Innovator Sir James Dyson Turns Everyday Products Into Gold
Sir James Dyson is a modern day Edison. In a world where products are typically released to the public as quickly as possible, Dyson and his team work through hundreds and sometimes even thousands of prototypes of a product before the public sees them. With an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion, Dyson has the wherewithal to operate in such a manner, but I was curious how he developed his methods, and how he influenced his teams before he was considered perhaps the UK’s greatest living innovator.
Despite his vast wealth and resources, that was not the measuring stick that he used in the early days of his career. Instead, he had an obsession to make elegant and easy-to-use products that people wanted to use on a daily basis. As he has explained it, if you look at the design of a ski, you will see the passion of the person who created it. They designed it to use themselves. The same care and passion has not traditionally been put into products like the vacuum cleaner, however. Who has a passion for vacuuming, especially when it is a loud messy process? Dyson was frustrated by these factors when he created a better vacuum cleaner. In the process, Dyson has influenced others who have chosen to innovate in categories of products that had long been thought of as difficult to improve upon. He has also unintentionally spawned a number of imitators along the way. Through it all, Dyson has remained singular in his focus on perfection, realizing that business success would follow. In the process his influence has been felt much further than he might have thought early in his career.
Peter High: Who inspired you to become an inventor and an entrepreneur?
Sir James Dyson: It all happened rather late… I studied classics at school, but I had a love of painting on the side. It was only at London’s Royal College of Art that I stumbled across engineering, accidentally attending a lecture on architecture and structural engineering. After graduating, I was hired by my first mentor, Jeremy Fry. Under him, I worked on a high speed landing craft – the Seatruck. Starting with a plank of wood as a hull, I had to turn the concept into an actual working boat. It wasn’t easy! But Jeremy taught me an Edisonian approach to design: making prototype after prototype until I got it just right.
Peter High: An inventor is only as good as the team that he has around him. In the early days, how did you attract talent?
Sir James Dyson: At the beginning, it’s safe to say I didn’t have a plan. I just tried to get clever people to join me by being belligerent; believing in my idea so strongly that I convinced others to do so too (they were penniless engineering graduates, so perhaps it wasn’t too hard!). I started out in a coach house at the end of the garden with a handful of engineers. Now we have 3,000 so I must be doing something right!
Additional topics covered in the article include:
- Nothing creates influence like success. What was the source of your influence before you had a track record of a portfolio of successful products?
- You have contrasted products like skis or surfboards, which are made by people who are passionate for them with products like wheel barrows, vacuums, and hand dryers, which have historically been made by people who are not passionate for them. How do you develop a passion in your employees for seemingly mundane items like the vacuum cleaner?
- You have spoken about the necessity of trial and error, and how the “failure” of a number of ideas led to breakthroughs in unexpected places. I have read that you made 5,127 prototypes for your Dyson vacuum cleaner before you got it right. How do you create a culture that is conducive to such tinkering and accepting of failure?
- Yours is a private company. As such, you do not need to report earnings on a quarterly basis or at all. As such, you do not have to worry about natural ebbs and flows of business cycles. Do you believe that public companies are naturally less well-structured for innovation?
- Many companies attract talent with options, providing a promise of a financial event. How do you motivate your team given the fact that this is not an incentive you intend to provide?
- You do not market your products heavily, instead hoping to have your initial customers be the marketing department on your behalf. How do you involve customers, if at all, during product development?