We met the founder of the company: «Success is not a stroke of genius, it is hard work, determination. How do I choose who works with me? I’m looking for curious, unconventional people who want to be pioneers and not just copy things already done “
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MALMESBURY (Great Britain) – Qwhen we enter his study, sir James Dyson he is bent over a large computer, digital pen in hand: “It’s fantastic to draw,” he says, affable
. We are in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, 150 kilometers from London. Very Old England town and views that would not look out of place in the incipit of a Harry Potter. But Dyson’s headquarters are anything but. The founder’s office is in the futuristic former glass and metal wave factory, designed by Chris Wilkinson. Down there is his Rolls Royce (“He drives it, he really likes it,” an employee tells us). Next to it is a Harrier jet, one of the many inspiring design ideas that dot the company’s campus. Here, avant-garde research is carried out on the products to come (in a very armored building we work on solid state batteries) but there are also laboratories where diligent engineers study dust or the physics of hair to improve vacuum cleaners, hairdryers and straighteners. At the entrance there are the sculptures of his wife Deirdre, in the reception a collection of the very first cyclonic Dysons without bag, the product from which it all started. Nothing is casual, everything is a manifesto: design, technology, the future, but also the search for beauty and stubborn belief in one’s ideas.
In the autobiography “Invention – My Story” you tell about 5,127 prototypes to arrive at the first working cyclonic vacuum cleaner. Was Edison right when he said “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% transpiration”?
“I talked about it so the public doesn’t believe that an inventor is a genius. This takes people away from being engineers. Success isn’t genius, it’s hard work. It is determination ».
Had he set a limit? He said to himself, I know: “I get to 6,000 prototypes and if it doesn’t work, I stop.”
“No, not really. But I faced complex problems. The first: at that moment the “cyclones” (the technology behind Dyso filterless vacuum cleaners
ned) were efficient down to 20 microns. I had to run them down to half a micron or less. The second: a conventional cyclone was unable to handle carpets, lint, hair. And objects that are sucked up: one of our prototypes had been blocked by a pair of wonderful vintage scissors ».
Do you consider yourself more of an inventor, an engineer, a designer, a salesman, a businessman?
“I’m not ashamed of being a seller (with the Sea Truck boat, to which he also contributed as a designer, ed). She taught me that it is very important to talk to customers, to meet those who really use your products. I am a person fascinated by technology and products. I trained at the Royal College of Art: if I am a professional in something it is design, not engineering, although I am passionate about it ».
Is there anything he regrets about his past, something he would have done differently?
“All! But this is precisely the point: that it is not always done well and it could have been done better, but in the meantime it has been done. In life, 50% of your decisions are probably wrong. I’m sure there are brilliant people who do everything right the first time, but I’m not one of them ».
Is there enough belief in innovative ideas in Europe?
“When I started, no one in Britain was interested in supporting someone who did something boring like a vacuum cleaner. It is a problem of the West: they prefer to invest in fashion things. Back then it was computers, now it’s software. While I like prosaic things, like electric motors or batteries. And try to develop better ones rather than doing popular things ».
Big Tech are under fire for systematically proceeding to acquire the most innovative start-ups. Were you tempted to sell everything?
“There is a rather strange tendency to want to sell very quickly. I have never been tempted, but there have been offers. I didn’t turn it down because of money but because I was really passionate about the products, I didn’t want to get away from getting involved in the technology. It’s my passion, but I understand that many want to settle down quickly, get security and money they never had. ”
What is the secret of good design?
«The base is a technology or an idea that makes an object better at what it has to do. It must be cheap, of good quality, last a long time. And now also to use fewer materials, fewer resources: this is a dimension that did not exist twenty years ago. But design should never be treated as something separate from engineering, it’s not a fashionable material put on a hollow shell (Dyson gets up and goes to get a floor lamp, it’s a Toio by Flosed). Let’s take this lamp by Achille Castiglioni: it is easy to understand in its essential components, it is not only elegant, it is a wonderful idea ».
How to balance the inventor’s intuition and what you collect in focus groups?
«In focus groups, people don’t give you answers but clues and often what they will buy is the opposite of what they say. If you want to innovate, people will be scared of it. Let’s take our dustbin, which is transparent. Consumers and early retailers didn’t want it that way. But we liked seeing the dirt picked up, it gave it a fun touch. And so we ignored the audience. There are times when you have to be brave, people like to be surprised and shocked. ”
What innovations are you most proud of?
“It’s a bit like being asked who your favorite child is. I love them all for different reasons. It also applies to those products that have not been successful, such as our washing machine (long withdrawn from storesed). I don’t think success is necessarily a yardstick by which to judge. Did it solve an interesting problem? Did it bring about progress? These are the things that matter ».
Speaking of failures, what have you learned from the electric car project that was closed after investing a lot of energy and money?
«We started because we have very advanced electric motors and this was and is a fundamental aspect in a car. In our experience we had a lot of fun and many of the people who came to us to help us with the car remained, like our CEO Roland Krueger and other wonderful people: they have much more value than the money we lost ».
In the autobiography he speaks with great love and admiration of his wife Deirdre and his children Emily, Jake and Sam. How do work and private life balance?
“Not very well. Especially when the children were small I traveled a lot, which is not good. I’m able to disconnect, especially on weekends, but when starting a business it’s really something that takes you seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for the first few years. It was something that made you lose sleep. And now my son Jake is part of the company, he just looked after the new Dyson Zone (an object that brings together a pair of headphones and a wearable air purifier, ed). Sam is involved in non-executive roles. It is a family business and it is a fortune ».
Which tech objects have hit you the most recently?
“This pc that I have on my desk (a Microsoft Surface Studio, ed): we can draw and others can join the design and everyone can see what we are drawing. Each turns out with a different color and so everyone can see that some stupid idea is mine. It has allowed us to overcome the Covid lockdowns because we have engineers in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Oxford, Bristol and some in China. But speaking of simpler objects, there are electric toothbrushes, especially for children: they force you to do a thorough and delicate cleaning job. And then the jet engine of the planes. That’s why we have one here prominently on campus. ”
The current war scenario has led many analysts to talk about the beginning of the end of globalization. What do you expect for the future?
“We can no longer depend on one country, we need much more widespread supplies to avoid political or natural disasters, and all kinds of risks. I hope that nationalism does not prevail and that we all remain committed to a global scenario ».
You supported Brexit: did it bring the expected benefits for a British company like yours?
«Brexit does not mean not loving Europe. It is about having our sovereignty and not staying in the “Fortress of Europe” but rather having free trade with everyone. Europe is a single market, but the rest of the world is four, five, six times bigger. And it’s a different culture than the one I believe in: I don’t believe in big conglomerates. I believe in individualism and I suppose a very good example is the vaccine development that Britain had to do on its own, because it was not part of Europe and did it faster and, if you don’t mind to hear it, better than ‘Europe. If you are independent, change the way you think and change your spirit. And even though British history is European history, it is almost more natural for Britain to be global than European, because historically it has ties to Australia, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, and so on. ‘
How long will the component shortage last and how did you manage it at Dyson?
“We have been hugely affected by the shortage of semiconductors and Covid. I hope the situation will improve but perhaps another disaster will come. We enjoyed a golden age we didn’t think we would live in, but instead it was and I think it won’t come back. “
Why did a company that manufactures vacuum cleaners set up a university inside its headquarters, from which graduate engineers come out?
“It all started because we are struggling to find enough engineers. Jo Johnson, Boris’s brother (who at the time was the Minister of University and Research), said to me: “Well, start your own university.” I thought it was a good idea. And there is also a terrible problem of student debt in England, for figures of up to 90,000 euros and more. We have an alternative model: we pay them. They work with us three days a week and two days study, for 47 weeks a year, alongside world-class researchers and engineers. 44% are students, against a national average of 20%. They are not obliged to stay and work with us, but many decide to do so ».
How do you choose the people who work for you and with you?
«We are looking for curious people, who want to learn every day. People who are probably slightly unconventional, inventive, who want to be pioneers. In other words, doing something differently, not just copying what has been done in the past ».
Here on the Dyson campus we tasted some excellent strawberries, his other company produces them, Dyson Farming, which he founded a few years ago: what do agriculture and technology have to do with it?
I wanted to enter this sector because I am really passionate about agriculture. I realized that it would take some time to figure out what we could do to make agriculture more productive and profitable. Making it profitable will already be a good start, we are starting to understand how to do it and we are training. Talking about an agritech division is perhaps a bit of a big word but we are focusing in particular on strawberries, to learn how to harvest them with robots: it will be very important. But apart from that we want to make better food, do the soil good, have a natural habitat and use nature to work better with our farms.
April 26, 2022 (change April 26, 2022 | 14:52)
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