Date posted: 01/12/2016 8 min read

James Dyson discusses his innovative career

James Dyson on the power of perseverance, innovation, and protecting intellectual capital

In brief

  • In four decades Dyson has built one of the world’s leading technology brands
  • Protect your ideas with patents – Dyson has had many legal battles fighting for what’s his
  • Invest – a 50 per cent failure rate is to be expected and Dyson pours 30 per cent of profits into R&D

Photography by Hubert Fanthomme

When James Dyson’s vacuum cleaner failed to clean his floor, he invented an entirely new class of vacuum cleaner… and a multinational business empire.

“It all started with a frustration, a bagged vacuum that wouldn’t suck, and wanting to find a solution,” says Sir James Dyson.

Indeed, simple frustration with a substandard product has been the inspiration for all of the Dyson products that have disrupted the appliance industry and revolutionised the way we do everything from drying our hands to heating and cooling our homes.

In 1979, Dyson bought what was at the time the most advanced vacuum cleaner on the market — yet almost immediately, it began to do an inadequate job of picking up dirt because it had lost suction.

Thinking the bag must be full, he took it out and emptied it. But there was no improvement.

Intrigued to know what was going on, he took the bag out again but this time so he could tear it open. The problem was obvious: dust was clogging its pores.

The most advanced vacuum cleaner on the market it may have been, but the way it worked was essentially no different to any vacuum cleaner in the previous 100 years. Dyson thought it was time for a change.

The “eureka” moment came when he visited a nearby sawmill that used industrial cyclone towers to filter sawdust out of the air. He went home, dismantled his vacuum cleaner and attached a miniature cyclone tower he had fashioned out of cardboard — voila, the first bagless vacuum cleaner.

When it did a better job of cleaning the floor than before, Dyson knew he was onto something.

“When you’ve got something that works better than anything else, you want people to take notice. Sometimes that means taking a risk. Going it alone and being prepared for a hard slog against the naysayers. But it pays off.

“When people see a new idea that helps improve their lives, they tend to be willing to invest in it. There are those who are copycats and those who truly create something new. I know which camp I’d rather be in,” says Dyson.

Dyson remains driven by a combination of dissatisfaction with the status quo and curiosity about how things work.

“I still find frustrations lurking around every corner,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop questioning, dismantling things and looking for ways to improve technology.”

This impetus has led Dyson, over the past four decades, to build one of the world’s leading technology brands. The hallmark of his products is their combination of elegant design and engineering brilliance — think of his fan that circulates air despite having no visible blades, another product that sprung from Dyson’s annoyance with the accepted way of doing things.

“I’ve always been disappointed by fans. Their spinning blades chop up the airflow, causing annoying buffeting. They’re hard to clean. And children always want to poke their fingers through the grille. More chopping.”

There are those who are copycats and those who truly create something new. I know which camp I’d rather be in.

Learning the value of perseverance and risk

Dyson’s upbringing in rural England, among a family of clergy and academics, was an unlikely beginning for someone who would go on to be knighted and the UK’s 10th richest man, with a personal wealth of US$5b according to Forbes magazine.

“At school I opted for arts, put off by all the formulae in science. There was nothing like D&T [Design and Technology] on offer,” Dyson says.

“In the fortnight following my last day at school, I resolved to become an estate agent, then a painter, a surgeon, an actor, and an artist again. I stumbled across engineering only by accident and was immediately decided on what I wanted to do: make things that work better.”

Dyson attended the Byam Shaw Art School in London, and then studied furniture design and industrial design at the Royal College of Art. His father died when Dyson was a boy, and his mother was getting by on a small pension.

Lacking cash, the young student got a job at an engineering firm, Rotork. There he was mentored by boss Jeremy Fry, who taught him seminal lessons about taking risks. Dyson believes that in business a 50 per cent failure rate is to be expected and that what Fry taught him was to recognise when he had taken a misstep and then fix it, rather than worrying beforehand if he was taking the right step.

At Rotork, he worked with Fry to develop the Sea Truck, a high-speed flat-bottomed boat. Fry encouraged him to be persistent with his ideas, making prototype after prototype until he finally succeeded. The experience stood him in good stead when he set out to design his radical new vacuum cleaner.

“It was five years and 5,127 prototypes before I’d perfected my dual cyclone,” recalls Dyson.

“I took it to everyone I knew who I thought might be willing to give it a go. But all the vacuum cleaner manufacturers viewed it as a threat to their existing products. It was only after I licensed the technology to a Japanese manufacturer that I had the capital to start Dyson.

“The company grew fast. But I stayed firm in my belief that hiring new graduate design engineers could lead to wonderful ideas, that we remained focused on perfecting the product and not our marketing, and lastly that through clever engineering we could make exciting things people wanted to buy.”

It was five years and 5,127 prototypes before I’d perfected my dual cyclone.

Protecting intellectual capital

The dogged inventor is famous for encouraging people to “learn from the failures as much as the successes,” so he doesn’t consider the endless prototyping and knock-backs in the early days as disappointments.

For him, the only disappointments have come when other companies have copied his innovative technology.

“When people steal my ideas, it’s heartbreaking. You invest all this time and effort and someone rips you off. It’s infuriating,” he says.

“Protect your ideas with patents. They are an inventor’s body armour. The Dyson legal team has fought many uphill battles against giants such as Samsung, Hoover and Bosch to name just a few. Even though Dyson is now an international technology company, I still like to see myself as a plucky underdog taking on the big guys.”

The Dyson company has sued Samsung twice for patent infringement, succeeding in 2009 but dropping the second case in 2014. Hoover paid Dyson £4 million damages for patent infringement in 2002. And the industry was rocked in 2012 by allegations that rival Bosch had a mole at Dyson who stole information about the digital motors that power some of the company’s products. It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that Dyson’s global headquarters are hidden away in a top-secret compound at Malmesbury, in the English countryside, with all entrances and exits secured with thumb scanners.

Investing in new technologies

Despite the challenges Dyson continues to invest heavily in the future of his company. In late 2014, the British technology company earmarked £1.5b for the development of new technologies.

The company has an ambitious aim: to launch 100 new products globally in the next four years.

“Our growth is fuelled by technology and we are thinking long term,” says Dyson. “We must relentlessly invent.”

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.

The world according to James Dyson

  • Sir James Dyson's top four product designs

    Here are the technologies that rate highest in innovation and creativity according to the modern era’s Edison:

    • Apple products. “Brilliant design and easy to use.”
    • Jet engine. “A truly world-changing invention that is a marvellous piece of engineering.”
    • Harrier Jump Jet. “Vertical take off and landing gave it immense versatility as a fighter jet. I loved it so much I bought one for the engineers and parked it in our Malmesbury car park.”
    • The Dyson digital motor. “Sixteen years of hard slog by Dyson engineers have created what is possibly the world’s most efficient and power-dense digital motor.”
  • Sir James Dyson's tips for businesses
    • Keep inventing. If you don’t, someone else will, and will overtake you.
    • Trust in youth. Young people are fearless in their approach and persevere to the end with their ideas.
    • Invest in R&D. Dyson invests 30 per cent of profits back into R&D because new ideas mean new products.