‘Don’t say Hoover, don’t say Hoover’: Conor Pope meets James Dyson at Dyson HQ
James Dyson, head of the hugely successful company that reinvented the vacuum cleaner, says failure is part of the journey
James Dyson photographed outside Dyson headquarters on the outskirts of Malmesbury, in the Cotswolds. Photograph by Adrian Sherratt
Among the development stages to produce the new Dyson Supersonic hair dryer were tests to find the best way to make hair shine
Dyson acquired a real fighter jet to hang in the canteen of the company’s headquarters
Shining example: the problems solved by the new hairdryer were achieving shine without noise. Photograph: Gareth Phillips
“Don’t say Hoover. Don’t say Hoover. Don’t say Hoover,” I say to myself in a panic as I walk into James Dyson’s small and pleasingly dishevelled glass-walled office just off the sprawling, aircraft-hangar-like space where hundreds of his employees are busy inventing the future.
I’m panicking because I can’t see how I’ll be able to get through my 45-minute audience with the world’s most famous inventor without calling his most famous invention a Hoover. And he probably won’t like that.
His many minions certainly don’t. I’ve been roaming the Dyson headquarters on the outskirts of Malmesbury – a Cotswolds town that could scarcely be more English if it were surrounded by an Earl Grey-filled moat, draped in a Union Jack and populated entirely by minor royals – for hours and in almost every conversation I’ve dropped the Hoover bomb. It’s like I’ve developed some weird class of household-cleaning-connected Tourettes.
While Sir James Dyson – to give him his full title – still makes the brightly coloured bagless vacuum cleaners that made his name, he has grown his empire dramatically in the last decade and now makes bladeless fans, air purifiers, hand-dryers, super cool lamps, hairdryers and robotic vacuum cleaners.
And those are just the things we know about. There’s a lot more going on in Malmesbury that we know nothing about. Most of it is happening in D9, the first building I pass on my tour. It’s “the blue-sky incubator where people can think outside the box”, I’m told by my guides. I note that the place where people think outside the box is, actually, a box. It’s not just any old a box. It is a box made of highly reflective glass and surrounded by bushes and trees. All the greenery reflects off D9’s mirrors which causes the building to almost entirely disappear into countryside. That is by design. Everything here is.
Hundreds of engineers are in the D9 box, thinking outside it. They’re working on top-secret projects. Rumour has it that Dyson is developing an autonomous, battery-powered car but when I ask about it no one says anything. Even if they had I wouldn’t be able to tell you. The first thing I was asked to do when I arrived in the vacuum-cleaner-strewn lobby was to sign a document promising not to give away any of the secret goings-on at the company. It’s a shame because the invisible jet packs all Dyson staff use to criss-cross the campus are amazing.
Inside D9 they may or may not be inventing the car of the future. Directly outside it sits a car of the past – an Austin Morris, a car Dyson loves. It was delicately cut in half to expose all its clever engineering as a 60th birthday present from the staff to him.
His 70th birthday is next year and people are already fretting about what to get. Well they might. What do you get a man with an estimated personal wealth of £5 billion and one who has bought a Harrier Jump Jet and the lightest helicopter in the world to serve as office furniture and acquired a real fighter jet to hang in the canteen?
The jet’s not the only thing making the canteen fancy. Joseph Sloan is head chef here. When his name is mentioned, Dyson people look at me expectantly. I look blankly back. I’m told he was once head chef at Marco Pierre White’s L’Escargot. I nod. The pizza oven is blue. I’m asked if I recognise the shade. There’s their expectant look again. Followed by my blank one. It’s Dyson blue, apparently. I nod. The chairs are bright pink. Dyson himself insisted on the colour because he wanted the canteen to chime with his hairdryer launched last spring.
Everyone talking animatedly in the canteen looks about 12. They’re not far off it. The average age of Dyson employees is 26. That’s by design too. Dyson surrounds himself with young people who haven’t developed old-person mindsets. It is believed they’re better at thinking of new ways to solve old problems.
And solving problems is at the core of this business. Every person I speak to – from Dyson to the newest recruit – uses the phrase at least once. There are at least 100 laboratories and R&D teams working on more than 200 projects aimed at solving problems. Most projects will fail. But Dyson won’t mind because he knows failure is a essential part of the creative journey.
That knowledge hasn’t failed him and business could scarcely be better. In the past four years Dyson’s sales have doubled and it reported revenues of £1.7 billion last year, up 12 per cent in 12 months. It made a profit of £448 million in 2015. No wonder it can afford to invest £5 million a week in R&D.
Matthew Childe spends some of that money. He’s a Dyson lifer celebrating his 20th anniversary at the company. When he started, there was just one small building and a handful of engineers. “But all the time there was this undercurrent of growth,” he says, almost breathless with enthusiasm. “It’s an amazing privilege to be in a place where the only thing asked of you is to try to overcome problems. Failure is part of the journey.”
He takes me to the Motor Lab where hundreds of people are peering at computer screens covered by endless lines of code. As we walk he turns to me: “How many Dyson products have you got?” The tone is almost accusatory. I list the Dyson products I have owned as he nods approvingly. Phew. Then I blow it. “I bought my first Dyson on tick in Brown Thomas,” I say. “I couldn’t believe I was buying a Hoover on tick and paying hundreds of pounds for it.”
He does his best not to scowl. But failure is part of his journey. We move on. He talks me through the creation of the Supersonic hairdryer, a radical overhaul of a familiar product. At its heart is a small motor Childe was instrumental in developing. Getting it right cost tens of millions of pounds and took years. It had to be small, quiet, clever and powerful. Three years ago Childe thought he’d solved the problem. The product was almost ready for take-off. “We were getting so close in terms of performance but the acoustics were horrific,” he says. “James just said it wasn’t good enough.”
So the team went back to the drawing board. “We spent two more years on the acoustics.” Eventually they made the “horrific” sound supersonic so it disappeared for human ears. And it gave the product its name.
“When I was five years old I wanted to be an inventor. But as I got older I thought it wasn’t a real job,” Chris Vincent tells me as we eat in the fancy canteen. “Now I am an inventor.” He beams.
He works in D9 in New Product Innovation. How do ideas get approved? “If you can present an idea in 15 minutes and do it in the right way, having done all the right research, then there is no reason for anyone to say no.”
There is one rule, he says. “You solve a problem or you don’t do it. That’s always what James is telling us. We would never make a DVD player for instance because what could we do to make that different? What problem could we solve?”
Mike Aldred is Dyson’s robot king and a key player in developing its autonomous vacuum cleaner – the 360 Eye.
“A robot vacuum cleaner? Amazing,” I say. “Can it do anything apart from Hoover?” He looks at me with sad eyes. “People’s expectations of robots are driven by science fiction,” he says.
The 360 Eye is not humanoid and it doesn’t talk in a sassy way or do anything other than clean. It would be rubbish in Robot Wars. It’s still awesome. Powered by a more than a million lines of code, it scans the room before mapping it and working out the most efficient way to cover all the ground. It can do all of this while you are at work and if it starts running out of power half way through a job it will return to its docking station to recharge. If it encounters a problem it can’t overcome it will send you a text message, then switch itself off to wait for you to come home to help it. At €1,000 it isn’t cheap and it won’t work in every home but it is ridiculously cool.
“Here we approach things in a different way,” Aldred says. “Our starting position was ‘this is a vacuum cleaner which we are going to automate. It is not a robot we want to turn into a vacuum cleaner.’ The robotics are the secondary function to the primary function which is being a vacuum cleaner.”
I ask what’s next. “I would see a future when the vacuum cleaner was not the only autonomous product,” he says cryptically. Will there be an autonomous car? Silence.
I meet Samuel Burrowes, one of the young guns behind the Supersonic hairdryer. Its development was so secret he had to lie to his mammy when she asked what he did at work. She thought he made fans. “When we started out making the hairdryer we had to work out what made hair beautiful, he says. And how do you define beauty scientifically speaking? “We knew that when people discussed what they thought was beautiful hair they were really talking about shine so we had to work out how to make hair shine.”
He shows me a dismantled Supersonic. Along with the tiny motor I saw earlier, there is a circuit board which looks like something you’d find in a computer. The hairdryer is a third of the weight of a regular one. It blows really hard and is way smarter so can keep itself at a very precise temperature for a very long time. It is also very expensive – you won’t get much change out of €400. Even at that price, sales have far exceeded expectations.
A man with a fan passes. As with all the other Dyson equipment, it’s super smart and super slick. It will purify the air in your home, cool you when you are warm and warm you when you are cool.
There is one on almost every desk in the building. They all have Dyson lights too. They were designed by James’s son Jake.
I take all this in on the way to meet the great man. “Have they made you assemble a vacuum cleaner? No? Then you’re not a new employee, so,” he says by way of introduction.
When he started out making Hoo . . . vacuum cleaners . . . did he ever imagine he would get to this point? “Of course not,” he says. “I just wanted to put my invention into production and I hoped people enjoyed it. I’m still without any sort of massive global ambition but I do think very long term and in a very serious way about future technology.”
One of the many unique aspects of his career is that he has never sold out or floated the company. How important is it that he has no shareholders or board to answer to? “It’s crucial. We report to ourselves so we make our own decisions, our own investments. We can decide to spend a very large amount on R&D or wait a long time or delay the launch of something without worrying what people will think. It is a great liberation but, much more importantly, it allows us to concentrate on one thing, which is the product, the product is everything.”
What does the future look like to Dyson? It is, he says, all about automation. “You will have things doing things so you don’t have to be bothered with them. You won’t have to work out how they work. You won’t have to read the manual. You won’t have to operate them with your phone. They will just do the right thing automatically and learn from who you are and what you want and what your temperature is.”
He describes the notion of thermostats in homes, for example, as “completely archaic” and says the problem that needs to be solved there is not how hot the room is but “how hot are you and what temperature do you want?”
He says his 360 Eye is symbolic of a future world. “Battery management, battery development, vision systems, artificial learning, interpretation of pictures, motor technology and the management of that piece of technology with software and electronics and chips: all that has come together to create this piece of technology. It looks like a silver object but inside there is all that technology and artificial intelligence and millions of lines of code making it work all the time. What it does is pretty amazing. If you saw a humanoid robot doing what it does you would be very impressed. You are slightly less impressed because it is a vacuum cleaner but what it is doing is pretty amazing.”
Where do his ideas come from? “They don’t come from me any longer. I am well over the hill. The ideas are all coming from them,” he says gesturing to the people outside his office.
It is, he admits, more difficult to keep on top of things “because there is so much going on”. His son Jake now helps “share that load but [being in control] is the most important thing. That is what I do and it very important that we are a private company and that I and Jake are in among the engineers seeing what is going on and helping them make decisions which stick so they don’t have to go up to committee to get it approved.”
On his book shelf there are just a handful of books: one, called James Dyson’s History of Great Inventions, catches the eye. Does he see himself as a great inventor? “An inventor implies someone who can just think of things and then go off and make them in his garden shed. All my life I have worked as an engineer, developing products and manufacturing them and selling them. An inventor implies all I do is sit here and think: ‘Well that would be a nice invention so go and make that’. It is very nice of you to use the word but it is not a profession.”
He says people think “you have the idea and that is it. But that gives the wrong impression and it is a bad example because it doesn’t happen like that.”
How does it happen then? “You see something that doesn’t work, or works badly, and you say: I want to make something that works better. You don’t have a solution and you start looking for something that might be a solution and then you have got the problem of building the 5,127 prototypes to make it work. And that whole process is a very long process. It is not a single moment,” he says clicking his fingers. “It doesn’t happen. It not like that.
“The germ of an idea is a very, very fragile thing and there are 101 reasons why it is a bad idea and probably only one reason why it is a good idea. So you have got to have faith in that one thing and forget all the doubting Thomas types. That is why very few inventions, or good ideas, ever get made because so many people are ready to kill them off.
“Part of my job is recognising the fragility of those ideas. Maybe if I took that idea and went to a board and said I want to spend £20 million developing this they would say don’t be so stupid. It is being able to just nurture it and allow it to grow to the point where it is robust enough to show it to hard-headed money men.”
No more manuals
What drives him now that he has all the money he could ever need? “It was never about making money. I have a passion for engineering and making products and exciting people with those products. That is what I want to do. Money occurs if you get it right and the opposite occurs if you get it wrong.”
He uses the new air purifier and fan to illustrate what he wants to happen next. “I’ve to put all the instructions on the machine but I can get 30 times more instructions on the app. So that is a great improvement but the next thing to do is to have none of that.”
How is he going to do that? “I am not going to tell you. But that’s the next stage. You are assailed in modern life with passwords. I have about 40 and am completely confused. It is too much. There are good challenges and bad challenges and having 40 different passwords is a stupid challenge. Having to adjust things all the time is not a good challenge. Reading manuals is not a good challenge.”
You can’t talk about Dyson products without talking about the price – well, I can’t. I ask if he could make them cheaper. “No. No. No,” he says emphatically. “If we wanted to get things cheaper, we would leave things out and not use as good materials. But I don’t want to do that. I want to produce a product really well, one that does everything that sort of product is supposed to do. We are not designing down to a price. It could be cheaper but it wouldn’t be as good and it wouldn’t have as much technology or as much research.”
I have to bring up Hoovers. I can’t stop myself. Does he hate it when people call his products Hoovers? He laughs. “Actually it helped me the other day. I bumped into someone at a rugby match and they said, ‘I’ve got one of your Hoovers and it doesn’t work’ and I said, ‘well buy a Dyson then. So sometimes it works in your favour.”