From the 32nd Floor: College projects sometimes become more than a grade

Innovation: it seems innovation always stems from disgruntled workers or students unhappy with the system.

Innovation turns people into millionaires, and some of today's greatest innovators were college students with something to prove.

Michael Dell officially started Dell Computers in 1984, but his brainchild started long before Dell Computers went public. Dell's parents were both business people, and the family dinner discussions were business-based. In high school, Dell discovered what would later drive his $31 billion company - cut out the middleman and make customers happy.

During his freshman year of college, Dell bought computer parts and custom built PCs for friends from his University of Texas dorm room. He quit school to officially open his business by selling kits for hard drive upgrades.

Dell recognized faults within computer distribution and he changed it. Dell Computers cut overhead costs by bypassing the middleman, making personal computers cost efficient for consumers. He restored faith in the Internet by using it to collect consumer data and push Internet shopping.

FedEx is another company birthed in college that grew to billions of dollars in revenues. Fred Smith's college term paper turned into a $19.6 billion company.

While enrolled at Yale, Smith wrote an economic paper saying, "When you automate a human function, either that device has to work all the time or you have to be able to fix it rapidly."

He argued that the expansion of business made post offices too slow, and that companies need an alternative that was a "faster, more dependable, and more far-reaching kind of delivery system."

The paper was put on a shelf when Smith was sent to Vietnam. In Vietnam he was platoon leader and pilot. He claims his military training and leadership helped him in business because it taught him not to be intimidated.

Today FedEx is the mother company that has lasted over 30 years and has seven companies under the brand name.

What does Fred Smith and Michael Dell have in common? They are innovators. They look. They think. They plan.

Some companies have looked and planed, but forgot to think. Take R.J. Reynolds, a tobacco company, for an example. The company spent a small fortune trying to sell smokeless cigarettes. Smokeless cigarettes have no appeal to smokers, and us non-smokers don't buy cigarettes. So whom exactly was the company going to influence to buy?

Innovations don't always work, but true innovators keep working until one does. Milton Hershey, the founder of Hershey Chocolate Company, had four businesses fail before his Lancaster Caramel Company became successful.

Four failures may be a bit excessive, but there's a lesson to be learned there.

"We screwed up all kinds of things," said Dell. "But there was so much inherent value in what we were doing that it masked all the mistakes that we made. Still, we didn't make a lot of the same mistakes over and over again. We learned from the mistakes and figured out how we could progress." (www.dell.com)

Write to Liz at eabaker@bsu.edu


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