The Dyson DC01 isn’t much to look at. It's bright yellow and slate grey in colour. Let’s be honest, it’s hardly the most exciting thing you’ll see today.
But if you knew its history, it could be.
The DC01 means so much more than a revolution in suction technology. It’s a symbol for patience and perseverance in innovation. It’s an emblem for success through hard work. James Dyson spent 15 years fighting off debt and discouragement, producing 5,127 prototypes before he presented the finished product to the world in 1993.
Except it wasn’t the finished product.
The original model has been through more than 50 iterations since its initial release, and shows no sign of stopping. This is innovation, the Dyson way – playing the long game, embracing failures and constantly looking to refactor and improve. Here’s what Sir James and the humble DC01 can teach us about innovation.
1. Think long-term: embrace and encourage failure
5,127 prototypes for the DC01 means 5,126 vacuums that were failures in some way. Dyson loves failing. He loves it so much that his company is currently spending seven million pounds a week on research and development that he describes as ‘a lot of failure’.
Why does a wildly successful inventor love getting things wrong all the time? Dyson loves failure because it’s how he learns and moves forward. In his own words,
‘Stumbling upon the next great invention in an “ah-hah!” moment is a myth. It is only by learning from mistakes that progress is made…each failure brought me closer to solving a problem.’
Dyson’s role model is Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb who was famous for saying that he had never failed, but had ‘found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ For Dyson, ‘10,000 flops fade into insignificance alongside Edison’s 1,093 patents.’
Dyson briefly produced washing machines, discontinuing them in 2005 because they weren’t making any money. How does he remember his foray into the washing machine market?
‘[It] was the most wonderful educative failure.’
Lose the fear of failure and take risks. It requires a long-term mindset, but, allowing yourself to iterate and bounce back from mistakes makes for a far deeper understanding of whatever your (un)finished product will become.
Each mistake saves you time in the future. Sure, it costs you time in the present, but you get real-life experience on why something doesn’t work and lets you eliminate it. Failure offers valuable lessons that you’re essentially teaching yourself, so treat it as a hurdle, not a roadblock.
2. Persevere and be rewarded
‘I have always found that the very moment you're ready to give up, that if you go on a little longer, you end up finding what you're looking for. It's one of life's rewards for perseverance.’ – from an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Think about it. You’re a forty-something inventor with the threat of bankruptcy looming, three children and 4,000 prototypes under your belt for a product that’s nowhere near complete. What do you do?
If you’re James Dyson, you buckle down and get to work on the next thousand iterations. Professor Gareth Jones, one of Dyson’s close collaborators, puts Dyson’s success down to his mastery of foresight – but also to ‘an unbelievable drive and determination’. You don’t have to be an innately talented predictor of success – that ability comes with the failure we mentioned before. What you do need, from the outset, is the dedication to see your projects through.
This doesn’t mean getting things done so they’re satisfactory, either. The DC01 could probably have been a perfectly acceptable vacuum at around prototype 3,500. Dyson’s manic belief in refactoring and improving means that he’s responsible for genuine industry disruption, not just improving an existing product. Foster this kind of dedication to progress in your own workplace, and you’ll blow past satisfactory.
3. Prioritise R&D
Dyson, the company, now spends approximately 18 percent of its sales revenue on research. Compare that to Apple’s 5.1 percent and Amazon’s 12.7 percent, and you begin to see how important research and development is considered at Dyson. In 2017, the company opened a research centre in Singapore, creating a ‘24-hour R&D cycle’: a non-stop research machine pumping out failures and the lessons learned from them.
It’s this immense investment in R&D that allowed Dyson to do the thing he’s said he’s most proud of:
‘From being a company that produced vacuum cleaners, we’ve turned ourselves into a technology company.’
It may not make sense for you to dedicate 18 percent of your revenue to research projects, but Dyson’s work evidences that prioritising R&D in some way can lead to massive leaps in progress and innovation.
Perhaps it means dedicating more time rather than money. What we can learn from Dyson is that if you want to evolve in a meaningful and sustainable way, R&D should be a top priority.
4. Relive your student days
‘At Dyson, we embrace problem solvers and let them make mistakes. We take on a lot of young people. Unburdened by experience, their minds aren't clouded with preconceived ideas of what can or cannot work.’ – from an article written for Wired magazine.
So how did Dyson go from vacuums to high-level technological development? By not shackling itself to what was expected from it. Instead of accepting its role as an appliance company, the people at Dyson followed where their research took them, ignoring ideas like ‘shouldn’t’ or ‘doesn’t make sense’. They were able to do this because James Dyson let them, and now the company is making plans for electric cars.
Don’t let experience get in the way. Accept the fact that you’ll be making mistakes, and you’ll innovate in ways you probably haven’t even thought of yet. Dyson describes this ethos:
‘By fostering an environment where failure is embraced, even those of us far from our student days have the freedom to make mistakes – and learn from them still.’
Research, fail, persevere, and repeat
It’s a simple formula on paper, but it’s one that has been behind the success of Britain’s greatest living inventor. As he takes his company boldly into the world of electric cars, watch and study the same innovative process that birthed the DC01.
Whether Dyson is the next Tesla or not, the company will learn and improve for the future. Do the same and your business will avoid failure and, in turn, grow to be sustainably successful.