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

Exasperated with his vacuum, James Dyson took some cardboard, kitchen scissors, and duct tape and patched together his first bagless machine. With some trepidation, he switched it on. "There were no explosions, no blasts of dusty air," Dyson recalls of that day in 1978. "I was the only man in the world with a bagless vacuum cleaner!" The British inventor could not have known then that it would take thousands more prototypes—and years of debt, lawsuits, fury, and frustration—before he manufactured what is now the top-selling upright vacuum cleaner in the United States. Along the way, he would discover the simple secret to success: "People buy products if they're better." Dyson, 61, didn't start out as an engineer. He had trained at the Royal College of Art in London. There he'd discovered a love of industrial design and collaborated on his first product, the Sea Truck, an indestructible boat for hauling just about anything between islands. He started his first company to manufacture and sell another invention, the Ballbarrow, a radical redesign of the wheelbarrow that used a ball to stabilize an otherwise wobbly vehicle. Garden center owners giggled nervously, but customers got it. "People will make leaps of faith and get excited by your product," says Dyson, "if you just get it in front of them." But disagreements with the board led Dyson to leave his company and his invention. In his "naked naïveté," as he puts it, he had assigned the patent to the company rather than to himself. It was a mistake he wouldn't make again. Not one to suffer setbacks, Dyson set to work on perfecting the vacuum. Key to his innovative design was a cyclone, a cone spinning so fast that its centrifugal force sucked up dust and flung it at the canister's walls. He hoped to license the design to European companies already in the business, but he encountered a chronic defensiveness: If there were a better way to make vacuums, surely the market leaders would have found it. In 1986, eight years after his original breakthrough, Dyson licensed his designs to a Japanese company. The deal didn't give him a significant cut of the annual $20 million in sales, but it was enough to keep him going while he looked for a U.S. manufacturer. 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.