Some years back on a Comdef trip - you know, those bashes aboard a liner where dealers chew the cud - I found myself sitting opposite a guy who didn't seem to know anyone. Not only that, but he didn't appear to have much understanding of the PC trade.
Why was he there? Quite simply, he'd come up with the idea of providing hi-tech offices for companies, most of them in the IT business, which were in a rush and didn't have either the time or the inclination to rewire buildings themselves.
So instead, Mark Dixon - as he introduced himself - would find convenient locations, perhaps close to airports or railway stations, and then put in ISDN, modem ports, switchboards and so on, and rent out the offices short-term. When Toshiba wanted to test the market in Brussels, it just got in touch and Mark's company Regus fixed it up in a jiffy. All Toshiba's laptop-hugging salesman had to do was jet in and plug in. Desk, fax, photocopier or even secretarial help, it was all there for the asking.
Perhaps even more interesting was that before setting up Regus, Mark kicked off his career selling burgers and hotdogs from vans. Once he'd expanded his empire into making bread buns, he flogged off the business for a tidy profit and moved into hi-tech office provision, having spotted a potentially better opportunity there.
Now I hear Mark is poised to float the company on the stock market - a move which could increase Regus' value to £1 billion. And Mark is still only 37. Moreover, he also still owns 82.5 per cent of the company and apparently has no intention of reducing his shareholding.
Instead, he hopes to use City funds to further accelerate the expansion of Regus - a company which since it was set up a decade ago has doubled its size every year in terms of staff and revenue. By the end of 1999, Mark also hopes to have 400 locations open globally.
For someone who not so long ago was selling burgers from a van, you have to admit it's pretty impressive. By comparison, a lot of other delegates who were aboard the cruise ship that year have long since disappeared overboard, drowned in the cruel seas of PC competition.
The moral, if there is one, is to be adaptable and not to opt for the obvious business model, especially in the computer business and even more so if everyone else is heading in that direction. In the same way that many hardware manufacturers have repositioned themselves as service companies, so too are dealers rushing headlong into becoming integrators, Vars and consultants in a market that soon promises to be similarly overcrowded.
Yet to survive, what dealers need is the ability to think more laterally, making the same quantum leap as Mark did from burgers to hi-tech offices.
Just find a way of making a new shave off an old pole - perhaps by providing service to the new legion of IT service firms - and you, too, could be on to a winner.
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