Someone you've not heard of cleans up the opposition

Tom Stevenson on James Dyson and the success of his revolutionary vacuum cleaner
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The Independent Online
James Dyson may be the most successful businessman you've never heard of, but his anonymity is likely to be short-lived. An award-winning designer, the revolutionary vacuum cleaner he launched only three years ago is taking Britain by storm and threatening to make Dyson as familiar a household name as Hoover itself.

He has looked bankruptcy in the eye on many occasions, faced down the wrath of the giant corporations that dominate the electrical appliance industry and which ridiculed his invention, fought off international conspiracies to plagiarise his designs, and come out on top.

With not a shred of assistance from the venture capitalists you might have thought were set up to fund just his sort of business, James Dyson has built up a company turning over pounds 100m a year and tripling in size every 12 months.

And because of the brick wall he came up against in funding his crazy dream, he owns the lot. A former Royal College of Art student, he is the sole beneficiary of a company with ambitions to dominate the household appliances market in the UK and, who knows, around the world.

The Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner is not Mr Dyson's first familiar invention. He was behind the odd-looking ball-barrow that for a while dominated the wheelbarrow market. But it is the most lucrative and certainly the most improbable. As one early critic wrongly pointed out, "If this is so much better how come Hoover hasn't invented it already."

That Mr Dyson's machine is so much better than its rivals is proved by the chart below, showing how it has come from nowhere to dominate its market in only three years. Half-a-million consumers this year have been prepared to shell out more than twice as much as they would have had to pay for a rival cleaner.

Like most successful inventions, the principle is simple. By filtering dust in a funnel of air spinning at up to 900 miles per hour, Mr Dyson has dispensed with the paper bags that other cleaners use to catch the filth but which clog up in a matter of minutes. It is estimated that a traditional cleaner loses half its suction after cleaning just one room - the Dyson remains 100 per cent efficient indefinitely.

The most remarkable thing about the Dual Cyclone, however, is not its technology but the fact that it exists at all, given the decade long struggle Mr Dyson had to raise the funds he needed to bring it to market. Having sunk pounds 4.5m of his own money into the project, largely earned from overseas licensing of his patented design, the last pounds 1m to bring the Dual Cyclone to market should have been a stroll. It proved impossible, however, to raise this relatively modest sum in the private equity markets.

"You're just a designer, they said; get a professional manager from the industry and we'll back you. But I thought: this is my show and I'm going to run it." Only a believer at Lloyds Bank, who overturned an original refusal to lend, allowed the cleaner to reach the shops at all.

"It's clear they were not backing me partly because I was a designer but also because they are not interested in backing new technology" says Dyson. "Of course I'm eternally grateful to people for not giving me any money because now I own 100 per cent of the business."

The growth of that business has been prodigious. Launched in March 1993, sales reached pounds 3m in the first year, pounds 10m the following, quadrupled to pounds 40m in 1995, from which Dyson netted an pounds 8m profit, and are forecast to reach a staggering pounds 100m this year.

As the chart shows, during that time Dyson has left its competitors standing. Partly thanks to its pounds 199 price tag the Dyson dominates the market by value. In unit terms too it is poised to overtake Electrolux.

The challenge for the company now is to manage this exponential growth without becoming just the sort of complacent, bloated multinational it has had to fight along the way. For now the art student ethos lives on and Mr Dyson refuses to allow anyone to wear a suit to work: "People use them as a shield. They think 'everything I say will carry weight because I'm wearing a suit and therefore I'm a businessman'. I want people to behave like human beings."