James Dyson was born in England, one of three children. His father, Alec, died when he was nine. “Not having a father, particularly at that time, was very unusual. I felt different. I was on my own. I can’t quite explain it, but I think subconsciously I felt a need to prove myself… I’m certainly quite driven.”
At school he excelled in long distance running: “I was quite good at it, not because I was physically good, but because I had more determination. I learned determination from it.”
His first boss, Jeremy Fry, put him in charge of a company manufacturing a high-speed landing craft. At that stage in his career he had never designed a product and never sold anything. “He taught me that someone doesn’t have to grow into a job. If you allow them to make mistakes, they’ll learn extremely quickly. He also taught me to mistrust experience. He was far happier to have young people working around him who had freshness and an unsullied approach.”
Dyson famously went through 5,127 prototypes of his Dual Cyclone bag-less vacuum cleaner before settling on the model that would make him a billionaire. His company now also makes blade-less fans and energy-efficient hand dryers, and operates in 49 countries. “Air movement within a cyclone is highly complex. So you must make one change at a time and test it, and only by following that methodical process can you determine the best design. You produce tables of results, and then graphs from which you observe trends. It’s the failures that you learn from.”
In the late 1970s Dyson had the idea of using cyclonic separation to create a vacuum cleaner that would not lose suction as it picked up dirt. He became frustrated with his Hoover Junior’s diminishing performance: dust kept clogging the bag and so it lost suction.
While partly supported by his art teacher wife’s salary, and after five years and many prototypes, Dyson launched the ‘G-Force’ cleaner in 1983. However, no manufacturer or distributor would launch his product in the UK as it would disturb the valuable cleaner-bag market, so Dyson launched it in Japan through catalogue sales. Manufactured in bright pink, the G-Force had a selling price of £2,000 (British equivalent). He obtained his first U.S. patent on the idea in 1986 and it won the 1991 International Design Fair prize in Japan.
“We have an extraordinary number of testing regimes, mechanical and human. We have laboratories where we breed dust mites; we have a full-size house to vacuum. We test product to break them, to wear them out. If you drop something from an enormous height and it breaks, when you look at where it’s broken, you can often figure out how to stop it breaking, not by making it out of heavier, more expensive material but by making some tiny, clever structural design change.”
After failing to sell his invention to the major manufacturers, Dyson set up his own manufacturing company. “I just felt that if I gave it up and did something sensible, I’d always regret it.” The product now outsells those of some of the companies that rejected his idea and has become one of the most popular brands in the United Kingdom. In early 2005 it was reported that Dyson cleaners had become the market leaders in the United States by value (though not by number of units sold).
Dyson’s breakthrough in the UK market, more than 10 years after the initial idea, was through a TV advertising campaign that emphasized that, unlike most of its rivals, it did not require the continuing purchase of replacement bags. At that time, the UK market for disposable cleaner bags was £100 million. The slogan of ‘say goodbye to the bag’ proved more attractive to the buying public than a previous emphasis on the suction efficiency that its technology delivers. Ironically, the previous step change in domestic vacuum cleaner design had been the introduction of the disposable bag – users being prepared to pay extra for the convenience of dustless emptying.
Following his success the other major manufacturers began to market their own cyclonic vacuum cleaners. Dyson sued Hoover UK for patent infringement and won around $5 million in damages.
In 2005, Dyson added the wheel ball from his Ballbarrow concept (a wheelbarrow with a ball, instead of a wheel) into a vacuum cleaner, creating the Dyson Ball, claiming it to be more maneuverable. Throughout the history of the company Dyson has maintained a culture of creativity. “I think it’s entirely down to the way you react to things, what you say to people every day, your attitude, your body language, your enthusiasm for coming up with new things and not making compromises and not making decisions based on business reasons alone. That’s a culture that catches on by osmosis.”
The culture of creativity and understanding how and why the company is successful comes back to understanding the product. So much so, that all Dyson employees have to assemble a vacuum cleaner on their first day of work. “They might be nonexecutive directors, who are knights of the realm, but they still have to. It gives them confidence in the technology. They know what’s inside. And they keep the ones they build. It’s to emphasize that what we do is make products that people use.”
It goes further than just the first day of employment. The culture of people knowing what happens within the company is foundational to its success. “Everything is as open-plan as possible, including a lot of the labs, which is unusual in a research company. We’ve taken the view that everybody should know what’s going on everywhere, so they pick up things and are stimulated. And we encourage engineers and scientists to do their own tests, to build their own prototypes, because they learn so much more than they would if they had a technician doing it.”
As leaders, what can we learn from James Dyson?