James Dyson, the award-winning designer who pioneered the “bagless” vacuum cleaner, answers your questions on innovation.
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What would you personally do to ensure the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs are better skilled?
Sir Digby Jones, CBI director-general
James Dyson: Students should be given a freer rein to experiment in the classroom and take risks while they study. I actually think league tables and constant testing can distort learning. It's too much about delivery rather than discovery. I realise there's got to be a measurement, but perhaps gold stars should be awarded for mistakes too. It's about teaching young people to be creative. And to be creative you can't have a fear of making mistakes.
I think we should encourage students to make more mistakes. You learn so much from mistakes. Of course, more often than not, you learn how not to do something, but occasionally you discover a new tangent that takes you off in a totally new direction. And that can be very exciting.
The Enterprise Insight campaign has it right; it should be about creating an environment where young people are empowered to think differently and challenge traditional attitudes - perhaps those held by teachers, parents and big business. It might sound a bit anarchic, but some of the best enterprises are that way. It's not about a rigid set of rules, it's about trying something new.
Oh, and I'd lobby the CBI. ....................................................................................................................................
You took on the establishment and they tried to stop you. You created countless prototypes. You had no serious funding at the beginning. What kept you believing that your product would not be one of the 99 per cent of new products that fail?
James Dyson: Well, I suppose I am a bit stubborn. I knew from the first crude prototype that the idea of using multiple cyclones not only worked, but worked much better than a wheezing old bag. Although it took another five years and countless iterations to perfect it.
Of course there were moments of doubt. I had a young family and I wasn't exactly bringing in a regular income. It wasn't 9 to 5. It was a big risk, but my wife, Deirdre believed in my invention too. When the chips were down she encouraged me to persevere. When I was trying to license the technology to the large manufacturers I was often told that if the vacuum could be improved it would have been done already. I knew it hadn't and such rebuttals only steeled me. You've got to be dogged and to a degree, obsessive.
I think that going to university is a waste of time for someone who just wants to get started in business. What do you think?
Paul Sampson, Bradfield College & Downe House School
James Dyson: You might be right, Paul. It’s well-known that a lot of successful people didn’t go to university, or dropped out before finishing, but I wouldn’t necessarily assume it’s going to be the same for you. I went to the Royal College of Art and it was there that I got my first taste of engineering. I suppose university opens doors. You meet people with different points of view and you get inspired. And it’s good fun.
A lot of Britain’s universities are excellent, with some particularly good engineering faculties. We just need some more students opting to study engineering. Did you know that engineering graduates are the most satisfied with their careers? Anyway, Paul, there’s a lot of time ahead and you can change direction. Either go it alone or study and have fun at university. Both can be equally valid. Best of luck.
I’m currently developing a start up concept with two colleagues. Inevitably there is one dominant shareholder with “control”, but we still want to operate in a “partnership” type arrangement reflecting the different inputs and skill sets. Do you feel that these are conflicting positions that cannot be resolved - or is there a “trick” to finding the right balance?
James Dyson: I’m probably not the best person to answer because I’ve never made a success of business partnerships. When I designed the ballbarrow, I ran the company but I did have a couple of other investors. It’s tough because there are disagreements and things rarely boil down to a right or wrong decision. People want different things.
I wanted to diversify into other areas, including vacuum cleaners. In the end I was booted out of the company that made and sold a product I’d invented. I don’t know if you and your partners are friends, but what can seem like a good thing can turn nasty when the tough times come along. There are examples of it working, I’m sure, but off the top of my head I can only think of Ben and Jerry. And they sold to Unilever.
I’ve worked and consulted for a number of companies in the past and from my experience something changes when a company grows beyond about 30 people. It is a barrier where you tend to lose entrepreneurial spirit within the company and instead of people who care about your company you suddenly get quite a few “employees” with slightly less commitment. Did you find a way to cope with it or even a better way to maintain the “start-up” spirit beyond your growth?
Dr Achim Hoffmann, WOXON Ltd, Kent Science Park, Sittingbourne
James Dyson: I’ve been incredibly lucky. We’re still relatively young, just 12 years old, and we’ve managed to keep that underdog spirit that drives so many start-ups. Of course we have an advantage in that Dyson is about improving every day technology; we’re always looking ahead and so never get complacent. I think you’ve also got to give people the opportunity to learn and as I said earlier, learn through making mistakes. It means people have a stronger bond to the projects they’re involved with. It can be hard work and you learn quickly and it’s good fun.
Radio 4 broadcasted information about Enterprise Week, but it was aimed at generations other than ours. Does that mean older people are doomed to stagnation and can no longer “think” now that we are free from our previous busy lives? I graduated when I was 20 and worked for GEC Research Labs before I married and went into teaching. Married women were not considered employable in industry in those days as they were sure to be raising a family if they were normal!
James Dyson: Well I think Enterprise Insight’s Make Your Mark campaign is doing a good job; We should be encouraging young people to aspire to running their own businesses, thinking creatively and innovating. That said, I don’t think good ideas are exclusive to the under-thirties! People of all ages, male or female have the capacity to come up with ideas. The difficulty is turning those ideas into a reality. And you need time and you need discipline. You may prove your genius or prove your good idea is anything but. A GEC Research veteran, a teacher and a mother? I’m sure you’ve got some great innovations up your sleeve!
We’ve got some brilliant women engineers working at our R&D centre in Malmesbury, but I have to say the team of 350 is still dominated by men. I think attitudes have changed, but it will take time to balance things out. Actually, we’re about to do some school workshops in girl’s schools to show how exciting and intellectually stimulating a career in engineering can be.
Hi, what advice would you give on how to approach positioning a product that the market and investors think already is catered for - and due to their lesser knowledge of the area and general preconceived understanding - can’t/don’t recognise your offering, which is a simple yet evolutionary step forward?
Steve Vaughan, Marketing Information Systems Ltd (MKIS), UK
James Dyson: I suppose you’ve just got to keep trying and make the simple difference easier to understand. And that’s not easy. I’m not being much help here, but it’s difficult to answer without knowing exactly what it is you’re referring to. “Product” is a funny word though. It used to mean something manufactured, something tangible. But now it can be car insurance or a training course. I digress...
I would like to ask Mr Dyson, what career he would have chosen, had he not been a designer/inventor
James Dyson: Boring answer, but I really can’t think of what else I’d be. Possibly an architect. That’s what I had in mind when I first studied at the Royal College of Art. I designed a few interiors, some benches for Heathrow’s Terminal 2 (which I think they’ve just announced they’re going to demolish) and best of all, a theatre, which was based on Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.
It was the theatre that led me to meeting Jeremy Fry, an inventor and entrepreneur. He didn’t back the theatre, but bizarrely asked me to develop a high-speed flat-hulled boat for him. I say bizarre because I was barely into my twenties and hadn’t ever been anywhere near boat design. But Jeremy took a risk and I learnt an awful lot from him. He gave me the freedom to experiment and make decisions.
But I suppose I’ve always liked using my hands and my brain, so an engineer was perhaps inevitable. I was always one for dismantling the radio, building go-karts, meddling with cars and then of course, vacuum cleaners.
Maybe an astronaut?