The Story of Dyson and Fearless Experimentation



In 2016, Dyson revenues topped $3 billion, up 45% from the prior year. This is an incredible feat for a vacuum and appliance maker the size of Dyson. Sir James Dyson has come a long way since he and his mentor developed their first cyclone technology 35 years ago. Here is a 36-year-old James Dyson in 1983 explaining his first vacuum and describing how hard it is to invent and scale an idea. Scale is exactly what James Dyson has done, but it hasn’t been easy.

In the early 1980’s, James Dyson was developing the cyclone technology, but he was going deep into debt. Things were so tough that he and his wife borrowed from everyone and were living on next to nothing. They grew their own food and made their own clothes for their children. Dyson was trying to license the cyclone technology to the large vacuum companies of the era like Black & Decker and others. He kept on getting rejected. He would do the best he could to sell the limited product he had door to door. Finally, in 1986, a small Japanese company called Apex, licensed the technology for an expensive niche product, but it too failed to produce anything meaningful.

Finally, in the early 1990’s Dyson decided to make the vacuum’s himself, but competition had popped up on every continent from companies stealing his technology. He found himself in legal battles on three different continents, and no one wanted to finance manufacturing for someone in legal disputes. Finally, most of the lawsuits settled, and he was able to secure a $1 million loan from Lloyds bank. He got his vacuum in a mail order catalog. Then he got into another catalog and by 1995 he was the best-selling vacuum in the UK. Once he was successful in the UK it opened doors to other countries.

In 2002, he announced a deal with Best Buy and entered the United States. The first television commercials in the US were actually produced in James Dyson’s house. The rest is history. Actually, the rest of the story is Innovation.

In, Why Do Cities Live Forever and Companies Don’t?, we shared the research of physicist Geoffrey West. This year he came out with a book, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability… In his research, he concluded that there are certain scaling laws that govern animals, cities, and even companies.

West and his team analyzed 30,000 publicly traded companies over the last 60 years and found that the average lifespan of a company is about 10 years. Very few last 100 years. The main reason companies don’t last forever is that bureaucracy and administration increases as a company grows and this stifles innovation. West states, if companies want to continue to grow they need to innovate faster and faster as they grow. The problem is most companies innovate less as they grow.

Amazon fully understands this problem:

“Large companies embrace the idea of invention but are unwilling to suffer the long string of failed experiments necessary to get there.” – Jeff Bezos

Last year, Dyson moved into its brand new $200 million research facility. The mission of this facility which is being driven from the top down from James Dyson is to “experiment fearlessly, fail constantly and document those failures in company-issued black-and-yellow notebooks, which form the basis for still more experiments, still more failures.” Dyson is used to experimenting and failure. The very first cyclone technology he and his mentor Jeremy Fry developed in the late 1970’s took five years and 5,127 prototypes.

James Dyson said, “I made 5,127 prototypes of my vaccum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So, I don’t mind failure.”

Dyson has 3,000 engineers working for him and his goal is to double that by 2020. Dyson reinvests 46% of the companies EBITDA into R&D, which is much more than its competitors, Electrolux and Techtronic. The company currently owns over 7,500 patents. Dyson’s 58 products generated over $3 billion in sales in 2016, up 45% from 2015. James Dyson’s goal is to innovate, create, and commercialize at least 100 new products by 2020. This number of new products is more products than the company has produced since its founding.

Geoffrey West’s research concluded that very few large companies have the discipline and nimbleness to continue to innovate at a rapid enough pace to live forever. James Dyson is trying his best, and we are rooting for him.

“I learned that the moment you want to slow down is the moment you should accelerate.” James Dyson

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