Five thousand, one hundred and twenty six prototypes and James Dyson’s bagless vacuum cleaner still wasn’t doing what he wanted it to. Day after day, sitting in a garden shed, fiddling with a machine that didn’t quite make the grade. For five years. Is there even a word for that level of persistence?
At the 5127th attempt, Dyson got it exactly right. Now, he’s one of Britain’s most celebrated inventors – and a billionaire. “Dyson exhibited the most tremendous tenacity,” says Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and Academic Director of the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “He was encouraged to stop on so many occasions but he doggedly stuck with the task.”
Dyson is a classic example of the tenet that failure begets success. Learn from your failures. See yourself as an experimenter and every experiment you do will be useful – even if it means shifting direction completely. What else does Dyson have to teach the rest of us?
We often like to imagine innovation is about a genius brainwave that turns into sudden commercial success. No such luck, says Dyson. “If only it was that simple. I never shrieked ‘Eureka!’ It took years of hard, dogged work. Endless experimentation and many mistakes had to be endured.”
Innovation, it turns out, is rarely a flash of brilliance. It involves logic as well as creativity; method as well as what can look a lot like madness to those who don’t share the creator’s vision. “The hard labour was vital to my innovation,” Dyson wrote in the Royal Academy of Engineers’ Ingenia magazine. “I can honestly say that I learnt something from each iteration (and not just new swear words).”
Dyson – who started out studying product design at the Royal College of Art, before switching to engineering – was able to bring a range of complementary skills to bear on the task. His background as an engineer was key to his later business success (much, much later, he would step aside from being CEO of the company to get back to the thing he likes best, inventing).
“It’s about being able to recognise the potential of a good idea and then translate this – through a rigorous and scientific approach – into a tangible object or a clever piece of machinery,” he wrote.
In the early 1970s, Dyson was already an inventor, just not a very successful one. He had reinvented the wheelbarrow’s wheel with his Ballbarrow, in 1974, but he didn’t get rich from it: he had assigned the patent to the company, and lost all rights to the design when he left. But along the way he had spotted the potential of cyclone technology and used it to deal with the dust in the Ballbarrow paint room.
The first bagless vacuum prototype that Dyson put together in his garden shed featured one cardboard cyclone tube that sucked up the dust. Another 2,497 prototypes later, he added a smaller cyclone inside it so the fluff would be separated out. With prototype 3,444 he substituted rolled brass for cardboard. Later he changed the material again, to polycarbonate plastic. And onwards he went.
Getting the machine right was only the start. Next, Dyson had to sell it. At this stage he had to overcome another series of setbacks – partial success in Japan, complete failure in the US, corrupt licensing deals. He ran out of money. His wife taught art to support the family, who never saw him. Dyson’s fortunes changed finally when he decided to take control of the whole process, including manufacturing the product.
In 1993, 14 years after Dyson had first ripped the bag off his old vacuum cleaner and started fiddling about with alternatives, he introduced the Dyson DC01 to the world. It became the best-selling vacuum cleaner ever, proving all doubters wrong; Dyson was able to pay off his mortgage, and then some. Last year he was able through his foundation to donate £12 million to Imperial College London to create the Dyson School of Design Engineering, where inventers like his younger self can go to refine and test their own prototypes.
The engineers at Dyson’s research and development operation in Malmesbury, UK, constantly test different ways of working, just as Dyson himself did with the CR01. And they fail every day. “Failure is the best medicine,” says Dyson. “As long as you learn something.”
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