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#25 Against the Odds: An Autobiography by James Dyson
April 22nd, 2018 | E25

What I learned from reading Against the Odds: An Autobiography by James Dyson


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I am a creator of products, a builder of things. [0:01]

This book is the story of 15 years of struggle to finally invent, own, and sell his own product. [1:35]

This is the exposition of a business philosophy which is very different from anything you might have encountered before. [2:11]

The first 75% to 80% of the book is just struggle after struggle. [2:47]

Dyson had a bunch of people that he looked up to that motivated him as a young man. Thomas Edison is one of those people. [4:51]

Such reverence has been accorded to the miserable wheel —that perhaps that alone can account for the fact it was never improved. Perhaps millions of people in the last few years had ideas for improving it. All I did was take things a little further than just having an idea. [6:10]

The look of the product —the intangible style that sets one thing apart from another—is still closest to my heart. [7:04]

After the idea there is plenty of time to learn the technology. My first cyclonic vacuum cleaner was built out of cereal packets and masking tape long before I understood how it worked. [8:09]

The greatest lesson for aspiring inventors was yet to come. The actual making of money. Paper stuff in thick wads which they finally give to you because you have done something good. [8:40]

The best kind of business is one where you could sell a product at a high price with a good margin and in enormous volumes. That type of investment is long term, high risk, and not very British. Or at least it looks like a high-risk policy. It is not so likely to prove hazardous to one’s financial health as simply following the herd. [9:25]

Difference for the sake of it. In everything. Because is must be better. From the moment the ideas strikes, to the running of the business. Difference, and retention of total control. [10:39]

This is not even a business book. If anything it is a book against business, against the principles that have filled the world with ugly, useless objects. [11:37]

Everybody told James over and over and over again “Who are you to think that you could invent a better vacuum cleaner? If that was possible Hoover would have done it already." [12:44]

We all want to make our mark. We all want to make beautiful things and a little money. We all have our own ideas about how to do it. What follows just happens to be my way.  [13:15]

I have been a misfit throughout my professional life, and that seems to have worked for my advantage. Misfits are not born or made. They make themselves. [13:45]

I took on the big boys at their own game, made them look very silly, just by being true to myself. [15:56]

There was no dad to teach me how to run. There was no dad to tell me how great I was. Herb Elliot was a big name [in running] at the time, so I read a few books about him and discovered that his coach had told him that the way to develop stamina and strengthen the leg muscles was to run up and down sand dunes. This suited me fine. I would get up at six in the morning and run dunes for hours, or put on my running kit at ten o’ clock at night and not reappear until after midnight. Out there alone on the dunes I got a terrific buzz knowing that I was doing something that no one else was—they were all tucked away in bed. I knew I was training myself to do something better than anyone else would be able to do.  [18:14]

Running is a wonderful thing. It isn’t like a team sport where you depend on other people. There is no question of your performance being judged. You either run faster than everyone else or you do not. In running your performance is absolute. I was out there [on the sand dunes] learning how to do something, and getting a visible result. [19:34]

As I started to win by greater and greater margins I did it [run sand dunes] more and more because I knew the reason for my success was that out on the sand dunes I was doing something else no one else was doing. They were all running around the track like a herd of sheep and not getting any quicker. Difference itself was making me come in first. [20:50]

I was learning about the physical and psychological strength that keeps you competitive. I was learning about obstinacy. I was learning how to overcome nerves, and as I grew more and more neurotic about being caught from behind, I trained harder to stay in front. To this day it is the fear of failure, more than anything else, that keeps me working at success. [21:31]

The only way to make a genuine breakthrough was to pursue a vision with single-minded determination in the face of criticism. [22:26]

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was unable to think small, and nothing was a barrier to him. The mere fact that something had never been done before presented, to Brunel, no suggestion that the doing of it was impossible—he was fired by an inner strength and self-belief almost impossible to imagine in this feckless age. I have tried to be as confident in my vision as he was. And at times in my life when I have encountered difficulty and self-doubt I have looked to his example to fire me on. [22:55]

I have told myself, when people tried to make me modify my ideas, that the Great Western Railway could not have worked as anything but the vision of a single man, pursued with dogged determination that was nothing less than obsession. Throughout my story I will return to Brunel, and to other designers and engineers, to show how identifying with them, and seeing parallels with every stage of my own life, enabled me to see my career as a whole and to know that it would all turn out the way it has. [24:59]

Remember that I am celebrating only my stubbornness. I am claiming nothing but the virtues of a mule. [25:42]

So my dream was to be a Isambard Kingdom Brunel. [26:40]

The public has been easily convinced by advertising, and receptiveness to revolution has dwindled. Such ‘invention’ as is now allowed is the prerogative of multinationals, not people. Where are our Wright Brothers? Where have the Edisons gone? And the Henry Fords? They are not here. We have broken new frontiers, but where are the names? Who invented the space shuttle? The nuclear submarine? The wind farm? When you go for backing for your crazy scheme it is not enough to be a man, you have to be a group of men. And where is the fun in that? [26:56]

I learnt a crucial business principle: The only way to make real money is to offer the public something entirely new, that has style value as well as substance, and which they cannot get anywhere else. [28:03]

College had taught me to revere experts and expertise. Jeremiah Fry ridiculed all that; as far as he was concerned, with enthusiasm and intelligence anything was possible. It was mind-blowing. And as we proceeded I could see that we were getting on extremely quickly. The more I observed his method, the more it fascinated me. [31:07]

I learned one of the most crucial business lessons of my life; to stint on investment in the early stages, to try to sell a half-finished product, is to doom from the start any project you embark on. [32:13]

People do not want all-purpose; they want high-tech specificity. [34:11]

You simply cannot mix your messages when selling something new. A consumer can barely handle one great new idea, let alone two, or even several. [34:20]

Only by trying to sell the thing that you have made yourself, by dealing with consumers’ problems and the product’s failings as they arise, can you really come to understand what you have done. Only the man who has brought the thing into the world can presume to foist it on others, and demand a heavy price, with all his heart. [35:52]

It was an interesting lesson in psychology, teaching me that the entrenched professional is always going to resist far longer than the private consumer. [36:26]

Editorials are the very best way of convincing the public. One decent editorial counts for a thousand advertisements. [39:20]

One fo the strains of this book is about CONTROL. If you have the intimate knowledge of a product that comes with dreaming it up and then designing it, then you will be the better able to sell it and then, reciprocally, to go back to it and improve it. From there you are in the best possible position to convince others of its greatness. To see it through all the way to its optimum point. To total fruition, if you like. [42:04]

I was stopped by one of them with the words I was to hear over and over and over again for the next ten years. ‘But James, your idea can’t be any good. If there were a better kind of vacuum cleaner, Hoover would have invented it.' [48:07]

We always want to create something new out of nothing, and without research, and without long hard hours of effort. But there is no such thing as a quantum leap. There is only dogged persistence—and in the end you make it look like a quantum leap. [51:38]

A vacuum cleaner designed entirely by me, incorporating innovations up to the very latest point at which my technology had arrived, to be produced and marketed and sold under my own exclusive direction was, to be frank, what this whole thing had been all about. [1:02:48]

It was a fantastic environment to work in, for it was just engineers and designers, and no one to mess us around. There were no salesmen, no advertising people, no marketing managers, to interfere and try to guide us in their direction. We had nothing to do but deduce our own dream product. [1:04:48]

Everyday products sell. Although it is harder to improve a mature product, if you succeed there is no need to create a market. Try out current products in your own home, and make a list of things that you don’t like about them. I found about 20 things wrong with my Hoover Jr. at the first attempt. [1:07:19]

Total control. From the first sprouting of the idea, through research and development, testing and prototyping, model making and engineering drawings, tooling, production, sales and marketing, all the way into the homes, it is most likely to succeed if the original visionary (or mule) sees it right through. [1:11:43]

On 2 May 1992, I found myself looking at the first, fully operational, visually perfect, Dyson Dual Cyclone. I was thirty-one years old when I tore the bag off my Hoover and stuck a cereal packet in the hole. 2 May 1992 was my forty-fifth birthday. [1:12:24]

We were selling more vacuum cleaners than anyone else despite costing twice as much. [1:14:32]

In other words: if you make something, sell it yourself. And so we did. And absolutely nothing went bang. Except, of course, everyone else’s market slice. [1:17:57]

Encourage employees to be different, on principle. This is part of my anti-brilliance campaign. Very few people can be brilliant. Those who are, rarely do anything worthwhile. You are just as likely to solve a problem by being unconventional and determined as by being brilliant. And if you can’t be unconventional, be obtuse. Be deliberately obtuse, because there are 5 billion people out there thinking in train tracks, and thinking what they have been taught to think. [1:21:18]

I have listened to every episode released and look forward to every episode that comes out. The only criticism I would have is that after each podcast I usually want to buy the book because I am interested, so my poor wallet suffers.”— Gareth

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