What lessons can start-ups learn from Dyson?

Industrial designer Sir James Dyson is best known as the inventor of the world-famous dual-cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner. Partly supported by the salary of his art teacher wife, after five years and many prototypes Dyson launched his ‘G-Force’ cleaner in 1983

Although UK manufacturers and distributors were initially largely unimpressed (the product’s high price tag certainly was an issue), his hugely popular Dyson vacuum cleaners now comfortably outsell those marketed by companies that rejected his idea. His net worth was estimated by Forbes to be US $4.4 billion in March 2013. Iain Carruthers, author of a book about Dyson, offers his opinions about key lessons start-ups can learn from the vacuum cleaner tycoon.

  1. Know what you believe in - Dyson believes the world is full of mediocrity, that things can be made better and that you shouldn’t accept second-best. The fact that Dyson makes vacuum cleaners is almost incidental. The business is a quest to make brilliantly engineered machines and school people in great product design.

  2. Be ready for the world to say no - It took Dyson about 12 years from starting work on his vacuum cleaner to establish anything like a viable business. 12 years of prototyping, extended mortgages, failed deal-making and costly litigation against copycats.

  3. Find someone who believes in you - Dyson’s mentor was Jeremy Fry, a former boss and fellow engineer, who invested and believed in him. It was critical.

  4. Things will turn out differently than you imagine - Dyson never planned to be a manufacturer of anything. He started out in speedboats. Then wheelbarrows. He wanted to run a product design studio and live off the patents and royalties. Circumstances forced him to become a manufacturer.

  5. Keep your product or service in charge - The most important thing a new Dyson employee does on their first day is to strip and reassemble the vacuum cleaner. This is not a charming quirk. It’s a ritual designed to ensure employees never get above themselves. They’re there because of the machine.

  6. Keep it real - If you don’t know and believe you have something better to offer, you’ll always be hobbled. You’ll be faking it.

  7. Get up close and personal - A tangible expression of your product’s effectiveness is priceless. After development of the cyclone (bagless) technology, the greatest piece of brilliance from Dyson was the transparent housing of the machine. When you first use your Dyson, you see all the s*@t you’ve been living in. It may well be that another new vacuum cleaner with a bag would have picked up similar amounts of stuff, but you won’t be able to see it.

  8. Earn your stripes - The Dyson launch strategy in different countries is the reverse of the normal practice of highly supported campaigns and national coverage. You have to put in an enormous amount of ground work and seeding to earn early distribution and sales. This qualifies you for advertising and promotional support from the centre. If you can survive in the crucible of low resources and big obstacles, you qualify for success.

  9. Be you - Connecting the brand with the people (and therefore emotion) behind it gives it the quality of a story. If you can connect, you achieve something spectacular – you make the business human. This is an advantage with which a large organisation cannot compete. Unilever paid hundreds of millions of dollars for Ben and Jerry’s because it recognised a humanity they didn’t have and couldn’t invent.

  10. Be remarkable - If you want people to remark on your business (and who doesn’t?), you need the ingredients of difference that will prompt conversations – real and online. For each of the following, substitute ‘service’ for ‘product’ if yours is a service-based business.

  • The product aesthetic – it looks different. This doesn’t have to be radical. Simple, small things can provoke conversation. Toothpaste that comes out of a pump, rather than a tube; bath salts that come in a little ‘bomb’ ready to drop.
  • The product effect – it works differently. If you’re Dyson, you have an up close and personal experience (see above). But equally, the bath salts fizzle or the worktop comes up cleaner.
  • The product or brand narrative – it has a human reason for being this way. Someone thought it would be fun. Someone thought it would be important. Someone put themselves in jeopardy to get it here.

Iain Carruthers is owner of The Encounter Business and author of The Domestic Engineer: How Dyson Changed the Meaning of Cleaning