Curve Editor Belinda Stening finds out what makes James Dyson tick.

What has been the single driving force that has kept you going? What were your toughest times?

I used to be a long-distance runner, I still run three days a week, and through this I discovered that many people give up too soon. Once you cross the pain barrier your run becomes much easier, and the same can be said for life.

When you face adversity people expect you to give up at a certain point, usually when they think they have you beat; but if you can go beyond that point and break the ‘pain-barrier’ as it were, it all starts to become easier.

I think the best example of this is when a large American multinational corporation thought they could use their weight to sell their version of my technology and I, a sole inventor in the UK who had invested all my money and many years in the research and development of my invention, could do nothing about it.

They were almost right; it took me several years and put huge strain on my health and my family, not to mention my bank account that headed south very quickly. But I persevered, and virtually a pauper, traversed the barrier to see them settling the case out of court and me launching Dyson to the world.

Additionally, I get a huge amount from, and thoroughly enjoy, the process of inventing itself. I find each failure is a lesson learned, which opens up new opportunities. While others may view this as tough or disheartening, I find it exciting and enthralling.

Could you explain the origins of the initial idea for the Dyson Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner?

It came to me whilst vacuuming. I couldn’t believe my cleaner, a Hoover, did not perform effectively as it kept losing suction and would not pick up the dirt on my floor. I was so disillusioned I decided to pull it apart, that’s when I realised the system was flawed.

When dirt fills a bag in a vacuum cleaner it is not in a systematic manner, rather the dirt goes to the pores that are in the bag, so the bag does not really fill at all, yet the vacuum’s performance suffers.

Several years earlier I had created a Cyclone duct system for the powder-coating plant for my Ballbarrow – another invention; its purpose was to keep the room clean and capture powder residue. I believed if that system could work in an industrial environment, it could be refined to create a domestic vacuum cleaner that would maintain suction and clean properly, unlike conventional systems.

What has been the most effective way you have found to fight or resist criticism over the years?

Simply ignore it. If you are passionate about what you are doing and believe you have something significantly better than what is currently available you are naturally in front.

When I first tried to licence my Dual CycloneTM Technology the large appliance companies knocked me back, but not one of them said it would not work. 

Once I did launch my own company using my technology many ridiculed me and said Dyson was a ’flash in the pan’ and would not last. Now in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries, we are market leaders and products imitating our look are rife.

The only feedback we do listen to is that from our customers. We get a lot of letters and calls about our products and we take all of them seriously. In the UK 90% of our sales come from word of mouth recommendations, so we trust our customers when they give us feedback.

There are many Australian entrepreneurs and manufacturers who are inspired by you. How important do you think it is to promote the ‘man behind the product’, and how will you maintain this over the years?

Like all business owners I probably spend too many hours a day thinking about what my company is doing and can be doing, so I think it is difficult to separate the two.

Having said that, the company is much more than me, it is everyone that works with me around the world. From the R&D teams of design engineers and scientists, that number over 350 nowadays, to the teams in Australia, New Zealand and other countries. I would like to believe they are with me because they share similar passions.

It may seem strange to become passionate about vacuum cleaners, but I think it is easy to get passionate about bringing new and better technologies to the world; and it’s even better that such technologies relate to everyday appliances.

What is unusual about Dyson, at least in England (and Australia), is that it is run by an engineer, and not a MBA graduate. When I was trying to get investment money in the beginning, investors were very concerned that I was not a ‘business-man’, however I believe that no one can make and sell products better than the person who designed them. Only people intrinsically involved with the process from the beginning have the necessary enthusiasm.

We don’t see ourselves as promoting the ‘man behind the company’, but rather I take the same responsibility I always have for ensuring that I am getting out there and talking to my customers, meeting the people who buy and use my products. 

So my advice to would-be inventors is to just get out there and do it – start talking to your potential customers, ignore the ‘money’ men and drive your own success.

With regards to maintaining this over the years, I have no plans at present to retire and am just as excited about the company as I was ten years ago. The engineers and I are heavily involved in many new projects, so I am only looking forward to the future.

How do you manage your employees so that they embrace your vision?

We tend to employ young staff who are enthusiastic and not stung with that suffocating belief that they cannot do something ‘because it is not how I used to do it in my old job’.

By allowing people the freedom to contribute and by rewarding it, we are nurturing and capitalising on some of humankind’s greatest resources – passion, innovation and creativity.

I believe a lot of my best ideas have come from doing things the wrong way and I am happy to foster and support similar outcomes with others. This freedom and encouragement seems to work for us.

What do you think have been the biggest personal sacrifices you have had to make in order to be a success?

Perhaps the hardest thing for a designer is to limit himself or herself to a few projects. I have just finished designing an exhibition for the Chelsea Flower Show and I am always renovating my house and garden. However, in contrast, I love the evolution and development of products within Dyson. 

How long did it take British consumers to ‘embrace’ the Dyson vacuum cleaner? Was it a tough market to break into? 

I launched my first Dual Cyclonetm vacuum cleaner, the DCO1, in the UK in May 1993, at the time it was over twice the average price for a vacuum cleaner.  Within 18 months it had become the best selling vacuum cleaner in the country.

Just as importantly, close to 70% of our international sales are now on products we invented in the last two years. This shows that profits are made from innovation, not advertising old technology.

If you are selling something that is so obviously better than the conventional technology it replaces it will be taken up quickly. Australia and New Zealand are no different; within three years we were market leaders there too, as we are in Western Europe.

Did the British government assist you in any way? Did you seek assistance?

When I started out there was very little support for people such as myself – an engineer and manufacturer who wanted to create new technology. I tried to get money from investors and Government grants, but was turned down by them all. Even now, we do not offer enough support – compared to the US, Britain offers little in the way of tax relief for R&D spending.

No. There is very little support for designers who believe as I do, that they are the best people to manufacture, sell and market their products. Many people have the view that a design engineer should do just that – design and engineer and not be a business person. 

Hopefully though, things are changing for the future. I am working with various Government Ministries on policies to do with innovation, manufacturing and education in the UK; from this I hope that better support will be forthcoming for people with innovative ideas wanting to start their own enterprises.

We have recently launched 120% tax relief on R&D spending. I would also like to see the loosening of planning legislation and rewarding those people who have proven their success, rather than offering grants to those that are currently in vogue – such as Internet companies.

Has the British Design Council been a major supporter of your work and efforts? If so, how?

The Council is an important organisation for British companies wanting to get international exposure. They have featured Dyson products, including the DCO6 prototype in their global exhibitions such as Great Expectations – which is touring Australia throughout 2003. This is an important way for us to showcase technology. 

You have mentioned a change in design courses on offer, noting the shift from industrial design courses in the UK to ‘Product Design Engineering’ courses. This is only just starting to happen in Australia. Why do you think this shift has occurred? 

There are too many courses around (often industrial design courses) that look at the superficial aspects of design. Instead of creating new concepts and making things that actually work, students are focusing on how a product looks. For example, taking GPRS technology and repackaging it in a new style. 

Where the students are creating new technology, they are still concepts that don’t solve a problem – more of a ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ type of project, rather than something anyone needs. 

Product design courses focus on the specific issues surrounding product design – ergonomics, high end technology, good aesthetics, etc – with the aim of creating a truly new product that works well and solves problems.

I don’t think industrial design lacks credibility, it is just that it is different. Styling may be important for products that are not about better technology or performance, but we are looking for design engineers.

Many of your global competitors are very aggressive about defending market share, and threatened by your existence. How have they tried to undermine your presence in the market? 

Unfortunately there have not really been any interesting ways when it comes to product development. They just release products that imitate our look without themselves investing in true R&D to develop new forms of technology to make products work better. 

So they may get a little bit of share from imitation, but most retailers know the difference and warn customers off such products, because they don’t want them back in the store complaining about their purchase at a later date.

With regards to marketing tricks, a group of suppliers in Belgium banded together to achieve a legal ruling that would not let me advertise the fact that Dyson did not have bags or lose suction – two key points distinct to us. So I published an advert blanking out the words we could not use and suggesting that customers go into store to find out more information – it worked a treat.  

Would it be true to say that Dyson is a technology driven company and your competitors are marketing driven? 

Definitely. In the last decade we have invested over (AUSD) $480 million into R&D and spent about 3.4 million labour hours ensuring that we are constantly improving our products and developing new technology.

As a result of this dedication to innovation, I have applied for more than 1100 patents in respect of 175 inventions. Some of the most recent of these relate to our Radix CycloneTM technology, a revolutionary system achieving even higher constant suction, increased dust separation and better pick up performance to collect and retain even more dirt and allergens from the home. This technology was launched in 2002.

During 2002 six so called bagless vacuum cleaners entered the Australian market for the first time, they all came with great claims and pomp; but unlike Dyson every one of them lost suction like conventional bagged systems, some lost up to 70% of suction after just one use.

How do you think the Dyson vacuum cleaner became the number one choice in Australia and when did you partner with Asthma Australia? 

It took about three years to become market leader in Australia, and we continue to grow. Australians are tough customers, but they are also great adopters of innovation and technology and have taken on Dyson with abandon.  

In conjunction with its commercial objectives, I have asked the CEO’s of Dyson in each country to seek out and support organisations that have similar beliefs in the importance of communication, research and education, whilst striving to achieve significant improvements in quality of life. From this philosophy we started working with Asthma Australia about five years ago.

Similar to our attitude towards design and technology, we don’t hold traditional views on social commitments. We believe in investing in the long term, avoiding the conventional approach of throwing large sums of money at something in the hope of achieving instant – short lived – gratification that goes nowhere to solving the real problem.

You must have a large budget set aside for patents and legal protection of all kinds. It is obviously a necessary evil. Does this eat in to a large percentage of your funds? 

Over the years I have learned the hard way, just how important patents are; but I still believe that patent rules must change. They are stacked in the favour of the big companies and not the entrepreneurs that have the passion to champion their ideas.

I believe it is a human rights issue, and have been to the European Court of Human Rights several times in the hope of making patents more obtainable for individuals.

This does not happen with singers and authors with copyright, why should it be so difficult for designers, engineers and inventors? However at present, it is the best system we have. I do not file patents in order to win money, but to promote creativity.   

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