Dell's Boston Think Tank session

How do disruptive innovators think? Like Thomas Edison with his life-changing ideas, including the“The Invention Factory” bringing innovations into reality. There’s Jeff Bezos at, Niklas Zennström at Skype, and Michael Dell at Dell, to name a few.

What makes business innovators different from other leaders?

First of all, they’re known as disruptive innovators. They are creators of big ideas that spawn unique products, services, processes, or business models that have replaced or outsold existing ones.

To dive deeper into the thought process of disruptive innovators in business, pick up a copy of “The Innovators DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators,” by authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen.

The Innovators DNA is the prodigy of an eight-year study of over 500 innovators and 5000 executives in more than 75 countries. The findings reveal how disruptive innovative entrepreneurs and executives think as they discover unique ideas that outperform everyone else.

5 Similar Innovators Behaviors

The authors uncovered five similar behaviors that guide innovators to think differently. And in the end, they help produce powerful competitive advantages and enormous wealth.

They are:

  1.  Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Networking
  5. Experimenting

What makes this even more interesting is the way the innovators uniquely combined each of these skills to make up their own innovator’s DNA. For instance, one of their studies revealed that Dell is more likely to innovate using the skills of networking and experimenting at higher levels than the other three.

They also discovered these leaders build teams by surrounding themselves with innovative people who have a variety of strengths. Then they create processes to mirror their own behaviors. Their teams use these processes to spark their own creative muscle.

Last, they develop a philosophy that inspires their people to stand tall and think in new ways. This sets the tone and establishes the beliefs of the company and the culture.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is this. You don’t have to be Jeff Bezos, Niklas Zennström or Michael Dell to innovate and create new ways of doing things better. You just have to understand and use their behaviors and discovery skills to become better at it. Learn from them and take bold action.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to experience these innovative behaviors and skills at the Cambridge Innovation Center in Boston. I attended Dell’s Boston Think Tank for Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses as part of their innovation process.

The Mission Behind the Think Tank

Before I share some key takeaways from the Think Tank, I’d like to give you a brief background on what the mission was at Dell.

The leadership at Dell believed in something bigger than technology. They believed that entrepreneurs and small business owners will lead the way to shift the global economy back on track. To move this vision forward, they created a Center for Entrepreneurs.

At the time, Ingrid Vanderveldt was the Entrepreneur in Residence with Dell. In an interview with Laura McCabe, co-founder at SMB Group, she explained that The Center was a one-stop-shop for entrepreneurs and small businesses at all stages. They wanted to provide an experience that engaged individuals to remove roadblocks, make connections, learn what they need to, and simply be successful.

Access to Capital, Technology, and Talent

The Think Tank was one process Dell created to make connections between their teams, entrepreneurs, founders, small business owners, startups, and local leaders. It was a way for them to build relationships, gather the insights they needed, and network, a big part of their innovator's DNA.

Boston was just one of nine cities included in the tour.

To start the event, Ingrid Vanderveldt shared results from a survey released by Dell. It was focused on local Boston startups and small businesses.

These three key areas were examined:

  1.  Access to capital.
  2. Access to technology.
  3.  Access to networks, talent, and expertise.

The outlook in Boston was optimistic, but the national and global economies were still a significant concern.

In the background, Kelvy Bird, co-founder of, masterfully illustrated a visualization for each of these three areas during the discussion to help with decision-making. See the graphic below. (Nice way to engage with the audience and repurpose all the valuable nuggets at a glance.)

An illustrated visualization drawing of the Think Tank on Small Business and Entrepreneurs at Dell in Boston

Dell Think Tank for Small Business and Entrepreneurs an Illustrated Visualization by Kelvy Bird, co-founder of

Next, Whitney Johnson, author of “Dare, Dream, Do,” discussed disruptive innovation. She explained it as a new technology, product, or method that disrupts an existing market leader and results in a positive outcome. She explained that being disruptive improves the odds of business success. Disruptors are the most flexible as they let their strategies emerge.

She introduced four different themes for the day presented by local, small business leaders.

The 4 themes were:

  1. Creating a Social Strategy: Chris Brogan
  2. Access to Capital: Amy Millman
  3. Access to Networks, Talent, and Expertise: Abbie Lundberg
  4. Access to Technology: Sharon Kan

There was an amazing amount of information to be shared, but I’m just going to touch on three of the sessions.

Creating a Social Strategy

An illustrated visualization drawing of the Think Tank on Small Business and Entrepreneurs at Dell in Boston

Creating a Social Media Strategy an Illustrated Visualization by Kelvy Bird, co-founder of

Chris Brogan, the New York Times Bestselling author of the “Impact Equation,” “Trust Agents” and “Google Plus for Business” took the stage. The big question on his mind was this.

How Can You Be Human at a Distance and Build Trust that Keeps People Coming Back?

Brogan explained that you can be human at a distance by creating content that your ideal buyers find useful and valuable. He suggested to start off with 3 channels and define a purpose for each one.

#1. Have a Homebase, or a Hub.

Create a place that you own to lead people to, like your website, blog, podcast, etc.

You don’t own your content on social media sites.
It’s borrowed space. Your account could be shut down in a snap. What content and followers you’ve built up could be gone just like that!

The purpose of your hub is conversion.

Pick one action you want your audience to take. For instance, receive a free eBook, get free weekly updates, or register for free audio training and receive monthly tips in our eNewsletter. The goal is to collect their email address to have permission to keep in touch.

Your hub is also the place they go to get valuable content and keep coming back for more.

#2. Pick One Social Media Site to Start.

Decide which platform is a good fit for your business and will get your message out. But be sure your target audience is there too. Focus on just one and do it well. Then move onto another.

The purpose of social is to consistently communicate with and listen
to your audience while your message brings people back to your hub. In the process, you build trust and become more human at a distance.

#3. Create an Email Platform.

Your email list means everything. Chris explains, "The most intimate way of communicating is your inbox."

The purpose is to keep in touch first with valuable information. Having a list gives you permission to nurture your audience, earn their trust, and their business in time.

His last piece of advice was to track your metrics for leads and sales through all three of these channels.

Next up was…

Access to Capital

Photo by Deb Monfette of Amy Millman and attendees at Dell's Boston Think Tank.

Photo by Deb Monfette of Amy Millman and attendees at Dell's Boston Think Tank.

Over a dozen of us gathered together in a roundtable session with Amy Millman, President of Springboad Enterprises. They have funded start-ups like Constant Contact andZipcar. She explained just what investors are looking for in a start-up and strongly advised to learn their language before approaching them.

Amy then went around the table, one by one, and repeatedly asked two questions:

  1.  “What makes your product or service unique?”
  2.  "Why you?"

In other words, getting people to invest in you is all about how you position yourself—your strengths, your confidence, and your expertise. You develop a method. Then, you create a fresh idea, product, or service using that method. Last, you put your name on it and package it effectively.

It’s something that no one can copy.

Someone mentioned Sam Horn. Horn is the author of “POP! Stand Out In Any Crowd.” The goal may not be new and others may be doing it. But the process on how to get there is unique.

Horn's Pop! Process takes your message and your Why and makes it Purposeful, Original, and Pithy. Not only is it a fun process, but it draws instant attention. Some of her techniques areThe Eureka Moment, Muse It or Lose It, and Half-and-Half. They’re original, intriguing, and no one can copy them.

In summary, Millman strongly urged to do your homework before you approach an investor. Understand what they are looking for, learn their language, fluently explain what makes you unique, and why they should invest on you.

The third takeaway was from the session…

Access to Technology 

Is Technology a Blessing or a Curse? The technology session was lead by Sharon Kan, Entrepreneur in Residence at Babson College and leader in developing innovative customer-centric products with four successful startup exits.

So, what does her day look like … with 3 offices, 4 email addresses … technology enables her to run her businesses with “a phone and a lap top. By ‘always being on’ with texting, mobile phones, and tablets, she’s concerned that technology takes over our lives.

An illustrated visualization drawing of the Think Tank on Small Business and Entrepreneurs at Dell in Boston on access to Technology

Access to Technology an Illustrated Visualization by Kelvy Bird, co-founder of

In addition to that, business owners are bombarded with new technologies to sort through and a plethora of information to absorb. It’s difficult to choose which ones will work and figure out how to implement them.

According to Dell’s survey:

65% consider access to effective technology solutions key
to growing successfully.

41% say their technology needs are becoming more complex making it tougher to choose the best solutions and implement them.

55% do it themselves. Only one in ten have a dedicated IT staff.

33% seek freelance technology help.

12% rely on outside technology companies like Dell, HP, or IBM.

Technology should be able to provide us with more effective ways to run businesses in a scalable way to accommodate growth.

Abbie Lundberg, Founder and President of Lundberg Media also lead discussions around challenges in accessing talent and expertise, networks, and growing revenues.

In Summary

Disruptive innovators think and behave differently as they discover new ideas that outperform everyone else.

At the Boston Think Tank, there was a tremendous exchange of information, tips and networking between the entrepreneurs and business owners. All in one day, a strong connection was made and Dell gained valuable insights into the challenges, recommendations, successes, and even wish lists. I’m sure the attendees were engaged to learn more about the Center for Entrepreneurs and what comes next.

Kelvy Bird's visual translation of the event was a creative way to capture the key points of the day.

Thanks to Dell, the Center for Entrepreneurs, and all the speakers and contributors for this engaging event.

An illustrated visualization drawing of the Think Tank on Small Business and Entrepreneurs at Dell in Boston

Summary of The Dell Think Tank in Boston an Illustrated Visualization by Kelvy Bird, co-founder of

What is your biggest challenge:
Being human at a distance, positioning your message, or feeling that technology is a curse and not a blessing?

All photos, graphics and video courtesy of Dell’s Official Flicker Page.

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