The New Dell and What it Means for SMBs: Takeaways from Dell’s 2011 Solutions for a Virtual Era Event

Twenty-seven years ago, Michael Dell launched Dell with $1,000 and a streamlined sales and manufacturing model that revolutionized the PC industry. Sticking with this playbook, Dell achieved similar success in the server market, once again disrupting the status quo.

However, times changed, and Dell started to look like a one-trick pony. As Michael Dell himself acknowledged at last week’s Dell’s 2011 Virtual Era Analyst Event, which I’m paraphrasing here, “Dell had a winning formula that worked for a long time…but then it didn’t work so well anymore. Technology changed, as did customers’ expectation of technology, and Dell had to reinvent itself.” After re-taking the helm in 2007, Michael Dell began charting a new  course for Dell–one designed to help it capitalize on market demand for better, more cost-effective and easier to use IT solutions.

At last week’s event, Dell provided us with an update on its strategy to help companies in the anytime, anywhere virtual era by providing customers with “open, capable, affordable solutions.” For Dell, this means building solutions on open, industry standards; providing customers with choice; virtually (instead of vertically) integrated solutions; and ensuring that solutions can scale as required.

By leveraging cloud computing and remote services, and delivering the right blend of hardware, service and software offerings as more complete solutions–instead of as commodity piece parts–Dell’s aim is to solve customers’ IT problems instead of creating new ones.

How Dell’s Strategy Plays in the SMB Market

At this year’s event, Dell put SMBs in the spotlight. Steve Felice, president of Dell’s Consumer, Small and Medium Business unit, took center stage in the line-up of keynote presentations, mapping out Dell’s SMB vision. Dell’s other executive presenters and panelists–up to and including Michael Dell–underscored Dell’s commitment to delivering products, services and solutions tailored to the needs of SMB customers as well. (This contrasted with last year’s event, at which Dell mentioned that it would use mid-market businesses as its design point, but then quickly veered into large enterprise territory for the bulk of the event).

More importantly, Dell is putting meat on the messaging bones at both ends of the SMB spectrum. For example:

  • Dell’s focal point for the Virtual Era is the mid-market. Dell defines the mid-market as companies with 500 to a few thousand employees. It believes that by starting with mid-market requirements, Dell believes it can more readily scale up or down and make the economics of IT work better for businesses of all sizes, because mid-market companies have complex IT needs, but scarce IT resources–and can’t afford a lot of expensive labor or IT tools. They need more complete, automated, fixed price IT solutions and services. Recent Dell acquisitions such as Dell KACE, which Dell acquired KACE, which helps simplify systems management and deployment with appliance and cloud-based solutions, and Boomi, which supplies cloud integration services to help companies affordably integrate cloud and on-premise applications,  focus on mid-market problems. Dell’s results to date illustrate how this approach is shaping up: KACE sales are up 400%, and Boomi (see Dell and Boomi: Doubling Down on Integration) sales are on track to double by year-end.  At Dell’s Take Your Own Path SMB event in December 2010, I met several Dell SMB customers, (see SMB Group video interviews with Chitale Dairy and Pixomondo) that are using these and other Dell solutions to help move their businesses ahead of the competition. 
  • Capitalizing on the consumerization trend. IT innovation used to move mostly downstream, from large enterprises to the consumer. These days, the direction has reversed. Consumers are buying brighter, shinier and often more capable devices than they get at work–and bringing them into the office. Entrepreneurs are starting their own businesses, and don’t want to sacrifice the looks, power, capability and ease of use of consumer devices for stodgy and unwieldy business products. In a nutshell, consumer IT is raising the bar for business IT. Dell is taking advantage of its position as one of only two major vendors with an end-to-end portfolio that spans client devices from consumers through large business. Dell’s consumer products provide it with a great access point to small businesses. Since the introduction of its small business Vostro line in 2007, Dell has continued to make refine and expand its offerings to help small businesses bridge the gap from consumer to prosumer and up with a portfolio of PCs, notebooks, tablets and smartphones geared to different needs across this spectrum, along with services to help with device manageability, security and control. In particular, Dell has been aggressively expanding its mobile offerings with a comprehensive line-up of Android and Windows 7 devices to capitalize on the transformational shift to mobile computing.
  • Taking a more channel-friendly but not a channel-only approach. Dell has moved from being a poster child for the direct model to a company that recognizes the value of the channel and the role it plays in the SMB market. Several of its recent acquisitions, including Compellent, EquaLogic and KACE brought strong reseller channels that Dell is building on. However, Dell also recognizes that while many SMBs continue to rely on the channel, SMBs are increasingly purchasing at least some of their IT solutions directly, as indicated in SMB Group’s 2010 SMB Routes to Market Study.  Unlike its major competitors, Dell’s first priority is to bring greater IT efficiency to the market–not on maintaining an IT channel that doesn’t add value. This should increase the odds that the channel partners that work with Dell are actually adding value instead of just serving as middlemen.
  • Becoming a bona fide software and services provider.  Dell and others have talked about “productizing” services and automating technology solutions to make them more affordable and provide better business value. Dell’s recent string of software acquisitions and its purchase of Perot Systems indicate Dell’s intent to become a serious force in this realm. Dell’s investments to date to build cloud infrastructure and services foreshadow its future intent to offer an expanded range of public, private and hybrid cloud solutions for SMBs. In addition, Dell’s Managed Services footprint is growing, with 9000 team members in 39 countries who provide an array of services, from application services to break/fix. Dell’s focus on using cloud and other technologies to help provide remote, automated services should make these services more affordable for SMBs.

Quick Take

Dell’s strategy for the Virtual Era and mid-market design point bode well for SMBs. Unlike the many technology vendors that speak in jargon-riddled tongues that can make your head spin, Dell execs are also able to tell the story in a way that mere mortals can understand. As important, Dell has found the silver lining in the Dell Hell support crisis of a few years back, building extensive social media capabilities so that it can listen to what customers want, and map to these requirements. Finally, Dell is walking the walk–investing in and building the software and services capabilities it will need to deliver its vision to SMB customers.

Dell contrasts its perspective with that of its traditional major competitors–HP and IBM, which it contends skew towards a large enterprise design point. While I think Dell may be overstating this, Dell’s SMB strategy and solutions seem to be more deeply entwined with the fabric of the corporate vision as a whole.

Of course, I’d like to see Dell go even further with its SMB agenda. Some top of mind ideas:

  • Provide a less expensive but just as inviting alternative to the Mac. Many entrepreneurs and small business owners are defecting from Windows PCs to Macs not because of hardware issues but because they’ve had too many experiences where the Windows slows down and gets funky. I’d love to see Dell put more focus into raising the profile of its non-Windows PC and desktop alternatives.
  • Offer a turnkey social media service for SMBs. Dell really gets social media, and in my opinion, is ahead of the field in understanding how to use it effectively. It would be great if Dell created a streamlined, turnkey offering to help SMBs use, monitor and manage social media. As we learned in the SMB Group’s 2011 SMB Social Business Study, and as highlighted in this post, Is There a Method to Social Media Madness, only about a quarter of SMBs are using social media in a strategic way, and few are using tools to manage and ensure that they’re getting return on their social media investments.
  • Solve the SMB dilemma of having to buy and pay for multiple mobile service contracts for different devices. How about using a little muscle with AT&T (Dell also needs to offer its mobile devices through Verizon) to enable–instead of prohibiting–SMBs to tether their notebooks with their smartphones (instead of banning this) via a bundled service package. The SMB Group’s 2010 SMB Mobile Solutions Study showed that expensive data plans for mobile services are the biggest inhibitor to SMBs adopting mobile solutions, as discussed here.

Dell’s commitment to the SMB market is coming through loud and clear. If it can stay focused and be bold, it has the opportunity to do some big things for SMBs that should really pay off for both Dell and for its SMB customers.

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