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032 – Dyson innovation really sucks

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

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.

dyson-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

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

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

Shawn:

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi again everyone, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk. And I’ve just come back from Silicon Valley. I was over there last week and had a lovely time; the weather was great, went for a run around Stanford University, which was quite exciting. You’re heading over there soon to run some workshops?

Shawn:   

Yes, I’m running two public workshops if people want to come along they’re in early December. One’s on storytelling for sales and the other one is a new programme we’re running (a prototype if you like) called story-powered culture change.

It’s really building on the early work that we did on narrative enquiry: how do you use a collection of stories as a way to foster and nudge changes in organisations?

Mark:      

And combining that with what we know about the importance of having a compelling change story, being able to influence people to change their minds and combining all that together in a whole new programme.

Shawn:     

So, it’ll be fun to run.

Mark:   

So, Shawn, your turn to tell the story this week; what’ve you got for us?

Shawn:    

I’ve got one I think you’ll like, Mark. It’s someone we all know and love and that’s the great British designer, James Dyson.

Mark:

I certainly know of him but you pushed it a bit too far. I love some of his products.

Shawn:   

Set your mind back to 1979. Back then James Dyson is a 32-year old young fella, just getting his engineering career going. He’s done a couple of interesting projects already. Right out of uni he helped design a product called the Sea truck – a flat-bottomed sea vehicle made of fibreglass that you could load and unload without having to be at a jetty.

He did that with the great designer Jeremy Fry and after that he invented the ball barrow. Do you remember the ball barrow?

Mark:    

I’ve got a picture of it in my mind.

Shawn:     

Imagine an inflatable rubber ball but instead of a tyre is a round ball with the idea that it’s much easier to manoeuvre over any terrain.

Mark:    

Having tried to manoeuvre heavy, fully loaded wheelbarrows; to turn is like a 3or 4 point turn.

Shawn:

It wasn’t a big hit for him. He realised that a: people don’t buy ball barrows or wheelbarrows very often and people are not willing to spend a lot of money on a wheelbarrow.

But it did spark something for him, which is what we see today as one of the great inventions around vacuum cleaners and air blade hand dryers and all that sort of stuff. And the idea came as he was painting the forks that held the ball on the ball barrow with spray paint he realised that a lot of paint’s going to waste – overspray.

He’s thinking a: it’s a bit of a safety hazard – all this paint flying around and b: maybe he could recycle some of that. He asked around and it turned out that the technology of the day was something called a cyclone extractor. Put it above the area you’re working on and it would suck the air out using centrifugal forces to pull the impurities out of the air and clean the air.

He thought this was great and he remembered just down the road there was a sawmill and he was sure it had something similar. So, he races down there and sees this massive cyclone extractor above the sawmill to suck the sawdust away from the sawmill.

So, that night he decides to jump over the fence of the sawmill and take a whole bunch of measurements and work out how this thing works. He then starts to build his own cyclone. It’s a massive undertaking. He’s already built fibreglass boats; he’s a very can-do fellow, just throws himself into it. But he ends up building this 30 foot cyclone.

It’s all going well but as he’s doing this he and his wife decide to buy a new vacuum cleaner and because he’s into gadgets and engineering he wants to buy the best one. So he buys this Hoover, which has the strongest engine, the state of the art at the time and as he’s vacuuming he notices the suction has disappeared – the bag had filled up.

He empties the bag and then realises he doesn’t have a replacement bag so he puts the old bag back in but still no suction. What’s going on here? He pulls out the bag and he can see that the pores in the bag are full of dust so there’s no flow through of air. He thinks there’s got to be a better way.

He thinks, maybe you could have a cyclone extractor like the for the paint job or sawmill has. Maybe I could make a tiny one that would go in a vacuum cleaner instead of bags. You wouldn’t need bags at all. He creates his first prototype. He does it out of cardboard and Scotch tape, attaches the vacuum suction into his little cyclone to see if it will pull dust out of the air and low and behold it works.

He’s excited, ‘I’ve got something, this is pretty awesome’. He goes back to his company (the ball barrow company), pitches the idea and they say ‘James, if the guys at Hoover and Electrolux who have probably already come up with this idea have discounted it then it’s not a goer’ and they can him. He pushes so hard he gets booted out of the company as a shareholder (I think).

So, he starts a new company, Dyson Incorporated and he decides to build this thing. He goes back to the engineer that he did the Sea Truck with, Jeremy Fry. He’s an established guy. He asks, ‘can you invest in this?’ And Jeremy Fry says, ‘yeah, I’ll do it’. He gets 49% of the company and provides £50,000, which back in the early 80s was a significant chunk of change.

He starts building prototypes. He ends up building 1,127 prototypes before he gets it right—it takes him four years. And this is in his back garden shed. This guy is just changing one variable each time building another prototype. It enabled him to get to a point where he could register a patent.

The idea is to license it to the big vacuum cleaner makers – he gets a ‘no’ from everyone because they have invested heavily in this idea of the bags. Back then the industry for bags was worth something like £100 million a year.

Mark:    

And they’re not going to throw that away.

Shawn:   

Exactly. They just saw him as a competitor, someone who’s going to cause them pain. He’s down on his cash at this point; he’s got nothing. But luckily he licences his idea to a Japanese company. They start building it and suddenly in Japan it’s almost like an art piece, they’re selling it in Japan for $2,500 a vacuum cleaner.

Mark: 

That is an expensive vacuum cleaner, especially back in the 780s and 80s.

Shawn:    

These are crazy prices for a vacuum cleaner but it saves him from bankruptcy. That continues for a while but then he thinks. ‘I’d like to build my own. I want to do it cheaper and have control’. So, again he goes to investors but no one wants to invest in him. But eventually he goes to a bank and says to the bank manager, ‘I want to borrow £600,000’ and the bank manager thinks about it. He asks his wife ‘what do you think about a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t have bags?’ And of course she loves the idea.

In addition, Dyson had won a tough lawsuit where some of the other companies had attempted to steal his patents. The bank manager loved his tenacious characteristics so agrees to the loan.

Dyson now owns 100% of the business and to this day he’s 100% owner of Dyson Incorporated. He then starts building them, selling them in catalogues. The breakthrough happens when he starts selling them in the big department store, John Lewis. Within a year (93 or 94) they’re selling $100 million worth of vacuum cleaners every year and it continues to grow.

Overnight success but it took 15 years in the making. It’s one of those stories where you know the product, the name but to actually hear the intricacies of how it came about is fascinating.

Mark:      

Me too. I love that story – it’s fantastic, not at all what I expected to hear.

Shawn:  

I even started trying to get into the detail; what are these cyclone extractors?

Mark:    

Too much information.

Shawn:  

I left it out of the story. Dyson mentions that it’s like a wine bottle. How is it like a wine bottle? There’s a hole in the bottom of the wine bottle—how does it get out the other end, of course it’s only vaguely like a wine bottle in the sense of its shape. But you have holes all over the place for these extractors to work.

The neck’s facing down and air goes up into the bottle, centrifugal forces suck dust to the side, that gets separated out and the air carries on out the top – a great little system.

Mark:

I need to go and buy one.

Shawn: 

I’m sure they’re still very expensive though.

Mark:

Yes, I looked at a Dyson a few years ago and wondered is it really that much better—like at two and a half times more expensive?

Shawn:  

What do you think in terms of that story, what did you like, what were the bits that stood out for you?

Mark:        

One of the things I liked about that story is even though I know the ending (Dyson has a fantastic vacuum cleaner used all over the world) it was still fascinating because I had no idea about the details. It kind of revealed the nature of his character, the complexity of the product and how it came into being.

The other thing I liked was at any one of those turning points it could have ended.

Shawn:     

That’s right. When you go through that many prototypes over four years.

Mark:      

And the bank manager talks to his wife about a bagless vacuum cleaner and she says, ‘bring it on’ and so he loans him the $600,000. Without that event there would be no Dyson.

Shawn:   

Yeah, it just hinges on a range of things like that. The other thing I love is that little insight on innovation—here he is working on one problem: extracting paint from his paint shop, then at the same time he has a problem with his vacuum cleaner. And it’s only when those two things come together that he asks the question can I create a mini version of this.

Mark:  

So that exposure to whole bunch of different problems, industries and activities.

Shawn: 

It becomes a necessity for good innovation.

Mark:  

That’s one of the great applications I see of this story.

Shawn:   

I do see a lot of companies that are quite insular; they don’t actually look outside that often whereas compare that to the work we did recently with Mars  in Shanghai. Those guys are actively going out and seeing different industries, scenarios, they’re really trying to spark new ideas and create new opportunities.

Mark:     

And Cargill as well—our work with them across the globe. They’ve got a concept called ‘bringing the outside in’ and they’ve had some fantastic insights from other industries that they’ve been able to bring into their own business.

Shawn:    

Right. It’s a little idea that just rolls on and has a big impact for so many organisations.

Mark:

Another thing that I like about it (you talk about this a lot) is relatability. We all know what vacuuming the floor is like. Most people who don’t have a Dyson know what it’s like when it stops sucking, you pull out the bag and the bag is a disgusting mess, and all you want to do is put it in the bin.

But then you have that moment when there is no replacement bag. I have actually gone through the same process that Dyson went through where I’ve disassembled the bag, tried to turn it inside out, beat it senseless until all the dust comes out of the pores and then reassemble it using duct tape. I should’ve just got a Dyson.

Shawn:   

Yeah, that’s it. Relatability is a really important characteristic of good stories. We’re not that interested in stories where we can’t work out what the hell is going on.

Mark:  

Or who is that person? So the fact that it’s James Dyson also increases the relatability.

Shawn:   

One of the things I noticed myself doing and didn’t really plan it per se but I ended up throwing in dialogue between him and the bank manager, the bank manager and his wife. You could easily do it as a narration, in a descriptive way. Dialogue really brings your listener close to your story. It’s a great technique—use it as much as you can.

Mark: 

Dialogue really helps the imagery; you can picture the bank manager talking to his wife when there is dialogue involved. I can imagine the look on her face when she goes ‘yeah, a bagless vacuum cleaner—thank you’.

The other thing I liked about that story is it revealed things I didn’t know. There were details of the Dyson story that were really revealing that kept me interested even though I knew what the ending was. And one of the things it revealed was his character, what sort of guy he was.

Shawn:  

You learn pretty quickly that he’s not the sort who’s going to give up, he keeps pushing. It would be so easy to say, ‘o.k. I’m just going to go and get myself an engineering job somewhere’.

Mark:   

The character he displays when he jumps over the fence at night and takes the measurements. Those little details really demonstrate his character.

Shawn:      

I wanted to make sure that people knew he’d had a bit of a career before he got into this; he’d worked with Jeremy Fry and done the Sea Truck and so there was some background. And Jeremy Fry becomes an important part in this story. By introducing him at the beginning of the story I can bring him back in when he stumps up the cash.

And you then understand why Jeremy might stump up the cash because he’s seen Dyson in action, he knows the tenacious character that he and he has a sense that he’s going to be a winner.

Mark:  

And that back story also reveals Dyson is a serial innovator.

Shawn:   

Exactly and I love that vision of him just working on his ball barrow and that not going anywhere but just trying these things out. The more ideas the more likely he’s going to hit one that’s going to do well.

Mark:  

One of the things we see a lot of these days is differentiating between innovation and entrepreneurship where the innovator creates something but is incapable of bringing it to market and that’s where the entrepreneur is really important in the process, and we see that concatenated in Dyson where he did both and he’ still 100% owner.

Shawn:  

Yes, and he must be getting on but he seems to be really involved in everything especially on the R&D front.

Mark: 

Coming up with new things. I find it interesting going to bathrooms across the world and finding his blade air hand dryers—air blade.

Shawn:  

And then he’s got the fans that don’t have any blades on them at all. All these things come from the idea that he had with the cyclone.

Mark:

Our little Dyson heater/cooler in the office has the same basic technology and it has no blade but it does an amazing job of circulating air both hot and cold.

So how might you use this story in a business context?

Shawn: 

For me, one use would be to encourage people to iterate, to have an idea but go through your prototypes, try things out, make those small changes, to see if you can improve something to the point where you’re happy with it—that’s one of the big lessons in that.

Related to that is the importance of mistakes and failures. In an interview he said, ‘maybe kids shouldn’t be measured on the number of successes they’ve had but rather the number of failures they’ve had’. He reckons the kids that never fail are unlikely to be creative and I think this is a really interesting point he’s making.

Mark:      

It reminds me of an experience I had in the air force back in the late 1990s when I was having my annual performance review. Of 10 projects I done during the year 9 of them were off the scale successes, one was a failure. In the performance review the only thing the senior officer wanted to talk about was the failure.

It’s kind of indicative of Dyson’s thought that kids should be measured on their failures not their successes because we punish failure and that’s a barrier to innovation.

Shawn:  

In a good entrepreneurial culture they celebrate failure: fail fast. That’s one of the ways you would use this.

Mark:    

It’s a great example of that. He found 1,127 ways it doesn’t work and one that does.

Shawn:   

Other ways of using this story?

Mark:   

The importance of persistence. We look at the success of Dyson but we’re not aware of the fact that he persisted. He kept going even in the face of adversity and this is an important characteristic of getting ideas from paper into something that’s real. I would use it where I wanted people to keep going, to keep trying.

Shawn:   

It also demonstrates just how it takes to have a hit. People are always expecting to be able to knock it out of the park in the first 12 months but to build a business at that sort of scale and innovation—it takes years to do that. I think people underestimate that.

It’s a good level setter. If you are kicking out a new part of your business you can tell the Dyson story, which is an inspirational story but at the same time sets the benchmark for how long it’s going to take to really command a market.

Mark:   

Exactly. Circling back to earlier. If I had a team that was trying to be innovative I would be encouraging them to go out and try as many different things as they possibly could; diversity, different ways of thinking, different problem sets and solutions, because it was in the mix of all of that that Dyson came up with his idea. It was the confluence of all of those things.

Shawn:  

This is a very engineering mindset but for him it was always about what’s the next problem I have to solve? But because he’s keeping himself informed about a range of different things, the way he solves them, the possibilities, the next steps creates this lovely fan of possibilities.

Mark:    

And that reminds me of another application; where I want people to work together because often we see leaders, managers who have a list of things on their performance chart for the year and they toil away saying ‘oh, it’s my responsibility to get this done’ and they work on their own whereas often the solutions or opportunities might lie in collaboration.

Getting people to think there’s a different way, not just toiling on your own, the lone genius.

Shawn:   

I liked the fact that his first employees were three engineers and one sales guy—I reckon that’s not a bad ratio when you’re building something.

So we’ve talked about what we liked about it, the way we would use it; it’s probably time to give it a rating. What do you think? What would you give this one?

Mark:     

I’m giving this one an 8. I loved it.

Shawn:  

That’s a strong score. I’ll give it an 8 as well. This is a story I’ve told numerous times so that’s always a good indicator and people lean in and really love to hear what happened. It shows the characteristics that all good stories have.

So, anything we need to finish up on, Mark?

Mark: 

Only to remind people that the idea of the podcast is to give you an opportunity to fill your business story repertoires and use these examples. We had a fantastic email from Singapore this morning about our last podcast, Damit Samit, and how it’s already being used in a big transformation to encourage people to be innovative.

Shawn:    

That’s fantastic. So, guys let us know how you use the stories—we’d love to hear that. And if you’ve got a great story you think we should tell—send us a note.

Mark:    

Let us know.

Shawn:   

Well I think we might just wrap things up. Thanks again for listening in to Anecdotally Speaking and tune in next time for another episode for you to listen to on how to put your stories to work.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of 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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