032 – Dyson innovation really sucks

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 30, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Tags: Dyson, failure, hard work, innovation, insight, persistence, problem solving, success 

The story of how James Dyson designed and produced the first bagless vacuum cleaner is one of perseverance and iteration. We know the ending of this story, but the fifteen years which precede it are well worth sharing for the insights they offer into innovation.


Most of us know the Dyson brand. Their vacuum cleaners, hair dryers and stylers, fans, heaters and humidifiers are all considered top of their product ranges. Most of us, however, don’t know that James Dyson toiled over the design for his bagless vacuum cleaner for some fifteen years before earning any real profit or gaining any real success.

So, what is the story behind the Dyson brand and the first bagless vacuum cleaner? This week we find out! 

This story is a new favourite of Shawn’s. It is quite timely, considering Dyson have just released the Airwrap, their new hair styling tool. Sure, we know how this story ends, but the twists and turns along the way are engaging and unexpected. This story is a great one for encouraging perseverance and iteration, and for offering insights into the true nature of innovation. 

If you would like to learn more about the workshops Shawn and Mark mention at the beginning of this episode, click here.

For your storybank

In 1979, James Dyson was 32 years old and already working in product design. He had helped Jeremy Fry design the Sea Truck, a flat-bottomed boat which could be loaded and unloaded without a jetty. He had also invented the Ballbarrow, a wheelbarrow with a rubber ball instead of a wheel. The Ballbarrow wasn’t particularly popular, but it led to one of his greatest ideas.

James was overseeing the spray-painting of the Ballbarrow when he realised a lot of the paint was going to waste, floating in the air around him.

James had two thoughts prompting further research, “Is this waste a safety hazard?” and “Is this waste recyclable?”

He found out that something called a cyclone-extractor was typically used in factories to remove paint and similar fine particles from the air. The extractor was placed above the factory floor and would suck up the air below. Centrifugal forces within the extractor would then pull whatever was in the air to the side, cleaning the air before releasing it back into the factory.

He also found out that a nearby sawmill housed a cyclone-extractor. He decided to break into the sawmill, to take a few measurements and see if he could work out how the cyclone-extractor worked. Afterwards, he decided to try and build his own cyclone extractor. The result was a construction of some 30ft.

While building his cyclone extractor, James and his wife decided to buy a new vacuum cleaner. They purchased a state of the art Hoover.

The Hoover soon frustrated James. Its suction quickly disappeared when its bag became full. James didn’t have any replacement bags, so emptied the full bag and put it back in, but the Hoover still had no suction. He then examined the bag and discovered its pores were full of dust. There was no way air could flow through it.

He thought, “There must be a better way.”

Soon, James came up with an idea. A tiny cyclone-extractor could perhaps remove the need for a bag if used within a vacuum cleaner.

James proceeded to make his first prototype for a bagless vacuum cleaner but the result required much more work.

Before he could produce more prototypes, James needed someone to invest in his idea. He pitched the idea to the company he was working for at the time, where he was producing the Ballbarrow. They weren’t interested. He didn’t quite end his pitch there but eventually pushed too hard and was asked to leave the company.

James then asked Jeremy Fry if he would invest in the project. Jeremy said he would and invested £50,000.

James then continued making prototypes. From his garden shed, over four years, he produced 1,127 prototypes. Finally, he had it. He had produced a design he could patent.

James had planned to licence the design to vacuum cleaner makers, but every large company he approached wasn’t interested in the product. They had invested in the vacuum cleaner bag industry, which at that time was worth some £100 million.

James was nearly bankrupt when he finally licensed the design to a Japanese company. They began building and selling the first bagless vacuum cleaner for a hefty $2,500.

Soon, James decided he wanted to design a cheaper version of the vacuum cleaner and produce it through his own company. 

He again sought investors but didn’t find any. Instead, he went to a bank and asked to borrow £600,000.

The bank manager had his doubts, but awarded James the loan after he told his wife about James’ idea. His wife had loved the idea of a bagless vacuum cleaner.

James then began Dyson Inc. He had intended to sell his vacuum cleaners through catalogues, but was soon selling them to department stores. By 1994, James was selling $100 million worth of vacuum cleaners every year. Business bloomed for Dyson Inc. and has continued to do so.

James still owns 100% of the company.

Podcast Transcript Coming Soon

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

One Response to “032 – Dyson innovation really sucks”

  1. John Groarke Says:

    This story is often used by innovation consultants and advisers working with start-ups.

    And one of their common observations is NOT to spend as much time on prototyping! Why? … burning through the cash and increasing the possibility of news of the invention getting out. Though Dyson developed a regime in his firm which prevents news of new product development getting out of the labs. Lego and Apple have successfully addressed this issue too.

    PS … Dyson vacuum cleaners are worth every cent!

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