From the top · 23 May 2017

A lesson in innovation from James Dyson the inventor

James Dyson founded his Dyson company in 1987 and is personally worth £7.8bn
James Dyson founded his Dyson company in 1987 and is personally worth £7.8bn

In March 2017, Dyson was voted by the British public as the most reputable brand in the country. The company beat all other rivals based on factors such as products, innovation, workplace, leadership and performance.

This legacy earned founder James Dyson the title of “the godfather of gadgets”, while former prime minister David Cameron celebrated the Dyson brand as a “great British success story”.

Business Advice took a closer look at Dyson’s career as an entrepreneur to find out what lessons could inspire future business leaders.

Challenge the status quo

Every business has its competitors, and every successful founder will keep a close eye on the activity of rival brands.

Dyson’s main competition, Hoover, dominated the market to such an extent it effectively became a verb for vacuum cleaning. To frame the scale of Dyson’s task in context, it would be similar to launching a new online search engine.

However, Dyson knew he had clear selling point over Hoover – the end of disposable cleaner bags. Dyson’s famous “say goodbye to the bag” TV advertising slogan proved a hit with British consumers and propelled the brand into household status.

By 1999, Dyson products had seen such market success that a High Court ruled that Hoover had copied a fundamental part of its patented design.

Dyson was not daunted by the size of the competition – instead, the challenge fuelled decades of successful innovation for the brand.

There is no “eureka!” moment

It took James Dyson 15 years and 5,127 prototypes to get his original idea for a vacuum cleaner to the market in 1993. If there is one lesson here for any entrepreneur dreaming of success, it is the value of determination and a long-term vision over immediate expectations.

While your early products or services might have succeeded, there will always be new materials, new capabilities and new problems to solve. Even the classic Dyson vacuum cleaner has been reworked and reintroduced over 35 times.

Innovation is a process – a frustrating one that is littered with failures, frustration and backward steps. Fusing ambition with patience is key to success for business founders.

One of the entrepreneur’s own inspirations, inventor Thomas Edison, famously said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that did not work.” It remains a powerful lesson in belief and commitment.

Writing for Wired himself, Dyson spoke of the need to “foster an environment where failure is embraced”. As a small business owner, it isn’t failure itself that should be feared, but the day failure stops inspiring the recovery.

Never stop innovating

“Everyone gets knocked back, no one rises smoothly to the top without hindrance. The ones who succeed are those who say, right, let’s give it another go,” James Dyson once told Management Today.

Despite the overwhelming success of the original vacuum cleaner, Dyson continued to look for inspiration and design new products.

In 2000, he added a washing machine to the Dyson range. The product was a commercial failure, but as the inventor said, “everyone gets knocked back”.

“No one rises smoothly to the top without hindrance. The ones who succeed are those who say, right, let’s give it another go.”

By 2006, the Dyson brand launched the Airblade hand drier that revolutionised an entire industry. The product was more energy efficient, hygenic and worked around four times faster than market competitors. As recently as 2016, Dyson incorporated similar technology into a new line of hairdryers.

The success of the Dyson brand is testament to its founder’s passion for innovation.

Trust your instincts

In a demonstration of trust in his own judgement, Dyson has resisted turning his brand into a publicly listed company.

Explaining the decision to remain a private company, he explained his long-term thinking – the freedom to double research investment every two years, with certain projects approaching 20-years old.

Adopt an international mind-set

Dyson has been vocal regarding new openings for British enterprise following Britain’s exit from the EU. For Dyson, a whole world of new exporting opportunities could be on the horizon with familiar commonwealth states as well as emerging economies in Africa and South America.

Shortly after the EU referendum in 2016, Dyson said exiting the single Market would “liberate” UK businesses.

“Europe’s only 15 per cent of the global market and the really fast-expanding markets are in the Far East,” Dyson told the BBC in March 2017.

…but acknowledge the value of home-grown production

Since 2002, Dyson products have been manufactured in Malaysia, leaving it’s headquarters in Wiltshere. However, James Dyson has started to campaign for greater levels of production on British shores.

He has acknowledged the growing skills gaps within the UK workforce, including his own, and the Dyson Institute of Technology – a university with an expanding campus in the South West of England, has attempted to improve Britain’s design and manufacturing capabilities.

There is lot to be said of the international potential of “brand Britain”. Although hand-made, local manufacturing inevitably has its costs, a growing number of entrepreneurs are tapping into overseas demand for authentic British brands.

Smart recruitment

Dyson once wrote that his company were not interested in “the glossiest CVs”, but sought out the stars of the future who relished problem solving. He attributed his company’s long-term success to his belief in looking past traditional qualifications and employing a diverse workforce.

For new startups, finding the right team to help grow a company from early stages is vital. Hiring a diverse range of skill sets will make the business more adaptable, and as a business leader it’s important to look beyond traditional criteria. Extra language skills, for example, could prove indispensable when taking a business into overseas markets.

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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