James Dyson: He sweeps as he cleans as he spins. What's next from the ideas factory?
A day in the life of the chairman and founder of Dyson
Saturday 27 May 2006
Early mornings sound rather a delight in the Dyson household. For starters, there are the home-laid eggs for breakfast. They get served with the ritual glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. And then there is the cup of fresh ginger tea. Boiled straight from the tap in a contraption called a Quooker. You have to wonder if James Dyson could have reinvented the kettle any better himself.
Today is a Malmesbury day for the man who must surely dream of becoming a verb. Which means his commute is a 25-minute drive down country lanes in his Range Rover (the iconic, boxy model) to the Wiltshire town where his factory is based. The town hit the headlines four years ago when Mr Dyson decided it was economic nonsense to keep making his bagless vacuum cleaners there, and so, to the consternation of trade unions and many townsfolk alike, he shipped production to Malaysia. Dyson the company, according to the inventor, is now four times the size it was then, has annual exports of £350m - and pays 20 times as much tax - and has not looked back.
Founding, running and owning your own business - he couldn't persuade any of the dominant multinationals to invest in a product that would have killed off the money-spinning replacement bag market - lifts a fair bit of life's normal daily pressures off Mr Dyson's shoulders. The 59-year-old engineer-cum-designer is having one of his favourite sorts of days. The ones he gets to spend engrossed at the "ethereal" end of coming up with the sort of new inventions that help to smooth over some of everyday life's rougher corners.
He pauses in his office to check his e-mails and briefly make contact with the world beyond Wiltshire before striding down to the factory that is home to the ranks of Dyson boffins. He finds the vast building reminiscent of a "cathedral or aircraft hangar", with its high, high ceiling and rows of designers. There, in the space designed by the architect Chris Wilkinson and Tony Hunt, one of the former Royal College of Art student's teachers, he plays with tomorrow's vacuum cleaners, washing machines, housework-programmed robots and other, secret, projects that he is keeping under wraps.
The inventor's life, he says, is "one of failure". Take the 5,100-odd attempts to crack that bagless cleaner. Since when he estimates he's made another 500,000-plus models in his constant cycle of reinventing and improving his multi-coloured offspring.
"When you watch a writer on a movie programme tearing up page after page, you think he's in utter despair. And, in many ways, that's what it's like for us, but you learn much more in fact from an experiment which didn't work out how you intended, but instead sheds some light on possibly another way of doing something. It can get very depressing but then suddenly, one day you make a break through, and that's very exciting."
Inventing, he adds, has to be like that "because a patent is only granted for something which could not have been devised by one skilled in the art. So in that sense it is unexpected". The downside is that when you strike gold - or in Dyson parlance crack the Next Vacuuming Big Thing - it can be a bit unsatisfying because you didn't necessarily mean to end up there. "You don't say, 'Ooh, wasn't I clever?' You say, 'Ooh, wasn't that remarkable? But you have to be slightly outré, I think, to recognise virtue in a failure and be prepared to follow something that's risky and unlikely. And invest time and money in it."
It might be lunchtime in the macrocosm outside Malmesbury but Mr Dyson often prefers to work straight through. This week he is making up for time lost from his day spent up in London at meetings talking about how well his company did financially last year. (Pre-tax profits topped £100m, just, for the first time on turnover up by a fifth to £470m.) The challenge is to find more ways to use the baby motor that powers the baby Dyson invented to take on the giants of the Japanese vacuum cleaning world in their home market with a model that fits their tiny Tokyo flats. The motor, which he tends to carry round with him to whisk out at a moment's notice, took 11 years, 20 brains and £18m to get right and spins round at 1,666 revolutions per second - five times faster than a Formula One racing car engine.
Mr Dyson is suitably vague about his current projects on the go. With good reason, given the multimillion-pound fight he had with Hoover when it tried to pass off his bagless invention as one of its own. He does, however, share his top tip on what not to do for all those wannabe Wallaces out there.
"You can't go out and do market research to try to solve these problems about what to do next because usually, or very often, you're doing the opposite of what market research would tell you. You can't base a new project two years ahead on current market trends and what users are thinking at the moment. That sounds very arrogant. But it isn't arrogance. You can't go and ask your customers to be your inventors. That's your job."
Handily for the mild-mannered, well-spoken entrepreneur who has described himself as Britain's most successful export since the Beatles, inspiration for the inventor comes from the unlikeliest of places. Three years ago he set out to create a storm at the Chelsea Flower Show by dreaming up a garden that had no green and yellow in it whatsoever. All the plants had to be blue and red. Water flowed uphill and glass benches were designed to look like they'd break and topple over. He claims the outcome was "not very trendy", meaning it lacked the requisite bank of wild flowers to win, yet he still walked away with a gold medal.
Then there's the table. Mr Dyson thought it might "be nice" to have a table with no legs. At all. So in the company's boardroom there is a giant glass table that is suspended from the ceiling by four cables. Another cable in the centre anchors it to the floor. And there you have the perfect example of how form fuses with function in Mr Dyson's world.
The form versus function debate is important because Mr Dyson ditched his job chairing the Design Museum because he was worried that function was being sacrificed for the more frivolous form. (An exhibition on flower arranging on the heels of one on Manolo Blahnik shoes tipped him over the edge.) He has obsessed about how to "marry" the two disciplines ever since leaving the Royal College of Art in the late 1960s. "At that time industrial design was being taught as a profession to make things look good. I wanted to reinvent the technology to make it perform better. That was very counter culture back then. An engineer was an engineer in a white coat and a rather boring person and the designers were having all the fun and making things look good."
It is arguably as much for the vacuum cleaners' looks as for their sucking abilities that the Japanese have bought into Dyson in such a big way. Unlike in the States, where Dyson prospered in part thanks to a cameo appearance doing Monica's housework on the sitcom Friends, the company's success in Japan has been down to the quirkiness of that baby model, with its mini motor. With the way flat sizes are going in the rest of the Western world - the sums show New York flats are halving in size every three years, which means "they won't have any space at all in nine years" - Mr Dyson expects great things from the DC12.
He likes to be home by early evening, even if he's had one of his days in London, for dinner with his wife, Deirdre, before slumping with a book and grabbing an early night.
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