed that you must be diligent and not jump every time a client asks you to.

Running a business versus having a brand

Yes, you want to run a business, but you need to more than just that. What you really want is to build a brand, said Romey. Brand is a feeling. It is so much more than colors or logos, which small businesses tend to get hung up on in beginning. And it's not just about the features and functionality. Brand is about building an authentic experience that clients remember. Kaufer feels it begins with helping and supporting client, which again goes back to listening and responding to them.

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Technology is changing the landscape of entrepreneurship

Advancing technologies allow businesses to better understand, stay in touch and reach out to clients in meaningful ways. Housenbold feels it is important to study engagement levels, social media, purchasing preference and more. “We can really begin to tailor their experience,” he says.

Responding to questions from the audience, each of the panelists addressed mobile commerce. Ramey stated “being able to now take transactions via mobile is changing the landscape” of e-commerce, allowing sales to occur at any time or place. Mobile is also fostering new ideas for Kaufer at TripAdvisor, who stays up at night trying to figure out new ways clients can more effectively utilize their smartphone while traveling. Not only does he want to help travelers locate places off the beaten path that they would have otherwise missed, he wants to tell them about the history behind the art and monuments they see along the way. In short, he’s trying to build additional functionality that will offer a more engaging, truly unique experience for his clients.

My key takeaway from this panel was that highly successful business folks are focused on client centricity. It’s a “back to basics” approach that any business can use. It will help you build a brand that better serves your advocates and attracts new clients in the future. Additionally, there loads of competitors in the e-commerce space, so knowing and understanding your clients can set you apart from the pack.

Just never stop listening!

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  • harvey kohner

    This article is what every prospective new business owner should read. When you are done, read it again. Think you know it. Well, read it again out loud to yourself so you can listen to what you think you know.

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