Lessons from inventor James Dyson



James Dyson is a highly successful inventor who has built an empire of high-tech, design-centric consumer products, including  vacuum cleaners, supersonic hairdryers and air-purifying fans. His background is somewhat different than the typical U.S.-based engineer/founder:

Mr. Dyson, 70, was born in Norfolk, England. He had no formal engineering training. Instead, he went to art school and then studied design at the Royal College of Art.

There are some important lessons in the Wall Street Journal article James Dyson’s Big Ideas that are far from unique, but seem to be key elements of successful founders.

The first his his attitude towards market research, which is virtually identical to Steve Jobs:

Market research at the time said that customers weren’t especially interested in cordless vacuums, but Mr. Dyson decided to ignore it. “You can’t ask your customers to tell you what to do next,” he says. “They don’t know. That’s our job.”

The second is his attitude towards failure and the need for perseverance.

He credits his success to “perseverance, taking risks and having a willingness to fail.” “Inventors rarely have ‘eureka’ moments,” he says. “Developing an idea and making it work takes time and patience.” He adds, “We fail every day. Failure is the best medicine—as long as you learn something.

N.B. that failure is ok – as long as you learn something! There’s too much lip service paid to the value of failure in the startup world and not enough attention paid to the need for continuous learning.

In my 30+ years of working with entrepreneurs I’ve found that persistence/perseverance and continuous learning/improvement are the key determinants of success. For example, Tim Westergren the founder of Pandora was turned down by 150 VCs before finally landing an investment.

So here’s a little self-test for founders: if you aren’t willing, able, and passionate about working extremely hard to realize your vision, usually for years and usually taking well below market compensation,  don’t even start. Go to work for someone else.

I used to wonder why successful song writers kept writing songs even well after they became multi-millionaires and could easily have retired. The answer is simple, the can not NOT write songs! It’s something they are driven to do. And founders have to have the same motivation, it is not about money, fame, power or other stuff more easily found on Wall Street or elsewhere – it’s about the unquenchable drive to build out their vision. James Dyson at age 70 is still going strong, and why not! Money, fame, power, etc. are the byproducts of a successful startup, not the reasons for starting a company. There are lots of easier ways to get rich, if not famous.

*In a 1998 interview with Businessweek, he famously stated:

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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