Innovation Blog

In Praise of Failure:  Dyson, the Vacuum Cleaner Wizard, Speaks

By Shlomo Maital


Sir James Dyson & his “Cyclone” vacuum cleaner 

We all know James Dyson from the TV vacuum cleaner ads.  A faithful reader of my blog alerted me to Dyson’s recent piece in Wired Biz.  (Wired, of course, is a wonderful source of new ideas for any entrepreneur, worth tracking closely).     Dyson speaks “in praise of failure”.   Here are excerpts from his piece:

  “An inventor’s path is chorused with groans, riddled with fist-banging and punctuated by head scratches. Stumbling upon the next great invention in an “ah-ha!” moment is a myth. It is only by learning from mistakes that progress is made.     It’s time to redefine the meaning of the word “failure.” On the road to invention, failures are just problems that have yet to be solved.

  [Note: This is precisely what Thomas Edison said, as he struggled to develop a filament for the light bulb.  He failed thousands of times in his laboratory, but never regarded a failure as a ‘failure’ but as a step toward the final solution].

For me, it started with a vacuum. When my bagged vacuum lost suction, I came up with the solution — cyclone technology. But having an idea is just the beginning. With a few rudimentary materials I mocked up the first prototype. Crude, but it worked (sort of).

From cardboard and duct tape to ABS polycarbonate, it took 5,127 prototypes and 15 years to get it right. And, even then there was more work to be done. My first vacuum, DC01, went to market in 1993. We’re up to DC35 now, having improved with each iteration. More efficiency, faster motors, new materials. 

  [Note: prototyping is crucial.  If you have an idea, do a mockup, a rough version, no matter how crude – until you have a prototype, you don’t have a real product. And investors, by the way, love to see things they can touch and feel, instead of 200 Powerpoint slides].

   There are countless times an inventor can give up on an idea. By the time I made my 15th prototype, my third child was born. By 2,627, my wife and I were really counting our pennies. By 3,727, my wife was giving art lessons for some extra cash. These were tough times, but each failure brought me closer to solving the problem. It wasn’t the final prototype that made the struggle worth it. The process bore the fruit. I just kept at it.

Instead of being punished for mistakes along the way, learn from them. I fail constantly. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

   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. No one is going to get it right the first time. Instead of being punished for mistakes along the way, learn from them. I fail constantly. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”