Sir James Dyson - Lessons on Grit, Leadership & Pandemic Innovations
After five years of testing, Sir James Dyson invented the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner. It took 5,127 prototypes. His £14.5 billion company, Dyson, has since developed countless products, including hairdryers and purifying systems.
More products are on the way. According to The Times, he’s set to throw £2.75 billion at robotics, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies over the next five years as he doubles the company’s range.
A willingness to adapt is one of many leadership lessons we can take from the English inventor. There are plenty more throughout his story.
Innovation is in keeping with what has made Dyson so successful. Working alongside 6,000 engineers and scientists, he develops products to solve problems ignored by others.
At school, Sir James studied Latin and Greek, along with art. It was the latter he enjoyed most. He went to art school and stumbled into design.
“… I managed to get into the Royal College of Art to study furniture design. I switched to architecture because I thought it was more exciting and more intellectually challenging… That’s how I came to meet the chairman of an engineering company. And that’s what really turned me into an amateur engineer.”
He looked at problems and tinkered with products. This led to the vacuum cleaner. Like others before, he realised vacuums with bags lost suction after a few uses, but he didn’t stop there. He turned to cyclones.
“I got my old maths teacher to help me with the maths to work out the formulae. I went through all five of the serious formulae, and I got five different answers. I thought, ‘This is no use. I’ve got to do this empirically. I’ve got to develop this myself.’
“So I started the process of developing a cyclone that would work down to half a micron or less. And that took 5,126 prototype failures before I got the 5,127th, which worked.”
He only made one change at a time. He understood that if he tried to take shortcuts, it wouldn’t work. He’d know its performance, but he wouldn’t know why.
“It’s not about being brilliant - it’s about being logical and persistent… You have to start right at the beginning with the most basic, simple thing, and then make one change to see what effect that has.”
Marginal improvements is a culture Dyson has fostered within his company. He recognises progress doesn’t come from huge strides. It’s incremental. Only at the end does it look like a giant leap.
The testing fascinated him. Every night for three years, he came home to his wife, covered in dust.
They got into debt. At one point, Sir James put their house on the line. He could see he was making progress, though, and he was convinced people would buy his vacuum. This was despite the fact he hadn’t conducted market research.
He spent another six years trying to license the technology. Everyone turned him down. One of the main reasons was because vacuum manufacturers sold a lot of vacuum bags, and these made them money. They weren’t interested in changing their technology.
But Sir James didn’t stop there. He manufactured the products himself and followed his instincts. His grit shone through once again.
“I had no idea whether anyone wanted to buy this product.”
Dyson’s approach may not work for everyone. However, there comes a point where you have to back yourself. You have to take the first step. In some cases, it’s possible to do so without betting the house. Other times, you may have to take a risk, just as Dyson did.
“… you’ve got to back your own instincts. You can’t get help on this. You’ve got to take the risk. Sometimes you’re going to be okay, and sometimes you’re not. Life’s like that.”
The company has been profitable ever since, in part due to unexpected results.
“We were selling our vacuums for just under £200, whereas most vacuum cleaners were at £50… We were three to four times the price of everybody else.
“[Mail order catalogue companies] were our first customers. They’re not the most highbrow of retailers. They’re quite lowbrow, which is a very interesting thing… What I discovered is the richer you are, the less interested you are in vacuuming. The poorer you are, the more important vacuuming is to you.
“Interestingly, it’s recession-proof. If there’s a recession, you stop having expensive holidays and instead you think more about your home. Of course, during the pandemic, that’s been utterly true... Good filtration in your home [and] good vacuuming is very, very important.”
Dyson as a company has gone from strength to strength. Despite setbacks, most notably their abandoned electric car project which cost the company £500 million, the pandemic has placed the group in a favourable position. Sales have increased three-fold in countries like India, and they’ve introduced a range of new products since the pandemic, including household lighting. Household products continue to be a source of high-growth.
“We spend up to 90% of our time indoors. So our new light tracks daylight and transforms for different uses - providing the right light throughout the day.”
- Jake Dyson, Chief Engineer at Dyson
The success of the group is testament to their leader. He remains hands on with new products, and his popular launches echo the late Steve Jobs. So much so, many publications have labelled Dyson the “Apple of Appliances.”
Sir James leads with passion, takes risks, and follows things through to the end. It’s a potent combination that fares well against the test of time. There’s little evidence to suggest this will change post-pandemic.