Never Give Up

Never Give Up

11-Mar-2013 by Marc Wesselink

Being an entrepreneur will always have its up and downs. The high points are easy. Getting through the tough moments tests one of the most qualities of a real entrepreneur – Perseverance.

Over past 15 years I have started many different companies across several different fields. My first venture goes back to 1995 when I started to import Dyson vacuum cleaners into the Benelux, after seeing a BBC documentary about the Dyson DC02 during my college years. I was inspired by his life story.

Born in the county of Norfolk, Sir James Dyson was drawn to art and design from an early age. After leaving school he attended the Royal College of Art to study furniture design and then interior design. He launched his first product, the Sea Truck, in 1970 while still a student.

In 1971, Dyson discovered a number of problems with the conventional wheelbarrow he was using while renovating his house in the Cotswolds. The wheel sank into the mud, was unstable and was prone to punctures; the steel body caused damage to paint work and became covered with dried cement. James, who had an art design training, started thinking about improvements. Three years later, James had a fibreglass prototype of a barrow with a ball instead of a wheel. The ballbarrow was born.College of Art to study furniture design and then interior design. He launched his first product, the Sea Truck, in 1970 while still a student.

Bagless Vacuum Cleaner

Later that year James bought a Hoover Junior vacuum cleaner. The Hoover became clogged rather quickly and lost suction over time. Frustrated, James emptied the bag to try to restore the suction but this had no effect. On opening the bag to investigate, he noticed a layer of dust inside, clogging the fine material mesh and preventing the machine working properly. The machine only worked well with a fresh bag. He resolved to develop a better vacuum cleaner that worked more efficiently.

He visited a local sawmill and noticed how the sawdust was removed from the air by large industrial cyclones – a cone that spun dust out of the air by centrifugal force. Dyson hypothesized the same principle might work, on a smaller scale, in his vacuum cleaner. He removed the bag from the Hoover Junior and fitted it with a cardboard cyclone. On cleaning the room with it, he found it picked up more than his bag machine. This was the first vacuum cleaner without a bag.

Dyson developed no less than 5,127 prototype designs between 1979 and 1984. The first prototypes brought James little success, as he struggled to find a licensee for his machine in the UK and America. Manufacturing companies like Hoover and Electrolux didn’t want to license the design, probably because the vacuum bag market was worth $500m so the Dyson was a threat to their profits. They didn’t want disruptors!

Dyson finally took his invention to Japan. It won the 1991 International Design Fair prize in Japan and became a status symbol there, selling for $2,000 a time. Using income from the Japanese licence, Dyson decided to manufacture a new model under his own name in the UK. In June 1993 he opened his research centre and factory in Wiltshire and developed the DCO1, the first in a range of cleaners offering constant suction.

Huge Hurdles

But it has not been an easy path.

The Dual Cyclone was nearly never made due to patent and legal costs. Unlike a songwriter who owns his songs, an inventor has to pay substantial fees to renew his patents each year. This nearly bankrupted Dyson in the development years when he was bootstrapping his business. He risked everything, but eventually the risk paid off.

Even though market research showed that people wouldn’t be happy with a transparent container for the dust, Dyson and his team decided persevere with a transparent container and this turned out to be a popular feature which has been heavily copied. The DC01 became the biggest selling vacuum cleaner in the UK in just 18months.

Perseverance Pays Off

Then in 1999, the US company of Hoover tried to copy the bagless Dyson, forcing him back into court to protect his invention, finally winning a victory for patent infringement.

Now, 23 years later Dyson vacuum cleaners are sold all over the world and is one of the biggest brands available.

James wrote an autobiography called Against All Odds which I recommend reading. He also set up the James Dyson Foundation which aims to inspire young people to study engineering and become engineers. There’s also an international design award which opens again later in March 2013, in which design students from 18 countries including the Netherlands compete for a £10,000 prize.

Lessons Learned

  • Always hold on to your long term goals.
  • Of course, you should always keep listening to your clients because in this early stage of customer development they are ultimately the people who will pay for your product or service. Dyson knew from his constant travels and the recognition in Japan that there was a demand for a different approach to vacuum cleaning.
  • You will encounter the most opposition from the traditional companies who have huge difficulty getting rid of the ideas they have used for the last 30 years. Yet those fixed ideas are becoming a serious threat , even to the larger companies. Look at the dramatic drop in turnover from SMS. Companies like KPN failed to recognised the impact that data driven apps could have on their business. Consultancy firms in all kinds of branches have to change their fee structures because clients want to pay for results, not hours. So don’t accept “no”. Think up a plan B instead.
  • As an entrepreneur you have to do the market intelligence to stay ahead of the incumbents. That’s one great advantage of being part of the Startupbootcamp Alumni network, open to all young companies that have been through the program. We’re already seeing all kinds of networks spring up between alumni – sharing useful tips and experiences to keep disrupting the market. We’re currently doing experiments with Google+ Hangouts, linking our alumni with experts on specific topics. Have expertise you’d like to share with the top talent in Europe? Then get in touch!

Till the next time,

Marc Wesselink