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Sir James Dyson on risks, failures, and making good products

Note: This article was first published on 19th December 2016.

Sir James Dyson is 70 years old, but doesn’t look a wrinkle over 60. He has a steady voice that he uses to crack disarming jokes, and a youthful energy that isn’t afraid to answer, “I don’t know,” to some of my questions. After interviewing scores of overly practiced executives throughout the years, meeting him is quite a breath of fresh air.

I arrived at Dyson headquarters in Malmesbury on a crisp winter day, an hour or so away from London in the picturesque Cotswold countryside. The low-slung Dyson headquarters gently rise above the trees, with curving roofs that reflect the rolling fields it sits on. But the roof is not what catches your eyes first.

The first thing you see when you arrive at the main lobby is a British-designed Harrier jump jet.
The first thing you see when you arrive at the main lobby is a British-designed Harrier jump jet.

Instead, you’re taken by the large Harrier jump jet that sits right opposite the main lobby. The jet is real, not a replica. Dyson collects engineering legends like other people collect art; besides the jet, a 1961 Austin Mini — cut in half, inner workings laid bare — greets you at the door. A Bell 47 helicopter from 1946 is parked inside a research lab, and a 1960s English Electric Lightning Jet hangs suspended in mid-air, over the cafe where staff have lunch.

There’s a story of genius behind each item. The Austin Mini, for example, was a break from traditional car design and created by an unusually small team of engineers. The marvels, by dint of their presence, serve as both example and inspiration to Dyson’s employees.

A 1961 Austin Mini – sawn in half, revealing its inner workings – greets you at the door.
A 1961 Austin Mini – sawn in half, revealing its inner workings – greets you at the door.

Dyson’s first working cyclonic vacuum cleaner doesn’t sit on the parking lot like the Harrier, but it is framed amongst a line of Dyson vacuums in the lobby. When you look at this taped-up contraception that’s obviously been made in someone’s garage, it’s hard to imagine that it subsequently changed the world of consumer electronics. It certainly changed Dyson’s life.

James Dyson struggled for five years to make the world’s cyclone vacuum cleaner work. It took him over 5,126 prototypes before number 5,127 succeeded, in 1984. In the meantime, he had gone into debt, and his wife was growing vegetables and rearing chickens to get enough food to feed the family.

James Dyson’s very first working prototype for a cyclonic vacuum cleaner.
James Dyson’s very first working prototype for a cyclonic vacuum cleaner.

When I ask Dyson what was going through his mind as he was going through failure after failure, he calmly replied, “Research and development is like that. You don’t just have an idea, make a product and it works. You have to go through a lot of trials, a real pilgrim’s progress of ups and downs as you develop your technology.”

But what about the toll on his finances and his family? “As you go deeper and deeper into debt, you have to go on (laughs).” So that was it, it was success or bust. “Yes, of course,” Dyson replies matter-of-factly. “Or lose my house, because I’d signed the house to the bank, and everything.”

But what made you believe so strongly in your idea of a vacuum cleaner that would harness the power of a cyclone? “I’d made products before and made products that worked. And I felt that I could do it. I didn’t know that I could do it, I just hoped that I could do it. And it was a big risk. And it was a very personal risk because I’d lose my house. But now, we still take risks, only they’re the company’s risks.”

They may not look like much, but these motors power each of Dyson’s inventions. They are the beating hearts at the core of every Dyson success.
They may not look like much, but these motors power each of Dyson’s inventions. They are the beating hearts at the core of every Dyson success.

It’s a pattern that repeated itself in Dyson’s answers again and again: Thinking in the long game coupled with a willingness to take great risks on new ideas. Dyson is now a multi-billion dollar company, but James Dyson insists that even though the company’s finances have changed, its spirit has stayed the same — one of “not worrying about investing time and money into research and development over a very long period.”

Dyson’s lead robotics engineer Mike Aldred knows this spirit intimately. Aldred worked on the 360 Eye vacuum, Dyson’s first robot vacuum cleaner, for 18 years before it finally came to market.

The 360 Eye robot vacuum cleaner was developed for 18 years before it came to market.
The 360 Eye robot vacuum cleaner was developed for 18 years before it came to market.

I ask Aldred how he told his boss that the product still wasn’t ready after so many years of work, and Aldred revealed that it was James Dyson who had declared the robot not good enough — then gave him the time to continue working on it. “The pressure in other companies,” Aldred says, “is on the timescale. At Dyson, the pressure is on the quality of the product.”

“That’s technology,” Dyson explains. “To develop really good technology takes a long time. To make a real breakthrough — it’s difficult. It takes a long time.

“So, for example, on the robot the big decision was to stop using a lot of sensors, which our early versions had, and to use a vision system. Mike, who had been working on other sensor-based navigation systems, had to throw all of that away and start again.” And you’re willing to throw away all those previous years of work because … “Because it wasn’t good enough.”

This insistence on taking the time to make products good enough is a strong position to take, and possible because Dyson is still a privately held company. James Dyson and his employees routinely tell me that the company is doggedly focused on good engineering and that philosophy seems enshrined in how the company is structured.

The new D9 building houses the New Product Innovation and Research teams. The exterior is designed like a large mirror, reflecting its beautiful surroundings while keeping its secrets from prying eyes.
The new D9 building houses the New Product Innovation and Research teams. The exterior is designed like a large mirror, reflecting its beautiful surroundings while keeping its secrets from prying eyes.

Dyson has its Research Division, where new technologies are being invented. Then there’s New Product Innovation, where teams take these new technologies and see if they can be integrated into new products. If an exciting idea passes through both engineering and commercial review, it’s passed to New Product Development, where it’s finally developed for the market.

That’s how vacuum cleaners that harness a cyclone get made, how bladeless fans came to be, and how a different kind of hair dryer was invented. It’s also how Dyson made over £1.7 billion in 2015, and has grown to over 3,000 engineers and scientists around the world. The company isn’t slowing down; Dyson expanded its Malmesbury campus in 2016, adding 129 advanced research and new spaces, and it will open a new Technology Centre in Singapore come 2017.

A fully restored Electric Lightning Jet hangs suspended in the new cafeteria.
A fully restored Electric Lightning Jet hangs suspended in the new cafeteria.

But innovation is a gamble. New ideas are risky, especially if you’ve spent 18 years working on them. They can succeed, sputter or splatter. I ask Dyson what made him bet on the Supersonic hair dryer (which took four years to make good enough), and his answer is, as I still haven’t come to expect, disarmingly frank.

“Well, I didn’t know if it was going to work. We go into production, having spent 50 million pounds, and we don’t know if we’re going to sell any. That’s the gamble. It’s scary. Which is exciting! But it’s what we do, you see. We don’t copy people. We develop the product we want to develop, the technology we want to develop, and we hope that we can sell it and it makes a return for us.”

Read next: In pictures: A rare look inside Dyson’s secretive headquarters.