Dyson: Against the Odds

6 minute read

I liked this book alot. James Dyson is a household name and the story of how he went through life in the unfavorable entrepreneurial conditions of the UK is a fascinating one. (Also, he upholds the perennial British sense of humor)

He starts off an artist, but then later describes how he switched to engineering (which is the ultimate form of expression), and business as the best way of getting that across to the audience. He blames the British education system for failing him by making children choose between the two at such a young age (and making that choice a mutually exclusive one). Funny enough, these are the exact same schools that we try so hard to emulate.

Lessons learned

  1. The importance of hard work.
  2. Don’t overthink things; just do it.
  3. Selling to the masses at low margin is risky. It’s selling high margin products that’s less so.

Notable Notes

Out attitude to development and designers is blighted by short-termism. You have to show a quick turnaround and immediate profit. Engineering and design isn’t abut that; it is a long-term way of regenerating a company and, by extension, a country. If the city fatcats and the banks, the monsters and the Thatcher revolution made into prime movers, demand an instant return, we just sell our products better. We don’t improve them. Advertising is the British answer to everything. But that is the way to a fast buck, not real money.

This is in contrast to the Japanese way of doing things:

The Japanese always took the opposite view. They put no faith in individualists, and lived an anti-brilliance culture. And that was healthy. They know full well that quantum leaps are very rare, but the constant development will result, in the end, in a better product. And that is a mindset I share with them.

In running, your performance is absolute. I was out there learning how to do something, and getting a visible result.

To this day, it is the fear of failure, more than anything else, which makes me keep working at success.

There was, and I believe still is, a pride taken by academics in not knowing how to make things with their hands, though why ignorance of anything should be cause for celebration I really don’t know.

I think this is true with so many people. It gives academics an excuse for not keeping up with the times (which requires constant effort).

The only way to make a genuine breakthrough was to pursue a vision with single-minded determination in the face of criticism.

To make real progress in the way we live, or think we live, it was not enough to be just a designer. You had to be an engineer as well.

I learnt the crucial business principle that would guide my later attempts at making money from invention: the only way to make real money is to offer the public something entirely new, that has style value as well as substance, and which they cannot get anywhere else.

Like Brunel, he did not, when an idea came to him, sit down and process it through pages of calculations; he didn’t argue it through with anyone; he just went out and built it.

If it didn’t work one way, he would just try it another way, until it did.

Amazing. I am guilty of overthinking things (as I’m sure many of the engineering inclined are too), but it’s often just so much better to actually implement rather than overthink.

The root principle was to do things your way. It didn’t matter how other people did it. It didn’t matter if it could be done better.

I learnt then one of he most crucial business lessons of my life: to stint on investment in the early stages, to try to sell a half-finished product, is to doom from the start any project you embark on.

Many of the advantages, you see, were simply not perceived by the builder as advantages at all, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, and all the things that would make it so popular with gardeners were utterly irrelevant to him.

The great, indeed only, selling point of the thing was the quality which ultimately made it unsellable.

Finding a market between the needs of the maker of the product, the user and the customer.

Slow, slow, slow. These things cannot be hurried. When you develop a prototype you have to change only one thing at a time. If you are really going to improve things, and that is what inventing is all about, then you are going to have to be patient. Very patient.

Invention requires patience.

People do not want all purpose; they want high tech specificity.

It is about discovering a need and satisfying it, not creating a need.

What we were attempting to offer was a panacea to all your gardening troubles. And the thing was too universal, too all-purpose. Had we begun it as, say, a greenhouse watering system, with a single timesaving benefit, thus appealing to a specific need, it would have bedded down nicely into a real market. We could then have gradually introduced the other ideas and made a real success of it.

This is something I’ve observed myself in many products today. It’s often more dangerous to have a generic fit-all product than a niche one. The niche one either lives or dies, but the general one usually crawls and trickles but never picks up unless you deliberately focus it on a particular niche.

I believe it is the tunnel vision that sees money as makeable only by selling cheap things by the truckload, that is by far the riskier tactic in the end.

It is received wisdom in the appliance market that brand is important. But I know that myth could be exploded. Brand is only important when two products are identical; it is not important if one of the products has better technology or a better design than the other.

On Advertising

You can’t sell more than one message t a time, or you lose the belief of the consumer, and head to establish beyond all question, that our machine overcame a problem that all of the other systems suffered from.

Once people had enquired about the Dyson in a store they were given a fold-out triptych showing the machine, with every element of its construction explained, and every benefit enumerated. There were no superlatives, and no persuasion, just facts.

We produced this little booklet that told, in a couple of hundred words (nicely written by Tony’s friend Nick Rootes of the Rootes Cars family), the story of the Dual Cyclone and .. well, the story you have just been reading yourself. We persuaded our retails to hang one on every Dyson in their shop, with the result that all the sales staff read it, and knew a bit about it, and that customers, even if they had come in for something else, would end up bending over the vacuum cleaner to read the story.

Very Musk-ian in his approach to “selling” (Tesla follows the same strategy with their showrooms — don’t sell, explain).

On overcoming the stigma of British manufacturing

In Britain nobody wants British manufacturing at all. But British technology can make great leaps, and early in 1995 I proved it.

This is very similar to the feeling you find among Arabs towards their own products. The best approach to counter such stigma, it would seem, is to build great products (incidentally, the same formula for building a great company).

Other practical tips

  • Everyone who starts work at Dyson makes a vacuum cleaner on their first day… it means that everyone in the company understands how the cleaner is put together, how it works, and why, because of its design, it is better.
  • I do not want my employees to think like businessmen. As soon as they start thinking like businessmen they will think that the company is all about making money, and it is not.
  • Employ graduates straight from university. The basic reason for this is that they are unsullied. They have not been strapped into a suit and taught to think by a company with nothing on its mind but short-term profit and early retirement.

Other readings

  • The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, Robert Marles
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel (person)
  • The Edisonian Principle (concept)
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