Putting Your Customer To Work For You—Literally

What better way to get acquainted with your customers than to hire them? Inside Ingrid Vanderveldt's job as Dell's entrepreneur-in-residence.

Dell’s history is a textbook success story. The dorm-room startup’s founder, Michael Dell, took his company public just four years after launch at age 23, then wrested back control, taking the company private again in 2013. In looking at the company’s efforts to be the technology provider of choice for the startup community, it would be easy to point to that founder DNA—an entrepreneurial company that has a love of entrepreneurial companies.

But this is business. And growing companies make big technology spends. However, while some companies ignore the very basic B-school advice about knowing your customers, Dell has been smart about how it has connected to, learned about, and targeted this community, identifying needs and then providing solutions.

An Entrepreneur for Entrepreneurs

As part of this effort, the company appointed serial entrepreneur and former CNBC host Ingrid Vanderveldt in August 2011 as its first entrepreneur in residence (EIR). Vanderveldt connected with the company through the Dell Entrepreneurial Woman Network and was brought on as the EIR shortly thereafter. Her role includes assessing new business and technology solutions for small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) and being an advocate on policy issues for entrepreneurs at the federal and state levels, as well as facilitating communication vehicles between Dell and its entrepreneurial audience.

Vanderveldt herself knows the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. After selling two small companies when she was in her 20s, she jumped into a venture that she was “extremely passionate about.” The company became a money pit, taking all of her capital until it failed, leaving her broke and homeless, she says.

“From that experience, I learned the importance of setting up a financial plan and being the architect of building a business. When you get knocked down and find yourself against a wall, it is very humbling. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t alone and had an incredible support network that helped me move past this failure and get back on my feet,” she says.

Since becoming Dell’s EIR, Vanderveldt has spent “about 90% of her time on the road,” meeting with business owners and identifying their needs. A big part of the company’s strategy is to form relationships with entrepreneurs early on and support them as they grow.

She has spearheaded development of the Center for Entrepreneurs website and community, which includes information and events for business owners, as well as a robust social media presence. She travels around the world meeting with entrepreneurs and attending events to get a better sense of their technology needs.

Spread the Word

From there, she filters information back to her 16-member team, each of whom work in different areas of the company, on a weekly basis. The team was designed to act as an “overlay,” she says, with members from across the company ensuring that critical information from the effort gets to where it needs to go.

She says analyzing the feedback and ideas she gets from business owners requires a mixture of intuition and experience, which allows her to prioritize information into categories that need immediate attention, such as an emerging need or ripe new market versus ideas that might be important to consider for the future.

This information has done exactly what it was intended to do: helped launch some important new business initiatives for Dell. The Dell Innovators Credit Fund, a $150 million financing fund that provides financial and technology resources to venture capital and angel investor-backed startups was begun in June 2012.

In December 2013, the company’s longtime investment arm, announced a new $300 million fund that will provide funding to mobile, cloud, security, and other startups.

From the beginning, Vanderveldt wanted to give entrepreneurs a number of ways to interact with Dell, in addition to traveling all over the world meeting with them. One of the most important realizations was that the more she got to know them, the more she heard similar refrains.

“One of the most eye-opening things is that entrepreneurs worldwide have the same needs. Of course, in developing countries, they need access to basic resources. But in developed countries, their needs are similar, regardless of where they are,” she says.

That’s the kind of information you don’t get with a simple survey or a focus group. By immersing herself in the world of entrepreneurs, the initiative she’s heading helps Dell create products and services that can help people around the world, she says.

[Photo courtesy of Dell Inc.]

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