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#200 James Dyson (Against the Odds)
August 27th, 2021 | E200

What I learned from rereading Against The Odds: An Autobiography by James Dyson and reading A History of Great Inventions by James Dyson. 


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1. I am a creator of products, a builder of things, and my name appears love on them. That is how I make a living and they are what have made nom my name at least familiar in a million homes.

2. This is also the exposition of a business philosophy, which is very different from anything you might have encountered before.

3. It has all happened, I really believe, because of the intrinsic excellence of the machine; because it is a better vacuum cleaner than anything that has gone before; and because it looks better than anything like it has ever looked.

4. Perhaps millions of people, in the last few thousand years, have had ideas for improving it. All I did was take things a little further than just having the idea.

5. My own success has been in observing objects in daily use which, it was always assumed, could not be improved.

6. Anyone can become an expert in anything in six months, whether it is hydrodynamics for boats or cyclonic systems for vacuum cleaners. 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.

7. The best kind of business is one where you can sell a product at a high price with a good margin, and in enormous volumes. For that you have to develop a product that works better and looks better than  existing ones. That type of investment is long term and high risk. Or at least, it looks like a high-risk policy. In the longer view, it is not half so likely to prove hazardous to one's financial health as simply following the herd.

8. Difference for the sake of it. In everything. Because it must be better. From the moment the idea strikes, to the running of the business. Difference, and retention of total control.

9. This is not even a business book. It is, if anything, a book against business, against the principles that have filled the world with ugly, useless objects, unhappy people, and brought the country to its economic knees. 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.

10. I have been a misfit throughout my professional life, and that seems to have worked to my advantage. Misfits are not born or made; they make themselves. 

11. I took on the big boys at their own game, made them look very silly, just by being true to myself.

12. Herb Elliot was a big name 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, because if I had nothing else I certainly had sand dunes. Out there alone on the dunes I got a terrific buzz from knowing that I was doing something that no on one else was - they were all tucked up in bed at school. I knew that I was training myself to do something better than anyone else would be able to do.

13. The act of running itself was not something I enjoyed. The best you could say for it was that it was lonely and painful. But as I started to win by greater and greater margins I did it more and more, because I knew the reason for my success was that out on the sand dunes I was doing something that no one else was doing. Apart from me and Herb, no one knew. They were all running round and round the track like a herd of sheep and not getting any quicker. Difference itself was bon making me come first.

14. In so many ways it taught me the most significant lessons in all my youth. 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. 

15. To this day it is the fear of failure, more than anything else, which makes me keep working at success.

16. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was unable to think small, and nothing  was a barrier to him. The mere fact that something had never been one 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. While I could never lay claim to the genius of a man like that —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.

17. I have tried, in my own way, to draw on Brunel's dream of applying emerging technology in ways as yet unimagined. He was never afraid to be different or shocking. He never shirked the battles with the money men, and he had to overcome the most incredible resistance to his ideas: when he applied the system of the screw propeller to a transatlantic steam ship he actually filled a boat with people and sent them across the sea. I have asked people only to push my inventions around, not to get inside them and try to float!

18. 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.

19. Throughout my story I will try to 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.

20. I am led to the belief that, for 'vision' one might equally well read 'stubbornness'. At any stage in my story where I talk of vision, and arrogance seems to have got the better of me, remember that I am celebrating only my stubbornness. I am claiming nothing but the virtues of a mule.

21. And I suppose it was here that I learnt the crucial business principle that would guide my later attempts at making money from invention: 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.

22. He did not, when an idea came to him, sit down and process it through pages of calculations; he didn't argue it through with anyone; he just went out and built it.

So it was that when I came to him, to say, 'I've had an idea,' he would offer no more advice than to say, 'You know where the workshop is, go and do it.' 

But we'll need to weld this thing,' I would protest. 'Well then, get a welder and weld it.' When I asked if we shouldn't talk to someone about, say, hydrodynamics, he would say, 'The lake is down there, the Land Rover is over there, take a plank of wood down to the lake, tow it behind a boat and look at what happens.'

23. Now, this was not a modus operandi that I had encountered before. College had taught me to revere experts and expertise. Fry ridiculed all that; as far as he was concerned, with enthusiasm and intelligence anything was possible. It was mind-blowing. No research, no 'workings', no preliminary sketches. If it didn't work one way he would just try it another way, until it did. 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.

24. But I learnt then 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.

25. People do not want all purpose; they want high-tech specificity.

26. 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.

27. I set off around the world to start selling it properly. It was time spent away from designing, but it was to teach me, above all else, that only by trying to sell the thing 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, to bond with your invention to improve it. 

28. 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.

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

30. One decent editorial counts for a thousand advertisements.

31. In following his advice to abandon direct selling and supply shops via wholesalers, we began to lose that contact with the consumer that was the basis of our success.

32. One of 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, I have been trying to say, 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 and to inspire others to give their very best efforts to developing it, and to remain true to it, and to see it through all the way to its optimum point. To total fruition, if you like.

33. That is what development is all about. Empirical testing demands that you only ever make one change at a time. It is the Edisonian principle, and it is bloody slow. It is a thing that takes me ages to explain to my graduate employees at Dyson, but it is so important. They tend to leap in to tests, making dozens of radical changes and then stepping back to test their new masterpiece. How do they know which change has improved it, and which hasn't?

34. While it is easy, of course, for me to celebrate my doggedness now and say that it is all you need to succeed, the truth is that it demoralized me terribly. I would crawl into the house every night covered in dust after a long day, exhausted and depressed because that day's cyclone had not worked. There were times when I thought it would never work, that I would keep on making cyclone after cyclone, never going forwards, never going backwards, until I died.

35. Everyday products sell. Although it is harder to improve a mature product, if you succeed there is no need to create a market. 

36. Try out current products in your own home, and make a list of things that you don't like about them – I found about twenty things wrong with my Hoover Junior at the first attempt.

37. No one ever had an idea staring at a drawing board.

38. Painful but true. Breaking the mould will upset people. Challenging sitting tenants will be tough. It will take longer than you ever imagined. Ten years of development? Do you fancy that? And then negotiations on a knife edge, a shoestring, and hanging by a thread? It will take balls.

39. 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 of the nation, it is most likely to succeed if the original visionary (or mule) sees it right through. As I have often said, I aim not to be clever, but to be dogged.

40. I need to sleep a hell of a lot, you see. Ten hours a night or the whole day is useless.

41. We also scooted to number one so silently because our profile was raised more by editorial coverage than by paid-for advertising. Apart from being cheaper, this is much more effective, because it carries more of the weight of objective truth than a bought space. But in terms of visibility it is less popularising, while being more efficient in selling to those to whom it is exposed, because those prospectively in the market will be drawn to it. It is also out of your control—you cannot make journalists write about you, and I have never tried. And, when they have, I have never sought to influence what they write and have never asked to see their copy before publication. They take me, or the products, as we are, and I have to hope they like us.

42. It is one of the virtues of having such a strange—looking product, however, that journalists are more likely to take an interest in it.

43. If you make something, sell it yourself.

44. Companies are built, not made.

45. You are just as likely to solve a problem by being unconventional and determined as by being brilliant. And if you can't of 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.


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