Learning From James Dyson

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Learning From James Dyson
Image used with permission from Investment Masters Class

When you look back in history at some of mankind’s greatest achievements, one of the things that stands out in almost every case is that those successes came with a lot of blood, sweat and tears and an incredible amount of persistence. Often what appeared on the surface to be an “overnight success’’ actually took years to achieve. Henry Ford and his self-propelled vehicle, Walt Disney and his animated pictures, Alexander Bell and his telephone and even the Wright Brothers and their aeroplane; all were examples of people who failed many, many times before they eventually succeeded, often facing distressing financial hardship along the way.

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But if you were one of these people and were inventing something that could be potentially momentous and change things forever, at what point would you give up after encountering multiple failures? After 10 attempts? 50? What about 1,000? You’d have to think you were on a road to nowhere if you had failed that many times. So how about 5,127 times? How does that grab you?

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Incredibly, that’s the number of hand-made prototypes James Dyson built over a four year period before he finally achieved success with his cyclonic vacuum cleaner. Labouring through trial and error, Dyson overcame a brutal patent abuse, endless rejections from both venture capitalists and the world’s leading appliance manufacturers whilst managing an ever expanding overdraft he didn’t extinguish until the age of forty-eight. Contrast that with today, Sir James Dyson is the UK’s fourth richest resident with a net worth of c.US$9.7 billion.

Dyson struck on the idea of a cyclonic vacuum from his experience manufacturing his first product, the ‘Ballbarrow.’ Applying paint to the metal frame created havoc in the factory - excess waste and mess. Seeking a solution, Dyson asked around the trade and eventually arrived at a cyclonic separator. He recalled, ‘I found the centrifuge dust extraction principle of the cyclonic separator utterly fascinating.’

James Dyson’s recently published memoir, James Dyson - Invention: A Life,’ is a tale of constant innovation, incredible challenges overcome and the deep resilience required to create one of today’s leading technology companies.

One of my favourite insights from the book relates to the opportunity set afforded Dyson by the vacuum industry’s incumbent players. Hamilton Helmer labelled this power ‘Counter-Positioning’ in his best-selling book on competitive strategy, ‘7 Powers.’ The opportunity arises when a newcomer adopts a new, superior business model which the incumbent doesn’t mimic due to anticipated damage to their existing business. In the case of vacuum cleaners, the incumbents were making billions selling replacement bags to their customers. Why create a product which puts at risk that perpetual revenue stream?

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about successful business founders, it’s that there is no straight line to success. Without perseverance and resilience beyond the scope of all but the rarest of people, these businesses would die on the vine. I’ve included some of my favourite extracts below.

Failure and 'Trial & Error'

“This might sound boring and tedious to the outsider. I get that. But when you have set yourself an objective that, if reached, might pioneer a better solution to existing technologies and products, you become engaged, hooked and even one-track-minded. Folklore depicts invention as a flash of brilliance. That eureka moment! But it rarely is, I’m afraid. It is more about failure than ultimate success. I even thought about calling this book ‘James Dyson: Failure’, but was talked out of it because it might give the wrong impression.”

The failures began to excite me. ‘Wait a minute, that should have worked, now why didn’t it?’”

Research is about conducting experiments, accepting and even enjoying failures, but going on and on, following a theory garnered from observing the science. Invention is often more about endurance and patient observation than brainwaves.”

Learning by trail and error, or experimentation, can be exciting, the lessons learned deeply ingrained. Learning by failure is a remarkably good way of gaining knowledge. Failure is to be welcomed, rather than avoided. It should not be feared by the engineer or scientist or indeed by anyone else.”

“The Ballbarrow - my first consumer product, my first solo effort - was a failure but one from which I learned valuable lessons. There was a lesson about assigning patents, another about not having shareholders. I learned the importance of having absolute control of my company and not undervaluing it.”

“One of the really important principles I learned to apply was changing only one thing at a time to see what difference that one change made. People think that a breakthrough is arrived by a spark of brilliance or even a eureka thought in the bath. I wish it were for me. Eureka moments are very rare. More usually, you start off by testing a particular set-up, and by making one change at a time you start to understand what works and what fails. By that empirical means you begin the journey towards making the breakthrough, which usually happens in an unexpected way.”

“I worked on the [production] line for two weeks to understand how to make the vacuum cleaner more efficiently and have watched all of our lines ever since .. I learned which components were difficult to assemble and encouraged our engineers to visit lines frequently. Most importantly, this experience helped me look as all our subsequent products to understand where production inefficiencies fell.”

“Of the 5,127 prototypes I made in the coach house of the cyclone technology for my first vacuum cleaner, all but the very last one were failures. And yet, as well as painstakingly solving a problem, I was also going through a process of self-education and learning. Each failure taught me something and was a step towards a working model. I have been questioning things and learning every day ever since.

Learning by doing, Learning by trial and error. Learning by failing. These are all effective forms of education.”

“When I was trying, unsuccessfully, to raise capital to start my vacuum cleaner business, all the venture capitalists turned me down, with one even saying that they might consider the opportunity if I had someone heading up the company from the domestic appliance industry. This was at a time when that industry was vanishing from Britain because, taken as a whole, its products were uncompetitive.”

Life Lessons

Every day is a form of education.”

“It was playing games, however, that taught me the need to train hard and to understand teamwork and tactics. The planning of surprise tactics, and the ability to adapt to circumstance, are vital life lessons. These virtues are unlikely to be learned from academic life and certainly not from learning by rote.”

“Long-distance running taught me to overcome the pain barrier: when everyone else feels exhausted, that is the opportunity to accelerate, whatever the pain, and win the race. Stamina and determination along with creativity are needed in overcoming seemingly impossible difficulties in research and other life challenges.”

“Doing things with my hands, often as an autodidact and with an almost absence of fear, became second nature. Learning by making things was as important as learning by the academic route. Visceral experience is a powerful teacher. Perhaps we should pay more attention to this form of learning. Not everyone learns in the same way.”

Creativity & Invention

In order to stay ahead we need to focus increasingly on our creativity.”

“At Dyson, we don’t particularly value experience. Experience tells you what you ought to do and what you’d do best to avoid. It tells you how things should be done when we are much more interested in how things shouldn’t be done. If you want to pioneer and invent new technology you need to step into the unknown and, in that realm, experience can be a hindrance.”

“[You] need to listen to your customers, aiming to improve products wherever necessary and, if you are an inventor, simply for improvements sake. This is not to say we at Dyson ask our customers what they want and build it. That type of focus-group-led designing may work inn the very short term, but not for long.”

“I still find myself saying and putting into practice some of the same things Jeremy Fry [an early mentor/employer] said and did when I worked for him half a century ago. As an inventor, engineer and entrepreneur, he believed in taking on young people with no experience because this way he employed those with curious, unsullied and open minds.”

The inventing mind knows instinctively that there are always further questions to be asked and new discoveries to be made.”

“The Land Rover, the Swiss Army penknife, the Citroen 2CV, the Bell 47 helicopter and Alec Issigoni’s Mini - what I liked so much about these machines - and my affection for them remains undimmed - is their ingenuity and the fact that the power of invention invested in them made for designs that re-imagined and revolutionised their market sectors and even created wholly new markets. And yet, for all their functionality, each is a highly individual product with a character and charm of its own. What is equally interesting is that these radical machines made use of pre-existing ideas and components.”

A design might be considered ahead of its time and, sometimes because of this, even ridiculous. The hugely successful Sony Walkman was dismissed when first launched because who could possibly want a tape recorder that couldn’t record. And it was received knowledge, until Volkswagen and, later, Honda crossed the Atlantic with the Beetle and the Accord that Americans were wedded resolutely to big cars.”

“The Sony Walkman is another fascinating success story because, at first, its design appeared to defy common sense. Priced at $150, the compact silver and blue Walkman wasn’t cheap, while within Sony it was controversial and brave because it was unable to record, and no one made a ‘tape recorder’ that wouldn’t do so before… With lightweight foam headphones and no function other than playback, the Walkman emerged. The press lampooned it. Even the name was ridiculous. The Japanese press was wrong, although the market hadn’t known it wanted a tiny personal stereo. When it saw the attractive little device, and heard it in action, it fell in love with it… By the mid-1980’s, the word had entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Sony’s Masura Ibuka - one of the Japanese company’s founders - hoped to sell 5,000 Walkmans a month. He sold 50,000 in the first two months. By the time production ended in Japan in 2010, more than 400 million had been sold worldwide.”

Without entrepreneurship, an inventor may not be able to bring their radical or revolutionary products to the marketplace or at least not under their own control. Without becoming an entrepreneur, they have to licence their technology, putting them at the mercy of other companies that may or may not have a long-term commitment to a particular new idea or way of thinking about the future.”

“The idea [for the cyclonic vacuum cleaner] had been in my head since welding up the giant metal cyclone for the Ballbarrow factory. Now it made increasing sense. Here was a field - the vacuum cleaner industry - where there has been no innovation for years, so the market ought to be ripe for something new. And, because houses need cleaning throughout the year, a vacuum cleaner is not, like my Ballbarrow, a seasonal product. It is also recession proof. Every household needs one. It seemed to tick all the boxes. In any case, I’d used one since childhood and knew from experience that there had to be a better vacuum cleaner.”

“If you believe you can achieve something - whether as a long distance runner or maker of a wholly new type of vacuum cleaner - then you have to give the project 100% of your creative energy. You have to believe that you’ll get there in the end. You need determination, patience and willpower.”

Bio-mimicry is clearly a powerful weapon in an engineer’s armoury.”

“It’s a part of the Dyson story that I made 5,127 prototypes to get a model I could set about licensing. This is indeed the exact number. Testing and making one change after another was time-consuming. This, though, was necessary as I needed to follow up and prove or disprove every theory I had. And, however frustrating, I refused to be defeated by failure. All of the 5,126 I rejected - 5,126 so-called failures - were part of the process of discovery and improvement before getting it right on the 5,127th time. Failure, as I had already begun to learn with my experience with the Ballbarrow business is very important. I find it important to repeat that we do, or certainly should, learn from our mistakes and we should be free to make them.”

Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal… I have long had great admiration for engineers like Alec Issigonis [designed the Mini] and Andrew Lefebvre of Citroen .. they questioned orthodoxy, experimented, took calculated risks, stood on the edge of error and got things right. And when they got there, they continued to ask questions.”

“One of the ways we made Dyson distinctive is by not allowing ourselves to rest on our laurels.”

“A jet engine spins at 15,000 rpm, a Formula 1 engine at 19,000 rpm and a conventional vacuum cleaner motor at 30,000 rpm. Why go very much faster? Although at the time we were neither designers nor manufacturers of electric motors, we wanted to come up with a breakthrough in their design, creating a quantum leap in performance: many times faster, much lighter and smaller, brushless for a longer life and no emissions, more electrically efficient and above all controllable for speed, power and consumption.. The turbine speed we initially aimed for was 120,000 rpm.. Today, Dyson pioneers the world’s smallest high-speed motors. These have enabled us to reinvent the vacuum cleaner again with a pioneering new Dyson format. They have also allowed us to improve products in wholly new areas.”

“People often ask if we would supply other companies with our motors. Although it might be profitable to do so, we supply no one other than ourselves. This is because I want Dyson engineers to be 100% focused on our next exciting motor development and not retrofitting our motors to someone else’s product.”

“With each new motor we aimed to double its power output and halve it’s weight.”

“We had been experimenting for some time with blades of air and working with sophisticated computational fluid-dynamics models for a project that remains secret… We had accidentally developed a new form of hand dryer. What’s more it didn’t need a heater… It has a carbon footprint six times smaller than that of paper towels… Despite our inroads, the paper towel industry retains 90% of the hand-drying market, worth billions of dollars each year. The big players want to defend a highly lucrative status quo.”

As often happens, our observations during the development of the Dyson Airblade hand dryer led us to the principles used in other products, like our Air Multiplier fans and, in turn, to heaters, humidifiers and air purifiers.”

“For me, [the hairdryer] was another of those products, used frequently by hundreds of millions of people, stuck in a technological time warp. Existing hairdryers were heavy and uncomfortable to use.”

“Ever since the Industrial Resolution, inventions had tended to compound inventions.”

It is hard for other people to understand or get excited about an entirely new idea. This requires self-reliance and faith on part of the inventor. I can also see that it is hard for an outsider to understand the challenge and thrill of inventing new technology, designing and manufacturing the product then selling it to the world.”

“After the event, a revolutionary new idea can look so obvious - surely no one could possibly have doubted it? At their conception, though, new ideas are not blindingly obvious. They are fragile things in need of encouragement and nurturing against doubting Thomases, know-it-alls and so-called experts. Just as Frank Whittle discovered, it is easy for people to say ‘no,’ to dismiss new ideas and to be stick-in-the-muds, pessimists, or even cynics. It is much harder to see how something unexpected might be a success.”

We certainly have taken big risks, with the digital electric motors, the washing machine, the electric car and our research into solid-state batteries. Not all have been commercially successful. That is the point. By its very nature, pioneering will not always be successful, otherwise it would be all too easy. We don’t start these ventures with the inevitability of success - we are all to aware we may well fail.”

Obliquity

Inventors rarely set out to make money per se, and if they do theirs is more often than not a pipe dream.”

I didn’t work on those 5,127 vacuum cleaner prototypes or even set up Dyson to make money. I did it because I had a burning desire to do so. And as do my thousands of colleagues, I find inventing, researching, testing, designing and manufacturing both highly creative and deeply satisfying.”

Focus Groups & Experts

“Just before the launch of the Mini car, Austin Morris did indeed consult a focus group, and nobody wanted this tiny car with small wheels. So they cut the production lines down to one. When the public saw it on the street, they were most enthusiastic for it. Austin Morris never caught up with demand, missing out on serious profits.”

“The bestselling British car of all time is the Mini - If market research had ruled Alec Issigoni’s roost at BMC, it would never had existed… Alec’s view [was] that ‘market research is bunk’ and that one should ‘never copy the opposition.’”

I am cautious of experts .. Experts tend to be confident that they have all the answers and because of this trait, they can kill new ideas. But when you are trying to break new ground, you have no interest in getting stuck in engineering conventions or intellectual mud.”

“Venture capitalists proved to be no help. [Six] venture capitals turned me down.”

“I had been warned that at £200, or at least three times as expensive as most other vacuum cleaners, the DC01 would prove to be too expensive. It sold really well.”

“The marketing team, who I listened to, said to me, ‘If you make it £200 cheaper you will sell a lot more [Dyson washing machines],’ and I believed them. We made it £200 cheaper and sold exactly the same number at £899.99 as we had a £1,089 and ended up losing even more money. I had made a classic mistake. This might sound counter-intuitive, but I should have increased the price. The Contrarotator was not meant to be a low cost washing machine.”

“Although there is no guarantee of success, disruptive ideas can revolutionise a company and its finances through intuition, imagination and risk-taking as opposed to market research, business plans and strategic investment.”

“Early on in our story, the [Dyson vacuum cleaner’s] clear bin was another ‘clear’ example of going our own way regardless. Trusting our own instincts, we decided to ignore the research and the retailers. Pete and I had been developing the vacuum cleaner and we loved seeing the dust and the dirt. We didn’t want to hide all the hard work the machine had done. Going against established ‘experts’ was a huge risk. No one could confirm that what we were doing was a good idea. Everyone, in fact, confirmed the reverse. The data were all against it. If, however, we had believed ‘the science’ and not trusted our instincts, we would have ended up following the path of dull conformity.”

Innovation, Constant Improvement & Change

“I greatly admire Soichiro Honda for his addiction to the continuous improvement of products. and Takeo Fujisawa. Their genius was to think against the grain while focusing on continuous improvement. The company [Honda] continues to invest a sizeable chunk of its income into R&D, aiming for constant improvement and innovation.”

“Rather like the way some sharks have to keep moving to stay alive, innovative engineering-led manufacturers need continuous innovation to stay competitive. Striving for new and better products is often what defines such companies. At Dyson, we never stand still. In a quarter of a century, we have gone from making a revolutionary vacuum cleaner to prototypes of a radical electric car. Invention tends to compound invention and companies need to be set up for this.”

“What was exciting is that, although our main focus was the vacuum cleaner, our thinking was that of a tech company. How else could we evolve cyclonic technology? What other uses could we put it to?

Investment in new technologies requires many leaps of faith and huge financial commitment over long periods.”

“I believe that it is critical to keep on improving and never to relax with a product that appears to be selling well. Permanently dissatisfied is how an engineer should feel.”

“Our product development process is now truly a twenty-four hours a day process.”

“What I can say is that if you came back to see what Dyson’s up to in five, ten, twenty or a hundred years from now, whether with our products or through our farms, things will be very different indeed. It’s all tremendously exciting and we should have cause for optimism.”

“Every day is an adventure and a response to the unexpected. Even if things appear to be in some kind of stasis, a company must move on. It has to get better, evolve and improve in order to survive. There is no greater danger than satisfaction.”

“What we do know is that companies always have to change to get better at what they do, plan to do and even dream of doing in the future. The adage that the only certainty is change is true, and this means not being afraid of change even if, for a company, it means dismantling what you have built in order to rebuild it stronger or killing your own successful product with a better one, as we did with our new format battery vacuum cleaners.”

Counter-Positioning

“Anyone watching me at work might reasonably have wondered why Electrolux and Hoover weren’t making and selling a vacuum cleaner like mine. With all their resources, surely they could have leaped ahead of me - one man and his dog, as it were, in a rural coach house - and cornered the market between them. There were though, at least three good reasons why they didn’t even think of pursuing a similar path to me. One, which went without saying, was that the ‘No Loss of Suction’ vacuum cleaner had yet to be invented. The second was that the vacuum cleaner bag replacement business was highly profitable. And the third, to my surprise, was that well established electrical goods companies seemed remarkably uninterested in new technology. With no outside challenges, they could afford to rest on their laurels. For the moment at least.”

“I went to see Electrolux, Hotpoint, Miele, Siemens, Bosch, AEG, Philips - the lot - and was rejected by every one of them. Although frustrating, what I did learn is that none of them was interested in doing something new and different. They were, as I had already understood, more interested in defending the vacuum cleaner bag market, worth more than $500 million in Europe alone at the time. Here, though was an opportunity. Might consumers be persuaded to stop spending so much on replacement bags, which, by the way, are made of spun plastic and are not biodegradable, and opt for a bag-less vacuum cleaner that offered constant suction instead? If so, I might stand a chance against these established companies.”

Multi-Disciplinary Approach

“I loved my time at the Royal College of Art not least because of its lively and inventive cross-disciplinary approach. Here, as I progressed, I realised that art and science, inventing and making, thinking and doing could be one and the same thing. I dared to dream that I could be an engineer, designer and manufacturer at one and the same time.”

Commerciality & The ‘Art of Selling’

Inventions, though, no matter how ingenious and exciting, are of little use unless they can be translated through engineering and design into products that stimulate or meet a need and can sell.”

“Even the most worthwhile and world changing inventions, from ballpoint pen to the Harrier Jump Jet, need to be a part of the process of making and selling to succeed.”

“Selling goes with manufacturing as wheels do with a bicycle. It is far more than flogging second-hand cars or contraband wristwatches. Products do not walk off shelves and into people’s homes, And when a product is entirely new, the art of selling is needed to explain it. What it is. How it works. Why you might need and want it.”

“Jeremy Fry taught me not to try to pressure people into buying but to ask them lots of questions about what they did, how they worked and what they might expect of a new product. Equally, I learned that most people don’t really know exactly what they want, or if they do it’s only from what they know , what is available or possible at the time. As Henry Ford said, famously if he asked American farmers what they wanted in terms of future transport, they would have answered ‘faster horses.’ You need to show them new possibilities, new ideas and new products and explain these as lucidly as possible. Dyson advertising focuses on how our products are engineered and how they work, rather than on gimmicks and snappy sales lines.”

Word of mouth and editorial remain the best way to tell people what you have done. It is far more believable than advertising and a real compliment when intelligent journalists want to go off and talk about your product on their own free will. If you have new technology and a new product, a journalist’s opinion and comment is far more important and believable than an advertisement.”

“Within eighteen months, the DC01 vacuum cleaner was the biggest seller in the UK market. Our first sales were through hefty mail order catalogues. These devoted a few pages to vacuum cleaners. We were among the last pages, at the bottom, with a small, square picture of the DC01… Ours was the most expensive in these catalogues by some margin and they were not the sort of place you would expect expensive items to be sold. Both we and the buyers at the catalogue were, in fact, astonished that DC01 did so well through their pages, with repeat orders coming in. I have never, though, believed that someone’s income is a bar to them wanting to buy the best product and a vacuum cleaner is an important purchase.”

We decided to highlight the Achilles’ heel of other vacuums - the bag and its shortcomings.”

I love the fact we tackled prosaic products, making the vacuum cleaner into a high-performance machine.”

“From the beginning we decided that we would create our own publicity materials and advertising. We would not use outside agencies. This is because we want to talk fearlessly about technology, which, of course is what had driven Dyson into being. Since we have developed the technology, we should know how to explain it to others.”

“I didn’t want anyone to buy our vacuum cleaner through slick advertising. I wanted them to buy it because it performed. We could be straightforward in what we said, explaining things simply and clearly.”

I believe that trustworthiness and loyalty come from striving to develop and make high performing products and then looking after customers who have bought them. I am not a believer in the theory that great marketing campaigns can replace great products. What you say should be true to who you are.”

Manufacturing

“Experience taught me that, ideally, a manufacturer - Dyson certainly - should aim to source as little as possible from outside the company. Those of us who drove British cars made in the 1970’s know pretty much exactly why. Poor assembly aside, what often let these cars down were components sourced from poor-quality external suppliers. Electrical failures were legion.”

“Obviously at Dyson we cannot make absolutely everything on own own, but we work with suppliers so that they are in tune with us, with our manufacturing standards and our values. Because what we’re doing is special and different, we can’t go to a company like Foxconn, for example. which makes well known American, Canadian, Chinese, Finnish & Japanese electronic products. Those products are mostly made from off-the-shelf components. We design our own components. We don’t buy them off the shelf.”

“You can manufacture good-quality, pioneering technology much more readily when you sit side by side with your suppliers rather than 10,000 miles away in a different time zone.”

We build close relationships with owners of factories so we can build our machines in their premises. The tooling, assembly lines and test stations are ours and we control the purchasing and quality. We don’t approach a sub-contractor and say, ‘Make me a product of this or this design.’ We tend to go to outfits which have never made vacuum cleaners before or hairdryers, robots, fans and heaters or purifiers or lights, and we teach their people to make things using our production methods. It’s a heavily engaged and involved process of learning and improvement.”

“We need other factories because, expanding at the rate of 25% each year, we simply couldn’t cope with the planning and building of new factories even in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philiipines.”

Going Global

“I knew that if Dyson was to be a successful technology company, rather than just a British vacuum cleaner manufacturer, we couldn’t be Little Englanders. We needed to become global, and quickly. England, and the rest of the United Kingdom, is simply not a big enough market on its own to sustain the constant and huge investment technology requires.”

“In 2004, we took the DC12 cylinder vacuum to Japan, calling it the ‘Dyson City.’ It was engineered specifically for the tiny, perfectly formed homes of Japan. We were amazed by its success. Within three months it had captured 20% of the Japanese market.”

“Dyson has become as much an Asian business as a British one: our products are sold in eighty-three countries around the world, so we are arguably a truly global company. Having started in Britain and consistently grown in Britain, we, for some time now, sell over 95% of our products in our global markets.”

Acquisitions

We are not in the business of buying up other companies. It may be a quick way to acquire technology or a business that would augment a company, but it can be difficult to assimilate the people and their ways of doing things. Usually, I feel, it’s better to start your own research project or your own business, which, although slower to begin with, develops organically and is stronger for it.”

Dyson Electric Car

“Because of the shifting commercial sand, we made the decision to pull out of production [of our electric car] at the very last minute. N526 was a brilliant car. Very efficient motors. Very aerodynamic. Wonderful to drive and be driven in. We just couldn’t ever have made money from it, and for all our enthusiasm for the project we were not prepared to risk the rest of Dyson.”

“Fortunately, we were able to stomach the £500 million cost and survive. We did, though, push ourselves to learn a great deal in areas including batteries, robotics, air treatment, and lighting. We also learned more about virtual engineering as a tool in the design process and how, we would be able to make products more quickly and less expensively. These were all valuable lessons for the future.”

Private Company & Long Term Thinking

“Today, Dyson is a global company. I own it, and this really matters to me. It remains a private company. Without shareholders to hold back, we are free to take long-term and radical decisions. I have no interest in going public with Dyson because I know that this would spell the end of the company’s freedom to innovate in the way it does.”

“When you own the whole company, and especially if you are free of debt, from the early days and for better or worse, all decisions are your own. So you take these very seriously and follow your own view of risk balanced, hopefully, with reward. This certainly sharpens the mind.”

“We’re one family-owned company following its interest and passions.”

The advantages of a family business are that they can think in the very long term, and invest in the long term, in ways public companies are unable to do. I also believe that family-owned enterprises have a spirit, conscience and philosophy often lacking in public companies.”

Win-Win & ESG

“In our first year in Currys [retailer], Mark Souhami, one of the bosses alongside the founder Stankley Kalms, invited me to lunch with them both. They explained that because of Dyson they were now making a profit in their vacuum cleaner section and he wanted more Dyson products.”

“I have always loathed companies that use ‘greenwash’ as part of their marketing. I would rather reduce our environmental impact quietly and by action. We were, and remain, a company primarily of engineers and because of this we have sought from the outset to use as little energy or materials as possible to solve or complete one particular task. Lean engineering is good engineering.”

“For me, as for all Dyson engineers, lightness - lean engineering and material efficiency - is a guiding principle. Using less material means using less energy in the process of making things. It also means lighter products that need less energy to power them and are easier to handle and so more pleasurable to use.”

Dyson has always focused on making long-lasting machines that use fewer resources while achieving higher performance. Lighter machines resulting from developing new technology and reinventing the format, consumer less energy and are not only better for the planet but also more pleasurable to use. Our cord-free vacuum cleaners, for instance, are a fraction of the weight and use a fraction of the electricity than their predecessors did. This has come about by taking an entirely different approach and developing new technology, motors and batteries, from the ground up.”

We must move ever closer to a culture whereby we minimise the use of materials through lean engineering along with the recycling of products at the end of their lives. It’s not just okay to politely offset our carbon footprint. We have to deal with it at source.”

“As Dyson, we are trying at every turn to touch the ground lightly in everything we do, to make more from less and to create a circular system through which we aim to recycle everything we use.”

Removing Middlemen

“Over the past three years we had been striving to sell more products direct to our customers ourselves, either online or through Dyson Demo stores. By early 2021 we had 356 Dyson stores. We have been opening them around the world so that customers can try our Dyson products in the best possible way. There are two reasons for this. First, we like to have a direct relationship with our customers, who are buying our product for which we are responsible, and we want to know how we can help them.

Secondly, retailers around the world are declining in numbers and sales. They are nothing like the force they were, due of course to the decline of the high street and the rise of internet shopping. If you want to buy from a website, why not buy from the Dyson website! Why not deal directly with the manufacturer?’”

“When I started out with the vacuum cleaner business, wholesales and retailers made most of the money .. which is why today a lot of our sales at Dyson are direct.

Cutting out the middleman, and those who add no value, ought to be a popular national campaign. It would mean a possibility of profit for risk takers and producers, and lower prices for consumers.”

Listen to Customers

Listening to what our users say is gold dust and I really enjoy reading or hearing about complaints. We devised a system of reporting all remarks heard by customers in stores or by store salespeople from all over the world, so that everyone in the company can see this priceless intelligence.”

Optimism

I have great faith that science and technology can solve problems, from more sustainable and efficient products to the production of more and better food, and a more sustainable world. It is technological and scientific breakthroughs, far more than messages of doom, that will lead to this world. We need to go forwards optimistically into the future as if into the light, and with bright new ideas rather than darkness and end to human ingenuity portrayed by doomsayers.”

“The depressing thing is that harbingers of doom and gloom get far more attention than optimists and problem solvers. I feel very strongly that progress should be embraced and encouraged, and it is a duty of governments and companies to catalyse the ideas of the progressive and harness them to achieve good ends.”

Summary

Most people would consider someone who’d failed 5,126 times and succeeded just once, a failure. Yet, that’s exactly what James Dyson did. That one success was the acorn that grew into a $US10 billion dollar fortune (talk about asymmetric returns!)

There’s a myriad of lessons for inventors, investors and entrepreneurs in the pages of this book. Many of the lessons are equally applicable to each endeavour; maintaining focus, taking a long term view, continuously learning, challenging conventional wisdom and adopting a multi-disciplinary mindset.

As you delve into the story an investment case emerges and the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together. An inventive fanatic full of passion, tenacity, resilience and self-belief recognises a prosaic industry that’s been neglected by technology and ripe for disruption. The target market is huge and somewhat immune from the vagaries of the economic cycle. A kernel of inventive insight, a variant perception on consumers preparedness to pay more for quality products and constant iteration leads to the development of a revolutionary product.

Driven by a purpose beyond wealth accumulation (obliquity), a ‘technology’ business emerges. Full control of the ecosystem and intellectual property become further competitive attributes difficult to challenge. As technology compounds (a’la Brian Arthur) the barriers to competition widen. The tone is set from the top - a culture of continuous innovation and rejecting the status quo flourishes. Risk taking on a scale where failure is tolerable (a’la Palchinsky principle) is encouraged, creating new possibilities. Private ownership and low debt affords a long term view - no one is watching the quarterly shot clock.

While there is no spreadsheet or financial model, there is a full scale mental model, or theory, developing. The component mental models, together, shed light on the Dyson company’s extraordinary success. My contention is this latter model will prove more useful in determining whether Dyson will continue to prosper in the future.

Let’s not forget however, that without James Dyson, there would be no Dyson. Like many of the great businesses we’ve studied, it started with a fanatic.

Source: James Dyson - Invention: A Life,’ James Dyson, Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Further Learning:

James Dyson - Invention: A Life - Interactive Portal.’

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