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5126 Failures—The Dyson Brand Story

This entry was originally posted on April 18, 2007 at the old Brandstory blog (link for a limited time).

James Dyson is a failer (not failure). While vacuming his home, he became frustrated with the lousy suction of his vacuum cleaner. The bag and filter clogged too quickly, reducing the suction to the point where it didn’t work. I know the feeling. But unlike me, Dyson decided to do something about it. Over 15 years, he built 5126 prototypes before he found the one that worked. 15 years and 5126 failures. How did he find the solution? “Wrong doing.” Here’s how Dyson describes it:

“When I was doing my vacuum cleaner, I started out trying a conventionally shaped cyclone, the kind you see in textbooks. But we couldn’t separate the carpet fluff and dog hairs and strands of cotton in those cyclones. It formed a ball inside the cleaner or shot out the exit and got into the motor. I tried all sorts of shapes. Nothing worked. So then I thought I’d try the wrong shape, the opposite of conical. And it worked. It was wrong-doing rather than wrong-thinking. That’s not easy, because we’re all taught to do things the right way.”

There’s are plenty of lessons in Dyson’s story. Never give up. Don’t settle for stuff that doesn’t work. But the lesson I like most is the idea of right thinking and wrong doing. Doing things in a different (new or unexpected) way is the crux of creativity.

To get his vacuum to work, Dyson had to do it all wrong. And when he offered his new design to Hoover, they did the opposite—right doing and wrong thinking. They sold bag vacuums. This new vacuum wouldn’t fit their product line. It was too different. They had the market sown up. So they passed on the idea. Dyson went on to sell more than 15 million of his vacuums (for as much as $2000 each). Today he is one of the richest men in Britain.

Inside the box, with every Dyson vacuum cleaner is a small brochure that tells the Dyson brand story. How James Dyson failed more than 5000 times. How his competitors first ignored him, then copied him. And how he succeeded despite the odds. This simple brochure is a great way to reinforce the Dyson brand story with every new customer. Of course, the fact that this is an amazingly good vacuum delivering a great product experience also helps.

This month’s Fast Company magazine features a very good interview by Chuck Salter with James Dyson, covering not just his vacuum story, but also his thinking about design and engineering and his latest invention. Read it here. Don’t miss the second page, which is even better than the portion of the interview in the print magazine. There’s also a podcast interview here.

One more clip from the interview:

“A lot of people give up when the world seems to be against them, but that’s the point when you should push a little harder. I use the analogy of running a race. It seems as though you can’t carry on, but if you just get through the pain barrier, you’ll see the end and be okay. Often, just around the corner is where the solution will happen.”

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