The key to Sir James Dyson's success (despite 5,127 failures)

Sir James Dyson is the Jobs and Wozniak of home appliances, and despite getting off to a rocky start, his inventions have made Dyson a household name
By Thomas Shambler
Thu 08 Dec 2016 09:53 AM

How long did it take to develop your first product – the bag-less vacuum?

It all started in the late 1970’s. I bought a top-of-the-range vacuum cleaner, and was frustrated with how it instantly clogged and lost suction. My engineer’s instinct kicked in – I ripped open the bag and noticed a layer of dust inside clogging the pores, which is a fundamental flaw with vacuum technology, undetected and unchallenged for almost 100 years. I was determined to develop a better vacuum cleaner that worked properly.

During a chance visit to a local sawmill, I noticed how the sawdust was removed from the air by large industrial cyclones. So I took the vacuum apart and rigged it up with a cardboard cyclone. While it didn’t look great, it picked up more dust than the old bagged machine. 5,127 prototypes later and I had the first working vacuum cleaner with no bag.

What first attracted you to a product like a vacuum cleaner? You don't often see many engineers dreaming about improving household appliances…

My passion for inventing stems from frustration and a hunger to develop something that works better. Vacuum cleaners at the time were bulky and were inefficient, and I thought the first step towards making the machine better would be to get rid of the bag. Today, we have reached the stage of digital motor driven cord-free vacuum cleaners that are as powerful as main powered machines.  Our latest creation – the Dyson V8 Absolute is the evolution of all these years of innovating.

It took a while for the company to get going? Was there ever a point where you thought Dyson might not succeed?

Failure fuels invention. As an inventor you must be persistent and not be afraid to take risks. It took 5,127 prototypes and more than 15 years to develop the first vacuum cleaner. Every wrong prototype took me one step closer to success.

Having gone from developing your own prototypes – to building a sprawling multinational corporation – has Dyson changed over the years? How do you keep that spirit of invention/innovation alive over such a grand scale?

The spirit of innovation is still very much alive; and as the company has grown I can innovate on a much larger scale. We have committed to set aside £1.5bn to invest in future technology, and are currently working on four new technology portfolios. We also work with a lot of universities around the world to develop early stage technologies. Currently, we have a £5m investment in a join robotics lab with Imperial College London and an £8m investment in the Dyson Centre for Engineering Design at Cambridge University in the U.K. At the core of everything we are a technology company, always looking to push boundaries and solve problems.

I think most people describe 'good design' with something being pretty? A product that looks good. Do you agree?

A design is only beautiful when it really works. Take the Dyson V8 Absolute vacuum cleaner, one of the key innovations was taking the motor and placing it at the top of the machine, shifting the centre of gravity so people can easily lift the entire vacuum cleaner including the stick attachment with one hand and reach difficult places such as air ducts close to the ceiling. Good design is engineering that makes a task easier.

Dyson has invested heavily in robotics. How do you apply that technology at Dyson? You're not selling Dyson-brand robots…

Our investment in robotics has been primarily for our robotic vacuum cleaner. Since 2005, we have worked with Imperial College London to develop technology that helps robots see and understand the world around them. Most robotic cleaners do not see their environment, and consequently do not clean properly. Our unique 360° vision system lets these robotic vacuum cleaners see where they are, where they have been and where else they need to clean. This vision technology combined with our cyclone and high speed digital motor is the key to creating a high performing robotic vacuum.

Google is investing heavily in robotics, and it's claimed that by 2030 artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence. This seems to have given rise to two arguments, that increased AI will help humanity or that it will 'enslave' it. Which side are you on and why?

New technology should be embraced as long as it advances and supports what we do and what we aspire to do. AI is interesting and has many possible benefits, we shouldn’t be afraid to explore these possibilities.

Dyson is still a private company – which is quite unusual these days. Why decide not to take the company public?

Dyson is a family run company. I want to be able to control what we do, what we invest in and what to take risks on. Dyson will never be a public company.

The James Dyson awards are still going strong. Which have been your favourite winners?

This year, the UK winner, Will Broadway came up with a great invention. It is called Isobar and it is a system for maintaining a stable temperature control while transporting vaccines. Current vaccine programmes in developing countries do not meet the international standards for temperature safe vaccine distribution which leads to vaccine freezing and losing potency.

You seem to wear many hats at Dyson – you're equal parts designer, engineer and marketer. Is there a role you most prefer doing?

I am and always have been an engineer, and my official title at Dyson is Chief Engineer. My primary purpose is to innovate in the areas of design and engineering to improve things that we use in our day to day lives, make them easier to use and technologically advanced.

How do you deal with failure?

I embrace failure, it allows me to learn and progress.

What's your decision-making process?

I have strong instincts, but I also look to my team of esteemed engineers for guidance and advice.

If you were to explain your job to an eight-year-old in three sentences, what would you say?

I question everything and aim to make the products we use every day better.

Is there a person who has had an impact on you as a leader? Perhaps someone who was a mentor?

Jeremy Fry gave me my first break and instilled in me a love of engineering. One of my first inventions was the Sea Truck, a flat-hulled, high-speed watercraft, similar to a small landing craft, which I designed in the 1970s together with Jeremy Fry, my first employer at Rotork. The design of Sea Truck was part of my final year's project at the Royal College of Art.

What would you say to a new employee about the culture at Dyson?

We are a company built on bright ideas and the gumption to make things happen.

What's your greatest fear in business?

Being fearful of taking risks and making mistakes.

What's one productivity tip you wish everyone knew? If you were to give someone just starting out in business one piece of advice, what would it be?

Keep questioning the status quo and never think that you are an expert.

How do you manage such a large company and still find time for things like family?

It can be tough, you have to get the balance right. I’m fortunate to have a family business which my wife and children are involved in in one way or another.

How do you relax and switch off from the office?

I have always loved running, it is what I do when I need to clear my head.

Do you have any daily rituals that help prepare you for the day?

I start my day off with a cup of silvertip Jasmine tea.

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