Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Sir James Dyson, the founder and chairman of Dyson. Through investment in science and technology and working alongside Dyson’s 6,000 engineers and scientists, he develops products that solve problems ignored by others. Sir James was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2015 and appointed to the Order of Merit in the 2016 New Year Honours. He was awarded a CBE in 1996 and a Knight Bachelor in 2007.
James is the founder of James Dyson Foundation, inspiring the next generation of engineers through scholarships, engineering workshops, university partnerships, and the annual James Dyson Award, an international student design competition. In 2017 James established The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, where undergraduate engineers pay zero tuition and earn a full salary while completing their degree studies and working on real-life projects alongside world-experts in Dyson’s global engineering, research, and technology teams.
James is the author of the new book Invention: A Life, the story of how he came to be an inventor himself and built Dyson, leading it to become one of the most inventive technology companies in the world.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies, and germs, this is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job, every episode, to interview world-class performers from different disciplines to tease out the habits, lessons, and so on that you can apply and test in your own lives.
My guest today is none other than Sir James Dyson. Sir James Dyson is the founder and chairman of, as you guessed it, Dyson. Through investment in science and technology and working alongside Dyson’s 6,000, that’s 6,000, you heard me correctly, engineers and scientists, he developed products that solve problems ignored by others.
Sir James was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2015 and appointed to the Order of Merit in the 2016 new year honors. He was awarded a CBE in 1996 and a night bachelor in 2007. James is the founder of James Dyson Foundation, inspiring the next generation of engineers through scholarships, engineering workshops, university partnerships, and the annual James Dyson Award, an international student design competition. In 2017, James established the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology where undergraduate engineers pay zero tuition and earn a full salary while completing their degree studies and working on real life projects alongside world experts in Dyson’s global engineering research and technology teams.
James is the author of the brand new book, Invention, subtitle, A Life, the story of how he came to be an invention himself and built Dyson, leading it to become one of the most inventive technology companies in the world. James, welcome to the show.
Sir James Dyson: Oh, it’s very nice to meet you too. I look forward to our discussion.
Tim Ferriss: And I’ve many questions. And I come to this conversation as not just a fan and admirer, but consumer and user of your products. I have a Dyson V11 Animal about 40 feet from where I’m sitting. I have hot and cool purifying fans throughout the house because my girlfriend and I otherwise fight over the central heating. And I want to cover some familiar ground just to establish context for people. But we’ll bounce around as I mentioned before we started recording. And I thought we would start with a name and to ask for some context. And that name is Jeremy Fry. Could you tell us who Jeremy Fry was?
Sir James Dyson: Yeah, he was the scion of the chocolate family, the Fry’s chocolate family, but was an inventor. In fact, his father who worked in the Fry’s chocolate family was also a better inventor than he was businessman. But anyway, so I don’t think their shares in Fry’s reversed very much by the time they sold them. But no, Jeremy was an inventor, and was the chairman and founder of an engineering company. And I went to see him to ask him for money actually, because I’d done a theater project, which used the same architectural roof system that he had used in his own factory. He’d pulled the entire factory roof up by himself with pulleys and ropes because it frayed light aluminium structure, a Buckminster Fuller type structure. And I designed a theater shaped like a mushroom for the theatrical impresario Joan Littlewood.
And I knew he was a millionaire, so I wondered if you’d be interested in funding it. And he said, “I’m not going to give you any money at all, but I can see you’re an ambitious designer.” Said, “Why don’t you design some things for me?” And that was when I was still at college, so I spent three further years at college. And then he offered me a job, and I went to work for him making and selling and designing a boat that I had designed for him. His invention, but I’d engineered it for him. And over the years, I only actually worked for him for about five years, and then I branched out on my own. But I came back and we had a joint company together for a few years. Developing a wheel boat, a boat went across the water on its own wheels, propelled and floated by its own wheels. And also we did the vacuum cleaner together and a very interesting wheelchair together, electric wheelchair.
Tim Ferriss: How old were you when you first approached him for possible financing, which he rejected? But what was the age, you would have been, 19, 20?
Sir James Dyson: I was 20, 21. Yes, exactly. 20, 21.
Tim Ferriss: And what did you initially go to a university to study? Was it design? And if it was design, within what fields were you hoping to focus?
Sir James Dyson: Well, that’s very interesting question. I did classics at school, Latin Greek and ancient history, but I also did art. And of course I enjoyed art much more than Latin Greek and ancient history. And I wondered if there was a career in art. And so I went to art school as an experiment more than anything else. In my first year, I discovered that there was this subject called design. And in the mid ’60s, 1965, design was not something that was talked about or publicized in the press or magazines. And there was no good design in shops either. So I didn’t know what it was.
And when I was told about it was, it intrigued me. And I managed to get into the Royal College of Art to study furniture design. Actually, I quickly switched to architecture because I thought it was more exciting and more intellectually challenging. That’s not to put down furniture designers, it’s just that it intrigued me more. So I spent two years doing architecture. That’s how I came to do this Buckminster Fuller type building. And that’s how I came to meet the chairman of an engineering company. And that’s what really turned me into an amateur engineer. I have to stress that I am an amateur engineer, I’m not a trained engineer. And I hope I think like an engineer.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s dig into that last statement because I think there’s probably a lot there. What does it mean to think like an engineer to you?
Sir James Dyson: That’s a very interesting question. Whenever I look at anything, I wonder how it works, and then I wonder how it could work better. Could I make it work better? Is there a technology I could use? Is there a way I can reconfigure it? Is there a radical breakthrough I could do for lateral thinking that would make a huge difference? So I just think like that all the time. It could be said to be rather irritating to analyze every single thing you look at and reject it because it’s horrid or it doesn’t work very well, but that’s how I’m built. That’s when I realized that I should have been an engineer, I should have trained as an engineer, but that’s all right. I just did it wrong way round, that’s all.
Tim Ferriss: I wasn’t going to say it too early in this conversation, but James, just imagine what you could have done had you had a formal engineering career. It’s a joke. I think you’ve done quite well.
Sir James Dyson: It’s a joke, but actually it’s a serious point because I have quite a number of engineers who trained as an engineer and then trained as designers. And I’ve got a few others like me who trained as designers and have them become an engineer. And actually I can’t do the calculations that engineers do, but I hope that I think like an engineer and have the same sort of enthusiasm and fascination and curiosity. And that’s what’s really important.
Tim Ferriss: Were those fostered in any memorable way by your parents or by other people when you were growing up, when you were in your younger, formative years?
Sir James Dyson: Well, probably not, because my father died when I was nine and he was in hospital from when I was six to when I was nine. And as I said, I did classics at school, so I didn’t spend any time really in the physics labs or the chemistry labs. But I was interested in how things work and I did take things apart and try to put them back together again. And I did try to build lighting systems. And certainly when I was 18, I bought an old car and had to learn how to repair that. So I don’t think it was something I was really taught. And if anything, I’m an autodidact and not someone who’s ever taught anything. And actually I don’t particularly like being taught things, I like to discover things rather than be taught them. Not a very cooperative person.
Tim Ferriss: That’s probably one of your superpowers, I would imagine. In a lot of respects, at least from what I’ve gleaned. If there are parents listening, and I somewhat selfishly ask this because I’m planning on starting a family soon, but is the way to nurture that curiosity through discovery, through projects, like offering kids the opportunity to disassemble things and reassemble, or simply disassemble? Do you have any thoughts related to how to foster and nurture that, perhaps not by direct teaching, but through other ways of approaching it?
Sir James Dyson: Well, yes. I think learning by discovering, by failure, by making mistakes, by being curious about things, curious the way you make things, be curious about the way things work. To discover why some things work well and some things work badly. And the thing I’ve noticed with my children is that they too don’t really like being taught things. They all learn empirically, by self discovery. I was just astonished to find, I had lathes and mills at home in the workshop and I turned around one day and there was my 14-year-old son working the lathe, I’d never taught him. And he’s gone through his life like that.
And my son, who’s a musician, has taught himself to play all the instruments. He plays, the flute, the piano, and the guitar. And has taught himself how to work all the systems, the recording systems. And I think it’s the best way to learn, and it’s the most exciting way to learn. And a lot of it is failure, of course. And I did want to call my book A Life of Failure because failure’s exciting and you learn from failure. If you’re taught something and then what you do works, you haven’t really learned anything. You haven’t learned what doesn’t work, which is usually more interesting.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you have a long, illustrious CV full of successes. But the connective tissue would seem to be hundreds or thousands of what some people might consider failures, I suspect you view them perhaps slightly differently. But if you wouldn’t mind, could you tell us the genesis story of the vacuum? If you wouldn’t mind sharing the origin story. I think that would be a good jumping off point for a lot of other questions.
Sir James Dyson: Yes. Well, when I was young, the only machine we had at home, we didn’t really have any money when I grew up, was a vacuum cleaner. It was a little, old-fashioned, upright vacuum container with a huge pillowcase on the back, this sort of thing. And I just remember, I was made to clean the house with it by my mother. And I just remember the horrible smell of stale dog and stale dust, it not picking things up, and then having to go outside and shake the bag out and then restarting the machine and it still not working very well. So I just remembered that from my childhood. And then when I was, like you, starting a family and had a wife and so on, I bought a second-hand one of these original type of vacuum cleaners with the pillowcase on the back hanging off of it. Same experience. So I thought, “Well, there must be a more modern version.” So we went to the shops, me and my wife, and we bought what was allegedly the most powerful vacuum cleaner in the world. And it was a canister model that sits on the ground.
You don’t push it along like a lawnmower, you pull it around with a hose. And it had paper bags, it advanced from pillowcases to paper bags. And I had experienced the same thing. You know, it wasn’t picking things up, it was smelling of nasty, stale dog and stale dust, it wasn’t picking things up. So I couldn’t find a replacement bag cause I assumed the bag was full. So I went down and tipped the contents into the garbage can and a gaffer taped or scotch taped the end back up again. So I had an empty bag, it’s not a bag full, it’s an empty bag, and I put it back in the vacuum cleaner. And still no suction. And I thought, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. What’s this all about? I was told that when the bag is full, you have to change the bag. What I’m discovering is that an empty bag has no suction.” So I thought about it, being someone with an engineering bent, and the penny dropped that all the airflow had to go through the bag. The bag wasn’t a depository where the dust went, the bag is a filter.
And the very first dust that goes into the bag, whether it’s a pillowcase or a cloth bag, clogs the bag, the dust goes straight for those holes, because dust wants to get out, it’s taken there by the airflow. When the holes are blocked, the airflow is blocked, so you lose your suction. So I went down to the shops and bought a replacement bag, put it in the machine, and had very good suction to begin with. And then it rapidly tailed off as I vacuumed. So I thought, well, this is crazy. If you buy a light bulb, it’s supposed to give you a hundred watts, well that’s more difficult now with LEDs, but it’s supposed to give you a hundred watts. And it gives you the hundred watts till it goes pop. You get a hundred percent performance. What you’re getting with this vacuum cleaner is a heavily reducing performance. This is awful, I’m annoyed, I’m angry.
Anyway, so my anger was simmering within me. Until I was installing a dry powder coating machinery, huge machine, to spray my wheelbarrow frames, because I was making the Ballbarrow, a wheelbarrow at the time. And we used a cloth filter to trap the powder that missed the frames, it was sucked away with a giant fan. But every hour, the cloth clogged and you had to shut down the whole machine, shake off the cloth and put the cloth back up again. And I asked around the industry what intelligent people used. And they said, “Oh, they use a cyclone to collect the dust, not that filter thing you’ve got, that cloth thing you’ve got.” So I got a quote for one and it was a huge amount of money, I simply couldn’t afford it. So I decided to build one over a couple of weekends. It was 30 foot high and the chimney at the top stuck through the factory roof.
And we collected the dust in a plastic bag at the bottom of the cyclone. And the machine ran beautifully all day long without ever clogging, and we collected the dust at the bottom and reused it. And then of course I connected it, this clogging filter with the clogging bag in the vacuum cleaner. And I wonder, “Why can’t you use a little version of what the 30 foot high one, what about a one foot high one? What’s that going to be like?” So I rushed home and made a cardboard version of this huge one, it was only a foot high. And put it onto the back of my upright vacuum cleaner, because I’d kept the upright one, and pushed it around and it appeared to work. So I always say that was the first vacuum cleaner that doesn’t lose suction. I didn’t know the efficacy, I didn’t know how well it collected the fine dust, all I knew was that it was collecting the dog hairs and the dust that was on the floor. So that’s really the genesis of it.
Tim Ferriss: Now, from what I’ve read, it was an immediate success, you licensed it to the world’s largest companies and henceforth amassed this great fortune and influence. Is that how it panned out? I’m joking, of course.
Sir James Dyson: I wish. No. Well, no. First of all, I offered the idea to the Ballbarrow company and they weren’t interested. What they actually said was, which is something — a refrain that I was to hear many, many times over the next few years, “Look, if there was a better vacuum cleaner, one of those big vacuum cleaner companies would have done it, so we’re not interested in it.” So we had a parting of the ways and I went to see Jeremy Fry, my old mentor, and he agreed to back the development of the vacuum cleaner. And so we had a 50/50 company. And I was able to devote my whole energies on my own to developing the cyclone for use in the vacuum cleaner. I went around to see, there was an expert at Porton Down, which is a very famous chemical warfare establishment in England. And the head of that had written a book on filtration devices, cyclones, electrostatic precipitators, and all that sort of thing.
He said, “You’ll never make it work in a vacuum cleaner because cyclones are only good down to 20 microns.” And as I knew, household dust is less than one micron, down to half a micron or even less. So that was interesting challenge. So I went back home. And there are some formulae for making successful cyclones. And I got my old maths teacher who happened to be the husband of my godmother to help me with the first maths to work out the formulae. So I went through all five of the serious formulae, and I got five different answers. I thought, “This is no use. I’ve got to do this empirically. I’ve got to develop this myself.” So I started the process of developing a cyclone that would work down to half a micron or less. And that took 5,126 prototype failures before I got the 5,127th, which worked.
So it sounds tedious, but it was the complete opposite. It was absolutely fascinating day after day building, maybe one cyclone a day and testing it. I was testing it for dust capture, the ability to capture, retain the dust. And also for the airflow through the cyclone, because I didn’t want it to be too restrictive. So it was fascinating. I’d do an experiment and sometimes it would get better, sometimes it would get worse. But because I only made one change at a time, I knew exactly what it was that had made it better or exactly what it was that made it worse. So it’s a process of learning by experimentation. And it wasn’t enjoyable every day because failures are not enjoyable necessarily, and I’d come home in the evening covered with dust and tell poor Deirdre what had happened that day. And she tried to stay interested as we were getting more and more into debt. And it took three or four years, it was a long haul.
Tim Ferriss: How did you pay the bills during that time, keep the lights on at home while you were going through these many, many iterations?
Sir James Dyson: Well, Jeremy Fry, my partner as it were, had put up 50 percent of the money. And I had sold a bit of land I had, my vegetable garden, very productive vegetable, got to build a house on it. So between us, we had about 60,000 pounds, I think it was. And that saw us through three or four years, and then I started getting into debt.
Tim Ferriss: Now I had never thought to ask this, but since you said one change at a time, this begets a question for me, because I think in the minds of many, they might hear 5,000 plus designs, each one is totally different and you’ve tried 5,000 plus different things, so to speak, holistically speaking. But my question is, since you were changing one variable at a time, making one tweak and then assessing whether it improved or degraded, the quality and performance, did you in advance have, say, a hundred tests or 200 or 500 that you knew you were going to run in the process of not doing multivariate testing, but changing one small component at a time? Or were you testing one and then deciding on the next four or five? I’m just curious if there was a plan in advance, a schedule of some type for the things you were going to test, such that, I know this is a long question, you knew that you weren’t going to do two designs and win the final outcome, it was going to take a period of time and many, many iterations. Does that question make any sense?
Sir James Dyson: Yeah, I’ve absolutely got it. I’ll answer it in a totally different way.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
Sir James Dyson: Invention — and it’s not about being brilliant — it’s about being logical and persistent. If you try and do a shortcut and say, “Oh, if I did it like this, with a pipe this diameter and the length here and something here and thing there, it’s going to work, it’s going to be brilliant. It’s going to work. I know it’ll work.” And you do that and it doesn’t work, you don’t know which of those elements that you incorporated has caused a problem. So you have to start right at the beginning with the most basic, most simple thing, and then make one change and see what effect that has. If you make two changes, you don’t know which works or which didn’t work, you don’t know anything about it. You only know its performance, you don’t know why. So you must only do one change at a time.
Now there can be brilliance in knowing what that one change might be, but although it’s tempting to say, “Well, I wanted to try different lengths, I wanted to try different angles, I wanted to try different diameter pipes going in and out, I wanted to try multi entries.” There’s lots of things I wanted to do, but I had to start right at the beginning and just go one step at a time. And every single time you try and jump to the solution, it doesn’t work and you’ve got lost. So you have to go back to concrete solid ground where you know the result of what you’ve done, that change you made.
Tim Ferriss: I have a question about perseverance, because many people listening will hear this story and wonder how and why you continued. But I want to add a little bit of nuance to that just by observing that you have prototyped, designed, produced, and shipped many, many different products over the years. Some have worked out, some haven’t. I’m sure many, behind closed doors, ultimately were stopped. They were abandoned in some form or fashion because they weren’t viable.
In this particular case, why did you persist? Had you done some back-of-the-envelope calculations and determined, “Hey, we have 60,000 pound downside here. The upside, I think, could be tremendous. Therefore, this is worth three to four years of my time. If it gets to six, I’m going to cut my losses.” How did you think about that and what compelled you to continue? Because you’re clearly a very smart guy. You wouldn’t just be pounding your head against a brick wall at the end of a dead end. I’d love to hear you comment on that.
Sir James Dyson: Yes. I suppose at the beginning, I thought it might take me a year at the most, and not as many as 5,000 prototypes. Ever the optimist, I thought it would be easier than it was. That’s always true with every development. It’s always much, much harder.
I still run, I actually do long-distance running. I have this thing called — everybody knows about the pain barrier. There’s a point three-quarters of the way through the race where it’s really starting to hurt and you can’t see the end and you want to give up. You go through that process with every invention, with every technology breakthrough. It looks brilliant at the end because from where you started and where you’ve ended up, there’s such a difference. There’s such a big leap, and it’s different to anything that’s gone before. So it looks like an act of brilliance. But it wasn’t. It was just hard work. It always takes four times as long as you think it will, and it always costs more money.
I mean, fortunately, most research and development, until you start using really expensive machinery, is mostly human effort. Of course, I was putting my human effort into it, which didn’t cost very much. So over the four years, I did get into debt in the end. I’m in huge debt in the end. But what kept me going was that I was making progress, and I was convinced that it was the way vacuum cleaners should be. Vacuum cleaners shouldn’t lose suction. It’s deeply disappointing and unsatisfactory that they lose suction and they lose efficacy. You want to get the housework done quickly and get all that pesky dust up. You don’t want to leave it behind.
So I was convinced that, well, I was pretty certain that if I could make it work, people would be interested in it. I didn’t know. I mean, I was just assuming that. That, like me, they would be annoyed that they’re losing performance. It’s unsatisfactory. It was partly that I could see it would make a good product and partly I wanted to solve the problem. How do you capture this dust? How do you separate dust from air without having a clogging filter in the way? It was a really interesting problem. Not for anyone else, but it was an interesting problem for me to solve, particularly as I’d been told it would never work. That always eggs me on.
Tim Ferriss: I was going to say that seems to be the best way to motivate you. Did you have this as a full-time occupation? Or were you doing other things simultaneously? Or did you have in mind in the back of your head a plan B if this weren’t to turn out?
Sir James Dyson: I had no plan B. It had to work. I was pinning everything on it, betting the house literally, because I had to put the house up as collateral to the bank loan. I didn’t know it would work, but I just hoped that I could make it work. I was going across the yard every day to the equivalent to my garage. It’s actually a coach house, but it’s the old-fashioned equivalent of a garage. Working now on my own for two or three years.
Tim Ferriss: So you finally, you summit Everest — I’m going to mix all sorts of metaphors here — and you have the new and improved mousetrap. Does the world beat a path to your door? What happens? What unfolds after that point?
Sir James Dyson: Well, I had previously run a very successful company making high-speed landing craft, and my partner had run a very successful engineering company making valve actuators. So we both decided we were inventors and designers and not commercial people. So what we decided to do was develop technology, not commercialize it. So our intention was to go out and license it.
So I spent, well, I suppose about six years, slightly longer, trying to license the technology. No one was beating a path to my door. I was beating a path to their doors. Likely people. They pretty well all turned me down. In fact, all of them. All of them turned me down. Some started and gave up, but otherwise total nonacceptance. It’s interesting, because I suppose I should have given up then. I mean, if the commercial people didn’t think it was worth doing, why should I think it’s worth doing?
But actually the more people that turned me down, the more excited I got because why were they turning it down? Well, they’re probably turning it down because they rather like selling bags, and mine didn’t have a bag and they made a lot of money. The razor blade syndrome. Partly because of that.
But also, I really noticed that they weren’t interested in changing their technology. They wanted to stick with what they had. It’s what I call a commodity product. It’s not a very exciting product. They’re not skis or surfboards or anything interesting. Vacuum cleaners were a commodity product in which no one had any interest. So I could sort of see why they weren’t bothering because consumers weren’t really bothering. It’s that thing with a bag that sucks.
But I saw it differently. You use it every day. It makes a noise. It’s supposed to do an efficient job of getting rid of dust, which is nasty stuff and keeping it inside the machine and getting up dog hairs and all the awful things. If it doesn’t do that properly, your life is not as pleasant. I saw it as a very important thing. I mean, it’s a mundane product. It’s an apparently boring product, but I thought we should make it interesting. It’s an important product.
Tim Ferriss: So the razor blade mention makes me think of one of my friends who is one of the most successful venture capital investors in Silicon Valley. One of his guiding, I don’t want to say theses, that would make it a bit too highfalutin, but one of his heuristics is looking for startups that for every dollar of revenue they generate, take away $10 of revenue from some incumbent. I can see why they would not want to replace their, I suppose, continuity revenue or business model with your technology. When did you finally feel that you were at an inflection point or had gained a handhold with commercial, I suppose, confirmation in any way?
Sir James Dyson: I did have one or two licensees who did start to produce vacuum cleaners. Some gave up. One in Japan continued, but by — well, it was actually 10 or 11 years after I first started developing cyclonic technology, I changed the business plan. Instead of trying to license people — I was fed up with license agreements — the difficulty of licensing people, that requires becoming a lawyer, dealing with license agreements, not an engineer developing technology. I thought, “Well, look, these competitors clearly don’t want to develop new technology. They don’t want to bring out a product with a difference. I’m going to do it myself.” I didn’t want to have to be a manufacturer and someone commercializing it, but I’m going to do it because I really believe in it. So put your money where your mouth is, Dyson, and do it.
We were three engineers at the time, and we decided we were going into the business of making vacuum cleaners. We had no factory, no money, nothing. We just crammed together in our coach house with a machine shop underneath.
Tim Ferriss: So a couple of quick questions. You believed in it. Now, one could imagine there’s some, now in this case, it wasn’t, I suppose, fallacy, but sunk cost fallacy. You’re so invested in this that you really want to see it to the end. Did you also have consumer feedback or feedback from friends who had used prototypes that confirmed your belief in the product? Was there some type of market feedback that also contributed to that belief in continuing?
Sir James Dyson: I think my friends all thought I was mad. Reducing myself and my family into penury. But no, unfortunately not. By the way, I’d bought out my partner by this point, because he had got fed up with all the failed licensees, and his financial advisors advised him to get out. There was no future in it. So I bought him out —
Tim Ferriss: He must tell that story over some stiff drinks these days. Man. Or at least he used to.
Sir James Dyson: It’s a very friendly parting. I quite understood it. The vacuum cleaner wasn’t his life. It was my life, not his life. So I bought him out for 45,000 pounds, and I was on my own. In many ways actually, he was a huge help. He was my mentor, a great friend, and a wonderful designer and engineer. So I felt a bit lonely going off without him. But on the other hand, it actually made me feel better being completely on my own. It suited me. But I had no idea whether anyone wanted to buy this product. No idea at all. I hadn’t done any market research, and you can’t really go and ask someone whether they want to buy a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t have a bag. But it’s got a strange cyclone instead, and it’s got this automatic hose that comes off the back. You can’t get a straight answer to that. It’s too easy to think that you can go and ask people whether your product is going to be successful.
Tim Ferriss: It makes me think of the Henry Ford quote, which I’m paraphrasing. But “If you ask people what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse,” something along those lines.
Sir James Dyson: Exactly. Whole point is you’ve got to back your own instincts. You can’t get help on this. You’ve got to take the risk. Sometimes you’re going to be okay, and sometimes you’re not. Life’s like that. In a way, that’s what makes it exciting. That’s what makes it difficult. Certainly, it’s living on the knife edge. You don’t know.
Tim Ferriss: So did you have any difficult conversations with your wife at the time and if so, how were those navigated? How did you approach them?
Sir James Dyson: My wife was wonderful. There were no difficult conversations. She believed in it. She’s an artist and was wonderfully supportive, but she understands the need for a project and to create something. The need to create, the need to have a project. And so she never once complained although we were incredibly short of money. We had grow our own vegetables and she made our clothes, and she was hardworking and wonderfully supportive. There were never any difficult conversations. Even when we went to London Bank with a lawyer to sign endless guarantee forms, putting the house on the line, every penny we had on the line. I’m very lucky.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Well, I hope her sainthood is in her Wikipedia entry.
Sir James Dyson: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: The retail shop surveys and so on as I understand — please fact check this, showed that people didn’t want to see their dirt, this dust, dog hairs, et cetera. That the vacuum cleaner’s bins should not be see-through. So why did you decide to design in the way that you did?
Sir James Dyson: Well, when we went to see the retailers to try and sell the vacuum cleaners to retailers, of course, most of them refused to stock it because it was strange looking. You could see the dust, and who on earth is Dyson? You’re not Hoover or Electrolux or a big brand. So we’re not interested in you.
As engineers, we liked seeing the dust. It was incredibly satisfying and fun. If you push the machine around on the floor, making a noise and you could see the dust collecting in the bin. If it’s going into a bag, you can’t see that you’re doing anything. Of course, I would say you’re not doing much, but at least you can see what you’re doing. You pick up interesting things.
Although dirt is disgusting, it’s also quite fascinating. So we thought seeing the result of your endeavors was an important part of the process, but nobody else did. The retailers certainly didn’t want their customers to see the dirt. However, one or two brave retailers did take it on. Curiously enough, seeing the dirt was the very thing that customers wanted to have. They wanted that fun, that excitement, that satisfaction, if you like.
So again, this is what you’re really asking about is market research. Is it worth doing? Can you learn from it? The answer is not much, and you certainly can’t rely on it. So again, you have to back yourself. You have to back your own judgment. It’s not a science. You have to believe you’re right and back it, and hopefully you’re right more times than you’re wrong.
Tim Ferriss: With those few intrepid retailers who are willing to take a risk, I’m wondering what their risk was. Did they actually buy from you at wholesale and then stock? Did they take them on consignment or some type of other arrangement? What was the pricing of your vacuum compared to others in the stores?
Sir James Dyson: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. Well, I’ll do it in pounds, but the comparison works for dollars. I mean, we were selling ours just under 200 pounds, whereas most vacuum cleaners were at 50 pounds. So we were three to four times the price of everybody else.
I think the retailers didn’t take it because it looked different and because we weren’t a brand. The one or two who did take it were mail order catalog companies. They were our first customers. They’re not the most highbrow of retailers. They’re quite lowbrow, which is a very interesting thing actually because what I discovered, and life has confirmed it since, is that the richer you are, the less interested you are in vacuuming. The poorer you are, the more important vacuuming is to you. Probably the more house proud you are because you actually do the vacuuming.
So I think there’s an assumption that because the vacuum cleaner is expensive, it’s bought by people with money. Whilst that might be true, there’s also a great deal of interest by people who don’t have much money and it’s a very important purchase for them.
Tim Ferriss: That’s fascinating.
Sir James Dyson: Interestingly, it’s recession proof. If there’s a recession, you stop having expensive holidays and instead you think more about your home. Of course, during the pandemic, that’s been utterly true that if you’re confined at home, good filtration in your home, good vacuuming, is very, very important.
Tim Ferriss: Do you remember the terms of the deal with those retailers? Were you drop shipping? Were they taking inventory on and then giving you net 200 terms?
Sir James Dyson: Well, I decided in my own simplistic terms that they should put their money where their mouth is, so they should buy for stock. We’ve never, ever done consignment. Never done that. You need a retailer who believes as you believe, who’s backing your idea, and who’s putting effort and money and care into it.
Tim Ferriss: So most people I think would describe Dyson or in their minds, “I see Dyson as a premium brand.” This is in some cases, probably in almost all cases, an expensive, relatively expensive brand. I’ve read a quote of yours, which is, and again, please feel free to fact check. Can’t trust everything you read on the internet. “I don’t design down to a price.” So I would just love to hear how you think about finding and solving problems, picking your problems and then when you go into product development, how you approach it if price is not one of the determining factors or a primary determining factor,
Sir James Dyson: Well, there are people who design to a price, and I absolutely see that there’s probably a huge market for that, and that’s a perfectly valid thing to do. But I want to design something that works really well and that lasts and uses new technology and improves the performance all the time. That’s what I’m after.
So it’s not that I don’t care about cost or price. I really care about cost or price, but I want to incorporate the technology that makes it work well or does a job more efficiently or uses less electricity, whatever it is. Often of course, new technology, for example, we’ve developed new technology high-speed motors, but they cost four times as much as the old motor. But they’re much more efficient, much lighter, use less electricity and use fewer materials. So it is the future, but initially they cost four times the price. We’ve now gotten down a bit so they’re about twice the price. I’m not trying to do a cheap product. I’m trying to a product that works really well and advances that genre from a technology point of view.
Tim Ferriss: Who are some — actually, before I get to who are some — you already mentioned, I think, one figure who may have been influential in your thinking: Buckminster Fuller. For those who don’t know that name, you can Google buckyballs, geodesic domes, tensegrity. These are some terms that’ll take you down the rabbit hole of Buckminster Fuller. Who is Akio Morita? Akio Morita. What did you appreciate about him?
Sir James Dyson: Well, the wonderful thing about — just one story, which really says a lot about him. Think of the Walkman and how that has changed everybody’s life. But his company didn’t want to do the Walkman because it wouldn’t record. I mean, up until 1982 or whatever it was, a tape recorder was a tape recorder. It did recordings. Akio Morita brought out a tape recorder that didn’t record. It played back only. His own company thought it was completely mad, but that’s brilliance. That takes balls to say, “I’m going to bring out a product that doesn’t do what people think it’s going to do, but it’s going to enlighten their lives.” Has it enlightened their lives? It’s extraordinary. I mean, the iPod, the iPhone, MP3 players, they’ve all come from that one idea that you want to play back.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any other inventors, designers, engineers who stood out to you when you were sort of developing your chops or who really stand out to you currently? Maybe one and the same.
Sir James Dyson: Yes. I always admired Citroën. Not as Citroën are now, but as they used to be when they developed new technology, hydropneumatic suspension with a hydraulic system that did the steering, the brakes and the suspension, or four-wheel suspension, interconnectors suspension and an aerodynamic car. I mean, they were 50, 60 years ahead of the rest of the car industry. So I enormously admire them.
Sony, of course, who developed wonderful technology. Developed the first, or actually, they got the lithium-ion technology from Oxford University, but first commercialized and produced lithium-ion batteries, so certainly have a whole string of technology developments to their name. Equally, I admired Mr. Honda of Honda, not because necessarily he did brilliant inventions, but because he was the master of iterative improvement. He was never satisfied. He was always making maybe little changes at a time, but in the end, all those little changes added up to quantum leap.
So at Honda — I mean, a Honda lawn mower was the first lawn mower I ever had, which always started first time. Even after the winter, with the old petrol from the previous season left in it, I could guarantee, and I used to bet people, that I’ll go over there, and one pull on the cord, and it’ll start. So, I admire Honda for a slightly different reason. He makes, they look like big inventions, but they’re not, they’re iterative improvements. And that’s something to never forget. You must never be satisfied. Always be dissatisfied, always be unhappy about your product. Keep on making it better and better, sort of life of unhappiness.
And then I’ve got Frank Whittle, who developed the jet engine. And that’s a great story, because no one believed in him. And he wrote the theory of the jet engine in a child’s exercise book when he was at Cranfield University. He was an RAF fitter, actually. He used to make models. Left school when he was 15, went through, got into Cranfield, and then went to Cambridge. And while he was at Cambridge, he got a First Class in both Triposes, as well as built the world’s first jet engine. And I’ve never seen an engineer get things right first time like he did. We’ve, in fact, got one of the very first engines he did. It’s called a Welland. And I bought it off someone, an enthusiast, who had found it and then done it up.
But it never worked very well. The fuel system didn’t work. And my engineers discovered that the fuel system was a Rolls Royce system, not a Whittle design system. So we rebuilt the fuel system from Whittle’s drawings, and it worked perfectly, and it works perfectly every time, whereas the Rolls Royce one didn’t. So I’ve got huge, huge admiration for him. I mean, that was an extraordinary development. I mean, turning an engine that had 12,000 moving parts, the Spitfire engine, the air engines at the time had all these moving parts, were hugely vulnerable, had to have cooling, and one bullet through cooling pipe and the plane has had it, dives, and the pilot has to bail out. So he turned it into one moving part. It’s just brilliance, breathtaking brilliance.
Tim Ferriss: It’s very elegant. Very, very elegant. Now, actually that’s as good a segue as any. I recall the first time I used the Airblade, and please forgive me if this is simplistic and please correct me if I’m getting this description wrong, but the air is acting like a blade, almost like a squeegee on a windshield, pulling the water off of your hands as opposed to trying to evaporate it.
And I think everyone’s had the experience of using these gas station bathroom, or airport bathroom, drying devices that feel like a kitten farting on your hand. I mean, they do nothing, so you just end up wiping it all over your hair, or your clothing, or something like that. How did you pick that as a product category? Was it just one of 600 that you tried within Dyson, and it was the one that happened to work? Could you walk us through the process of developing the Airblade?
Sir James Dyson: We were trying to use air blades, which is a very sharp blade of air, for another project, and it wasn’t quite good enough for — I can’t tell you what the project is, it’s top secret, but it wasn’t quite good enough for what we were doing. But we noticed, as you ran it across your hand, it rippled your skin. So we shot water on our hands and saw that it scraped, as you said, just like a squeegee, but it’s not physical, it’s just air, just like a squeegee. So we thought, “Well, that’d make a great hand dryer.”
And of course, we looked at hand dryers, and how they work is they have a three kilowatt heater, as well as a vacuum blower, a vacuum cleaner motor blower. So that three and a half thousand watts, very expensive to run, whereas our blade was only costing us 700 watts. And what’s more, the thing about the hot air is it chaps your hands. It’s trying to, as you said, evaporate the water, turn the water on your hands into steam, which is a very expensive process and it takes a long time. And also, it leaves your hands chapped. It removes the oils from your skin, as do paper towels.
So we thought, “Well, this makes a really good hand dryer.” So we made a hand dryer. And it so happened that this the first application of the new technology motor we’re developing. So we developed a motor that went 120,000 RPM instead of the normal 30,000 RPM. 120,000 RPM, by the way, is very fast. I mean, a jet engine is 15,000 RPM, and a Formula 1 engine is about 19,000 at maximum. So we were taking electric motors from 30,000 up to 120,000, and in a hand dryer, not a sophisticated product, in a hand dryer and a vacuum cleaner. But it gave us great air flow and great pressure, and pressure was important for this air blade.
Tim Ferriss: Was that the first product, and I simply don’t know, was that the first product that was sold to, I don’t know if this is the right term, but industrial clients, as opposed to end user individuals, or had you already developed a sales channel for that type of product?
Sir James Dyson: No, not at all. We didn’t do a business plan. And by the way, I don’t think restaurant owners would like to be called industrial partners. Yes. But you’re quite right. I’m teasing. You’re quite right. No. Yes. No, you’re right. It’s the first time we were not selling to people at home. And I mean, to be honest, I don’t feel very comfortable about that, but I think it’s a great product.
Tim Ferriss: Why don’t you feel comfortable with that?
Sir James Dyson: Because I really want to make products for people at home, that we all use at home. The good thing is that we use them in a railway station, or an airport, or restaurant, or wherever it is, so at least ordinary people, people like us, use it. But I’m far happier when I’m dealing direct with people at home.
Tim Ferriss: And were the main value propositions for these industrial partners, these customers, whether they be airports, restaurants, or otherwise, the energy costs and labor costs associated with the device, so they could justify the higher upfront price by amortizing it over a relatively short period of time and recouping that investment? Was that the basic pitch, or was there more to it?
Sir James Dyson: Well, that wasn’t the basic pitch. The basic pitch was it’s a very pleasant and quick way to dry your hands without the waste of paper and without the excessive heat of hot air hand dryers, which are very slow anyway, and ineffective. And the wonderful thing about our hand dryers is you never run out of paper. I mean, how many times have you gone to try and get a paper out of a paper towel holder and it’s not there?
And the other thing is it’s quite difficult to dry all your hands and dry under your fingernails with a towel, whereas ours does that. So it’s hygienic, it’s quick, and it’s reasonably pleasurable. You’re not damaging your hands. You’re not taking the nice oils out of your hands. And you’re getting under your fingernails. And it’s slightly noisy. We’ve got them a bit quieter now. But actually, an architectural practice said they’d liked the fact that it was noisy, because when one of their partners went to the lavatory, you could tell whether they wash their hands or not.
Tim Ferriss: That’s great. The lie detection device and hand dryer, all in one. You never know when Harry’s not going to wash his hands. You got to keep an eye out for Harry.
Sir James Dyson: If he comes out from lavatory and you haven’t heard the noise, keep away from him.
Tim Ferriss: So the Airblade, at least from the outside looking in, seems to have been a huge success. Could you share any of your favorite failures? And these are devices that actually made it out of the shop and into the real world. Do you have any favorite failures? What I mean by that is a device that was not a commercial success, but that offered many lessons or perhaps learnings that led to successes in other areas or later. Does anything come to mind?
Sir James Dyson: Yes. I mean, we only really had one, which is our washing machine. But I don’t call it a failure because I think it’s a great washing machine. Our mistake was to sell it too cheaply. And we didn’t charge enough for it in the first place, because it has two drums. It had two drums, two motors, a clutch, and very big capacity in a normal size of washing machine, so it’s very expensive to make. I mean, more than double the cost to make of an ordinary washing machine. But it was much better. It could take a very big load. It washed very quickly with low temperature water because it was introducing proper action.
We discovered that if you tried washing with your hands, in just a few minutes, you could wash better than you could in a washing machine in an hour and a half, or however long they take. We also discovered that cashmere shrinks because of the time it’s in the water and the temperature of the water. So if you can do a low temperature wash, and do it quickly, and do it thoroughly, it’s a better washing machine. So ours was much better at washing than a conventional washing machine with its action, and we should have charged a lot more for it.
And this is the one and only time I’ve ever listened to the marketing department, who said, “If you charge less, you will sell more.” Actually, we charged less and sold fewer. But we were losing so much money on each one, the board decided to stop it. And that was probably a mistake with hindsight. I mean, we should have put the price back up and carried on with it. But it was a big project. I mean a washing machine —
And we were up against people who had been making washing machines for years and years with a much lower cost base. We were starting from scratch with a high cost base. So actually, much the same thinking occurred with the car at a much later date, the development of our car. We ran into the same sort of problem. Different commercial issues, but the same sort of problem. As a startup in that business, our costs were so much higher than an incumbent, than the existing competitors.
So I think as a — I mean, I’m still using them. And everybody who bought one thinks it’s a much better washing machine. It’s very disappointing we stopped making it. But we lost a lot of money on it, and it was a commercial failure, but I think an engineering success.
Tim Ferriss: Now, in the case of N526, the electric car, going into it, I would imagine you were aware that, compared to incumbents who had the infrastructure in place, distribution channels, et cetera, that you would be fighting an uphill battle with respect to costs and many other things, per unit prices, et cetera. Why did you decide to pursue it?
Sir James Dyson: Yeah. That’s a very good question. Going back to 2013, 2014, when we started, only Tesla was bothering to produce electric cars and they were in the very early phase. The rest of the industry was taking no notice, and all the projections by the industry and by commentators were that by 2030, only three percent of global cars would be electric, so no one was bothering to change, and the incumbents had heavily committed to diesel and petrol engines, and existing technology.
So we thought, “Well, we’re starting from scratch. We’re not committed to anything. We can do what we like, rather as Tesla has done.” And we’ve got a lot of very, very clever and intelligent motor engineers. We’re developing new technology batteries. We do a lot with air treatment, taking out pollution, heating it and cooling it. And that’s really what a car is. It’s an electric motor, it’s batteries, and you’ve got to do a lot with air, very efficiently, because you’ve only got battery power, so you don’t want to waste your battery on heating or cooling the car.
So we thought we were quite well-placed to do a car, although we’d never done one before and no other manufacturers were being interested in it. We knew that batteries were far more expensive. Batteries, plus electric motors, plus the electronics to control the electric motors and the battery management system is far more expensive than an internal combustion engine, as Tesla has proved, actually. Even with relatively small battery packs, a Tesla is a very expensive car to make. However, we saw that the lack of interest from the incumbents, the rest of the motor industry, gave us an opportunity, as which indeed Tesla has taken advantage of. And we thought that we could do one that was at the top end. Quite what the top end was, we didn’t know back in 2014.
All that changed with Dieselgate. When Dieselgate happened in 2016, 2017, and those people making large quantities of diesel engines got into real trouble, the way out of the trouble from a PR point of view, and I suppose by that stage, they saw which way the wind was blowing, but they had to get into electric vehicles fast. So they had to spend a lot of money, completely turn their business around, upside down, and produce electric vehicles. And that’s fine. That meant we would have had competition. We weren’t particularly worried. Well, of course, one is always worried about competition. But we thought there would still be space for us.
But what was happening was that the electrical vehicles they were producing, they were producing at a loss, and they’re not happy to do that. They were able to do that because they were selling — across their fleet, they have to have certain NOx and SOx emissions. So if they had an electric car one end, producing none, they could produce gas-guzzling, big SUVs at the other end, on which they make a lot of money. But overall, they were able to do that without having to buy carbon credits. So I could see that we were going to have to compete against people who were making electric cars at a loss.
And I don’t want to get into Tesla too much, but Tesla earns quite a lot by selling its carbon credits to other car manufacturers and they have well-heeled investors. They’ve been through $25 billion. I don’t have $25 billion. I’m privately financed. I have to make the money I spend on product development. I can’t take that sort of risk. So by about 2018, 2019, when we stopped it, it became apparent that it just simply wouldn’t work commercially.
Plus the fact that our costs, coming back to that point I made earlier about the washing machine, our costs to make a car, even without the complications of the battery management, system batteries, and so on, would be 50 percent higher than a BMW, or Mercedes car, or Volkswagen car production costs. So it was just too risky for us. We would have to charge Aston Martin style prices for a very good car with a 600 mile range and quite a big car as well with good off-road capability. But it was just too much of a risk.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any features of the car that you’re particularly proud of, or that you would hope to see in the world someday, at scale?
Sir James Dyson: Yes. I mean, curiously, I was a friend of Alex Moulton, who did the first small wheel bicycle with suspension. You know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know what you mean. If you wouldn’t mind.
Sir James Dyson: He developed the Mini with Alec Issigonis. And one of the principles of the Mini was it had very small wheels. And the advantage of small wheels is that they don’t create a big wheel arch inside the car, so you can make a very small car where the wheel arches don’t protrude much into the car, so there’s room for four big adults. And he carried on — but you have to pump the tires up harder because the wheel is very small. So he then developed a very small wheeled bicycle called the Moulton bicycle, which had very small wheels, and you have to pump the tires up incredibly hard. But to overcome the harshness of the ride, he put suspension on it, rubber suspension on it. He was also the person who developed the suspension for the Mini.
And I knew all about that, and he was a friend of mine. And I actually took the opposite view, that the car should have huge wheels. And the reason for that is that a large wheel has less motion resistance, and so it’s much more efficient. And efficiency for an electric car is all important. So the ability to move along and have the least resistance is what you want. So I discovered the biggest wheel that you could make, where you could replace the tire at a tire depot, because obviously you can’t do a wheel where you can’t replace the tire at a tire depot. I discovered what that was.
So our car had huge wheels. I mean, they’re nearly a meter in diameter. They’re huge. And that was to reduce the motion resistance. But actually, it gave a lot of unexpected benefits. So it was better at road holding. It was a more comfortable car because of it. Relative to the size of the hub, the center of the wheel, you could actually have quite a big tire, which made it comfortable.
And because it had a relatively narrow aspect ratio, it was better in snow and mud. A fat tire is very slippery in snow and mud, whereas a thin one has much more grit and is less likely to aquaplane. And when it came to developing the suspension and the road holding, it also turned out to be excellent as well. We had to develop a special tire for it. And again, I mean, we were very ambitious. We developed our own chassis. And if you know anything about making cars, the most expensive and important part of a car is the chassis.
And we looked around to see if there was any car company’s chassis that we could buy, but none of them fitted with our big wheels and spacing apart our big wheels, putting them on the four corners of the vehicle. There wasn’t a chassis like that, so we had to develop our own chassis. That was a development cost. I didn’t mind that. But I mean, Tesla, for example, didn’t develop their own chassis. They went and bought a Lotus one. And in fact, Lotus built their first chassis, basic car, initially. But we decided not to do that. I did pile on the cost of it, but I think it made ultimately a better car.
Tim Ferriss: I want to come back to privately held. Privately held company. This makes what you do and what you’ve done all the more interesting and impressive to me. I’m much more familiar with the venture-backed startup ecosystem and the roadmap for such a company that involves raising, in some cases, as you mentioned, billions of dollars of funding, sometimes tens of billions, then going public, and so on and so forth. Have you ever been tempted to become anything other than privately held?
Sir James Dyson: Well, when I did the Ballbarrow company, I borrowed money. And then, because I couldn’t pay it back, I got some investors in. So I became a company, I only had 30 percent of the shares, so there were other directors, and I found that an uncomfortable position. So when I started the vacuum cleaner company, I did go out to venture capitalists, they were called then. I mean, it would now be called private equity. But they were called venture capitalists. And I discovered that I was completely useless at raising money. So I hugely admire people who can go to these people and raise money. I was hopeless at it. None of them would back me. And it was during the early ’90s, during the big — there was a really big, there was a really big recession in the early ’90s in many ways, much bigger recession, than the 2008 recession And the banks were repossessing houses left, right and center, I mean it was really a terrible crash. So I hadn’t really approached the clearing bank, which is my normal way of borrowing money.
Tim Ferriss: What is a clearing bank? I apologize.
Sir James Dyson: A clearing bank is a, we call them High Street bank, so it’s banks that lend to consumers, predominantly, so the one you’d find in a street, where you can go and deposit money and hopefully take some money out. If They’ve got any left, so in desperation I went to, the bank that I banked with, and at first they said no, because I wanted to borrow about £400,000 pounds, which is called a lot of money back in the early ’90s. And my bank manager then appealed to the ombudsman within the head office of the bank, and he managed to persuade them to lend me the money, I had to put up the house a security, but this is a time when they didn’t want houses as security because they got themselves very unpopular for chucking people out of houses, and they had huge number of houses on their books. In fact, my particular bank became the estate agent in order to try and sell off the houses that it had.
So I was absolutely shocked and stunned when they agreed to lend me the money, when I cleared the debt and the relationship was on a more even basis for the bank. I did ask the bank manager why he lent me the money and he said, “Well, I went home and asked my wife what she thought of a vacuum cleaner without a bag?” And she said, “I hate bags.” And he said, “I saw that you fought a very long lawsuit in the United States; I could see you had determination, so those were the arguments I used within the bank.” So it was actually really encouraging, I mean it’s a good bank story, there were very few good bank stories and this is one of them.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you find it uncomfortable to take on investors and end up with 30 percent of the company? What about that made you uncomfortable?
Sir James Dyson: I didn’t think it would make me uncomfortable, but it did, and the reason it made me uncomfortable is that you are, if someone else has put money in and if someone else has shares, you have to listen to them. And I felt I had to listen to them, so you’re not actually running the company, you’re sharing the running of the company, and a lot of decisions will be decisions that they want quite rightly, because they’ve put a lot of money into it. And so you spend a lot of time wondering about whether this latest idea you have they’ll approve of and you have to and get their permission, and it has to be done through the auspices of a board meeting. I’ve done that, I was a director of a public company selling the high-speed landing craft, that engineering company.
Then I had my own company, I had a 30 percent share in it and then finally I was in a position where I could have my own company and make my own decisions. And during the time that I’d been developing your technology before, I decided to go to manufacture and commercialize the invention in the early ’90s. I actually discovered I liked relying on myself, rather than having to be collegiate and share decisions with somebody else because it was all down to me, and so the whole risk was mine and I’d evaluate the risk myself and work it out myself, And I just found that a much easier way for me to work.
I’m not like that now, I hasten to add, I’ve matured a bit, and now we do run the company on the collegiate basis, but in the beginning it was really important and crucial to me that all the decisions I was making on the fly, all the decisions I making I was making for me, because I thought it was the right thing to do. And that’s quite a good way to approach things, anyway, I think. You know, I hated being part of a public company, which I was in my first job, so I knew what that was like and the shareholders are always out of tune with what is actually happening in the company, not through any fault of their own, but they can’t see into the future like we could, as employees of the company.
Tim Ferriss: Meaning you had to, at least I’m more familiar with the US but you were captive to the quarter by quarter expectations of shareholders who could not — did not — have transparency into the five or 10-year plans of the company itself, is that what you mean?
Sir James Dyson: Pretty much that, I mean that there’s no reason why they should believe the gleam in our eye or the new technology, new product we’re developing. They, they look at what you’re like at the moment who you are and what you’re like at the moment and what you’re talking about in the future, but it always seemed to be out of kilter, when we were doing well the share price was down and the share price was up, we were doing badly and it just seemed to be out of kilter. And again, you’re not on your own, you’re not making decisions because you believe they’re the right decisions, you’re making them for sometimes other reasons. What it looks like transparently or whatever, or what shareholders might think of, it’s just much better to be one track minded and just thinking entirely about the product.
Cause we develop and make products, that’s what we do, in a sense, it’s a very simple thing that we do, and that’s the product that’s important, it’s not who I am or what the company is or what it looks like that’s important is the product, is the product going to excite people and do the job properly and last a long time. I mean, that’s what, that’s what matters. That’s all that matters actually, it’s not completely true because of course employees matter, enthusing employees matter and looking after employees, all that matters, but for all of us who are working here, what really matters is that our product works in the marketplace.
Tim Ferriss: I would imagine also happy motivated employees and so on, talented employees are in a sense, a by-product of good products, and then they further helped to create good products in the sense that, a lot of these things cascade down from a product focus. And you’ve had a tremendous, just a tremendous run, and certainly you’ve many more things ahead of you. How did you decide to commit your energies to your new book, Invention: A Life?
This is certainly a commitment of time and energy. How did you decide to focus your energies, at least in part, on that?
Sir James Dyson: Partly because, I think I just wish there were more engineers, I just wish that more young people would find engineering fascinating, interesting, and worthwhile. And I think it’s particularly true now because everybody’s talking about global warming, everybody’s talking about using the fewer resources, recyclability and all these sort of things, using less energy and less water and it’s engineers that can make that happen. It’s engineers that can make the world a clean world, a world using less energy, a world using fewer resources and a world recycling things. Engineers and scientists can solve those problems, but the pity is that that schoolchildren and even people at university don’t realize that, people would rather talk about it and do something about it, and I think that’s a great shame. So I do think that a lot of people think engineering is hard and difficult, that science is hard and difficult and of course, perhaps it is, but it’s also very creative and people don’t see that either.
So if I could somehow show through the book that a stupid person like me, a person who is not academic, successful, and is not brilliant at all, through really caring about products, caring about technology, caring about engineering, can produce products that save energy that use fewer resources and that work better, hopefully to achieve what young people want to achieve now. Young people want these things, they want cures for horrible diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, they want products that use less energy that generate electricity in a clever way. If I could show that I, as a simple person, not having done classics at school, could turn my hand to doing some of those things, that maybe other people would think that engineering wasn’t this difficult hard thing that seemed impossible. You see, when you look at something like the Walkman or an iPhone, or to some extent, Dyson vacuum cleaner, it’s inaccessible to young people and products are becoming more and more inaccessible.
I mean, as a school child, you look at an iPhone or any piece of clever technology, a jet engine or whatever it is. You don’t know how it works and you don’t believe that you could ever design one of those or design a better one, but actually you can, you really can and that’s what I wanted this book to try and show, that it is young people who will solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems. And we, can solve them by the way, without having to make life miserable for us and that it isn’t just the few people who want it, who are attracted to engineering who can do it, many more of us can do it if we can be motivated to do so and if we can overcome this, feeling that it’s impossible and that we don’t understand it.
There’s almost an inverse snobbery about technology, there’s almost a pride that I don’t know how to hang a picture or mend a car, whatever it is, it’s almost a mark of intellectual superiority. Whereas I think the obvious, think it’s a mark of lack of intellectual curiosity, not to be able to take something to bits and mend it, or not be able to mend a washing machine or dishwasher or whatever it is. I think it’s a shame that you’re not interested in solving that problem and repairing it.
So that’s really what the book is about and the timing is because, we I’ve been bemoaning the lack of engineers for many years and continuously going to the government saying, we’re not producing enough engineers we’re not producing, until finally the minister in charge of education said, “Well, start your own university; stop complaining and start your own university.” And he was bringing through a bill through the Houses of Parliament, which allowed anyone, not anyone, but someone who was able to and with the necessary resources and so on, to start their own university.
So I took on the challenge of starting our own university and the reason I did it was that we almost exclusively recruit graduates at Dyson and that’s what I’ve always done, because I believe in recruiting people with enthusiasm, lack of knowledge, lack of experience, people who are not afraid to make mistakes, not afraid to try a new path. So we’ve been recruiting all these graduates over many years, why not recruit undergraduates? And I only did it because, well, because of that, because we have a very young corpus anyway, but also because we cover a very broad field of engineering. I mean, everything from mechanical engineering, right through to software and robotics and artificial intelligence. So we have a huge number of disciplines here, and I wouldn’t have done it if we had a very narrow field, but because I feel that’s so broad, I felt we could offer the students a good experience.
Tim Ferriss: Just for clarity, this is the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology?
Sir James Dyson: Yes, which has by the way just got university status so will shortly be calling ourselves a university, we’ve won university status. I was also horrified actually the amount of monies, young people have to borrow in order to go to university for living expenses and the fees they have to pay. So at the very point in their life, when they want to get married and buy a car, buy a house and live normally, they’re saddled with this huge debt, so I could see that, that our students, I would pay them. I would pay for their education, they would work for me for part of the time, and they would have the excitement of practicing what they’re learning in theory and learning from what I think of the best scientists in the world, best engineers in the world at Dyson.
So they would, they would have wonderful mentors, wonderful hands, but not academic lectures at university, they would have hands-on battery development, scientists, electric motors scientists, software people, artificial intelligence and robotics people, all these people are here and they can talk to them and learn from them and experience all those fields and decide in a much more knowledge, what they want to do. And in fact, half of them are becoming software engineers because, you know, the world needs so many software engineers and they find software fascinating, and the others want to do mechanical engineering or electrical engineering. So it’s actually been a very happy experiment, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I think the students have as well.
But so the timing of the book is because sorry, this is a really long story. It’s our first year, it’s a four year course, and our first year has just graduated and the graduation ceremony will be in September, so I wanted the book to come out at that time. And the theme of the book is really that you don’t have to be an expert and in fact, experts are often unhelpful. You have to have enthusiasm, curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, and determination. And those are the things that will solve all the world’s problems.
Tim Ferriss: Well I’m very, excited on multiple fronts to see what you, what the university, what this book does and as you just said, I think it will foster all of those things you just mentioned, including the book will foster, more engineers who will encourage more people to embrace engineering, but above and beyond that, it will help people through your stories, through your lessons, learned through the principles reflected in the book, to think like an engineer and to become more curious, ask better questions, even if they don’t have, even if they will never have any formal engineering training. That’s certainly true for me, I didn’t study classics, but I majored in East Asian studies, which has about as much application to engineering as would classics and still in the process of preparing for this conversation and reading more about you looking at the book, was struck by just how cross-disciplinary and how adaptable many of the principles are, in the book to include and not exclude, also those people who might look at themselves as hopeless, liberal arts majors or something along those lines so, I’m excited.
Sir James Dyson: I always think that the best questions are naive questions, which is why I love employing students, well graduates and students, because they start you off on a different train, because the trouble with experience is how to do things. Well, I mean, you know how to do some things and experience is a baggage that can get in the way and what you need is someone saying, why, why is it like that? Why do you have to do it like that? And it stops you dead in your tracks and you so it forces you to not follow the path that everybody else follows and students and graduates have no fear of pioneering. They’ve got nothing to lose, and, one thing I hope that we encourage here is that failure is not, not a failure. If you’ve gone doing the same thing and making the same mistake, that’s not a good idea that you’re failing once or twice, trying to do one thing is okay, nothing wrong with that, we all learn from that. And I, you know, I don’t think they teach that enough at school or at university for that matter.
I mean, at Cambridge, for example, they didn’t have a machine shop and an assembly shop where the students could do their own projects. They didn’t have that, it was all theoretical, and actually we gave Cambridge to some money and to build a workshop so that the students could build their ideas and through building things and using your hands, actually building your prototypes, I mean our engineers at Dyson build their own prototypes, They build their own test rigs.
And it’s through that building of the test rig and the prototype, you don’t give it to someone else to build, to an assistant to build, you go and build it yourself. And it’s through the building of the prototype and the testing it yourself, that of course, you see you experienced the failure, but you learn how you might change it and improve it. And that’s, that’s what I saw you see through my 5,127 prototypes, each prototype I built myself and tested myself and it was through that total involvement that, my brain started to think, how do I solve that problem? How do I solve that problem? And funnily enough it’s the actual making it with your own hands is terribly important. And, we were given the hands and a brain and you should use both at the same time, what’s wrong with that? Using your hands is not a lowly activity, it’s useful, man’s always done it.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, I can’t recall the exact expression, but how our tools shape us and that’s only true, or I suppose it’s always true, but it means that perhaps you should use the tool other than a keyboard sometimes.
Sir James Dyson: Yes, very much so, very much so. But we’re all slaves to it, aren’t we?
Tim Ferriss: I am extremely excited about the book, everyone again, the book is Invention, subtitle, A Life. And I have one more question before we go, before we wrap up this first conversation and sometimes this question is a dead end and I’ll take the blame for that if it is, but I like to ask it nonetheless and that is. If you had a billboard metaphorically speaking, on which you could put any quote could be yours, someone else’s, any phrase, word, image, question, anything at all, to impart a message to many people, what might you put on that billboard?
Sir James Dyson: I’d probably put two messages, one is: “There’s nothing wrong in always being dissatisfied; always look for improvement.” And the other is: “Drop your fear of failure; don’t be afraid of failure.” So am I allowed two billboards?
Tim Ferriss: You are allowed two billboards.
Sir James Dyson: I hope we haven’t gone down a dead end, god forbid that we go down a dead end.
Tim Ferriss: I guess that would be on theme, we could have just asked another question, I could have changed that question and asked it again and iterated, but we happened to get it right the first time like the, like the jet engine, which is an incredible story I’d never heard that before. And what an enjoyable conversation, I really appreciate you taking the time today thank you very much.
Sir James Dyson: They were really good questions, enjoyable questions.
Tim Ferriss: And perhaps someday, we’ll get to see you in person across the pond, but in the meantime, I wish you tremendous luck with everything that you’re engaged with, which is a lot, including the launch of the book, everyone should check it out, Invention, subtitle, A Life. Sir James Dyson, thank you again for taking the time and being so thoughtful in your answers, I really think people will, benefit from this and to everyone listening, we will have show notes with links to all resources, all people, everything mentioned in this episode as usual at tim.blog/podcast and until next time, get your hands dirty, experiment often, ask why, why, why? And thank you for tuning in.
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