James Dyson on Creating a Vacuum that Actually, Well, Sucks

It took James Dyson 5,127 prototypes, 14 years of debt, and multiple lawsuits to create a vacuum that actually, well, sucked.

By Margaret Heffernan from Reader's Digest | February 2009

Dyson traveled a lonely path, confronting armies of executives. “I cannot overstate the soul-destroying drudgery of sitting in a boardroom with all these specialists, each with his own little area in which to attack you.”

After a deal with Amway collapsed, Dyson decided he’d manufacture the machine himself. He tested it to destruction, throwing it down iron staircases onto marble floors. By January 1993, his machines were ready for the consumer. Now all he had to do was sell them.

Predictably, big stores were nervous about the vacuum’s high-tech design. But consumers liked the bright-yellow plastic and the machine’s power. A bonus for allergy sufferers: It filtered the household air as it sucked up dirt. By 2005, Dyson dominated both the European and American markets.

Dyson insists he’s not a businessman. His obsession has, however, made him rich. The company’s revenue was nearly $1 billion last year. He and his artist wife, Deirdre, married happily for 40 years, live in a $35 million 18th-century mansion.

Even so, Dyson is just as driven today as when he made his cardboard prototype. “It is the fear of failure that makes me keep working at success,” he says. “Having an idea for doing something better and making it happen-even though it appears impossible—those are still my dreams.”

Getting Ahead with James Dyson

Q: You say fear of failure is your main driver. How can you be creative?

A: The fear of going bankrupt is a good motivator. It keeps the adrenaline running. I like living on the edge. Hope is really important too.

Q: What kept you going all those years—faith or madness?

A: Probably both. I had always assumed people succeeded only if they had the best of everything: the best idea, the best connections. But then I met Jeremy Fry, a British entrepreneur. If he thought it was a good idea, he pursued it. He didn’t worry about what people thought. If that is what blind faith is, that is good.

Q: You’ve said that in business, entrepreneurs will be wrong 50 percent of the time. Is there any way to improve that percentage?

A: No. And it would be boring if you could. The whole thing is unpredictable, different from day to day. It is so important not to be put off by the fact that there are others who know more and who are more experienced. Experience doesn’t really count for anything, because every day is day one. Which is why it’s fun.

Q: Can anyone do what you did?

A: Everyone has ideas. They may be too busy or lack the confidence or technical ability to carry them out. But I want to carry them out. It is a matter of getting up and doing it.

Q: Do you ever get away from work?

A: I’m still a keen long-distance runner, having started in college. I spend as much time as I can with my three young grandchildren, and I still think one day I’ll master the bassoon.