Feb 24 2014, 7:17am CST | by Forbes
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.
(This is the fourth article in the Technology Influencers series. Past interviewees include Walt Mossberg, David Pogue, and Salman Khan. To read future interviews in the series with Yves Béhar, Jim Goodnight, and Tim Ferriss among others, please click the “Follow” link above.)
Peter High: Who were your inspirations 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.
High: An inventor is only as good as the team that he has around him. In the early days, how did you attract talent?
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!
High: Nothing creates influence like success. What was the source of your influence before you had a track record of a portfolio of successful products?
Dyson: There wasn’t any, to be honest. When I first introduced the bagless vacuum, I was laughed off by every vacuum and appliance company you could think of. Even when they were satisfied that the technology worked, they were more interested in defending the market for vacuum cleaner bags, which made more money than the vacuums themselves – the razorblade business model. It took one Japanese company to take a chance on me to prove to the industry this was an idea worth investing in.
High: 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?
Dyson: First, I don’t see them as mundane. Second, I think most engineers’ real passion is for solving problems. That’s what we do at Dyson – above all, we are problem solvers. With DC01, I solved the problem of bagged vacuum cleaners that quickly lose suction, but that was just the first step. There is always a way to make something work better, and that’s what keeps the 3,000 engineering minds at Dyson churning – constantly. Plus, you never really know what working on one problem may lead to – often it can become the solution to something completely different and very exciting. That’s part of the fun. Our Airblade hand dryer is a prime example, a failed application in one technology led to a fast and more effective hand drying solution.
High: 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?
Dyson: I encourage people to make mistakes. I like to put the graduates we hire in positions where they must make decisions early on. They don’t get everything right the first time, but people learn to think, rather than follow. It is far better to show interest and creativity from day one than to let yourself be trapped under the dead hand of corporatism.
High: Yours is a private company. As such, you do not need to report earnings on a quarterly basis or at all, for that matter. 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?
Dyson: It’s a great pleasure to run your own company. You can believe in what you do and do it dogmatically – even if the return takes years to materialise. I’ve never really worked in a proper corporate environment – I’ve preferred to make it up as I go along. Owning the company means I can think only about the products we make and not about pleasing shareholders. I traipsed around the globe trying to convince vacuum manufacturers to take on my idea. No one would have it. I was told people don’t want to see their dust in bins. So I went off on my own, and I’m very relieved I did! Now, we can take risks. Fail. And then try again. We can invest in young talent, new materials, and ideas that people laugh at. Like a cyclonic vacuum cleaner with a clear bin.
High: 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?
Dyson: To me, nothing beats the thrill of invention. Letting people go out and try their ideas, getting them totally involved, and unleashing new thinking. They’re not bound to any methodology – in fact, the stranger and riskier, the better. I think free-thinkers enjoy Dyson.
High: 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?
Dyson: Customer feedback is incredibly important; we keep our ears open across the world. I read all the product reviews – particularly the bad ones. But we go looking for problems too. I didn’t have the luxury of customer feedback for DC01 – only gut instinct. But I knew bags needed to go and that if the technology worked, people would buy it.
High: How much of your team is focused on producing derivatives to existing Dyson products versus those who are focused on research & development and true new innovation?
Dyson: At Dyson it’s not as clear cut as that. If we can make something that already exists even better, we always will. And we have large, dedicated teams working on upgrades to our current machines. But we also invest in new technologies, even when we aren’t sure of their application yet. Sometimes you might see a bit of technology working in one application and wonder whether that might solve a problem in another. That’s exactly how our Airblade technology was born. Dyson engineers were exploring new ways to use our digital motor with an air knife – forcing high speed air through miniscule apertures. It wasn’t working. But then one day, someone’s hands happened to be wet and the air knife dried them brilliantly.
High: What mix of skills do you look for on your team, and how have they changed as the years have passed, if at all?
Dyson: The most important qualities to me were, and still are, a willingness to try new things, acceptance of failure when it comes, and perseverance to keep trying. The only thing that’s changed a bit is finding the right balance of people that meet those qualities. When I started Dyson, we were a very young company in more than the sense of how long we’d been around. I think the average age was something like 25. Now, we’ve been going for over 20 years and we may have added a year or two to that. I have a few seasoned Dyson veterans who do a very good job of guiding new recruits and channeling ideas and unabashed exuberance into tangible products. I value that kind of experience and wisdom. Equally, recent graduates bring the important advantage of “traveling light” – they carry no baggage of experience which can inhibit one’s willingness to challenge convention.
High: How do you spend your day now that you have a company with thousands of employees versus when you were a start up with a few dozen people?
Dyson: Things haven’t changed all that much. I have always preferred engineering to ‘business’, and I’ve always spent time with the engineers every day, reviewing progress, trying out prototypes of new ideas. And I still do. There’s just a lot more people to do it with now.
High: You’ve spoken about the “disease” which is your obsession with problems that you cannot get out of your head until you have solved them. What problem or problems are you working on now?
Dyson: There would be too many to relate, even if my IP lawyers would let me! But there are some overarching problems that we try to crack in everything; for example figuring out how to do more with less. A big part of that has to do with the materials we use. Years ago, plastics transformed manufacturing, and now everyone is trying to figure out the next big thing. For instance, we’re partnering with leading British universities to research new composite materials. There are unimaginable numbers of possible applications, vacuums being just one of them of course. But I can’t give away too much about that!
High: Do you have a succession plan for the day (many years from now presumably) when you retire?
Dyson: Well, I’m not planning on going anywhere just yet, but my hope would be that Dyson stays in the family rather than being governed by shareholders. I want us to be able to continue to take as many risks as we like for years to come.
Peter High is the President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.
Source: Forbes Business
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