JAMES DYSON: Well, I'd had the idea for the vacuum cleaner to replace the vacuum cleaner bag with a cyclone. And I suggested the idea to the other directors...
GUY RAZ, HOST:
You said let's make this vacuum cleaner.
DYSON: Let's make this vacuum cleaner, then we can make some real money.
RAZ: And they said, of course.
DYSON: No, they didn't. What they said was don't be so stupid. If there was a better vacuum cleaner, Hoover or Electrolux or someone else would have made it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show - how James Dyson spent a lonely five years reinventing the vacuum cleaner in his backyard shed and how that persistence turned him into one of Britain's most successful entrepreneurs.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Here's a question. Who invented the lightbulb? Thomas Edison, right? That is the name that usually comes to mind because Edison is probably the most famous American inventor in history. And until recently, he held the record for the most patents by a single person. But Edison - he didn't actually invent the lightbulb. He took the existing design for a lightbulb - and at that time, the best lightbulb would only work for a few hours - and Edison improved it. He made a much, much better lightbulb. And that's basically what James Dyson did with the vacuum cleaner - a product that had been around for almost 80 years and a product so associated with one brand that in much of the English-speaking world, they're still called Hoovers.
So as you'll hear, James Dyson, much like Thomas Edison, used a kind of trial-and-error design process for that vacuum. He made prototype after prototype in a shed in his backyard, tinkering, making small changes and then testing them. In fact, he made over 5,000 prototypes before perfecting it. But James Dyson's journey as an inventor started a long time before he created his now famous vacuum. He grew up in England right after the Second World War with his brother and sister. His dad was a classics teacher at a boarding school. But when James was about 9 years old, his dad died of cancer.
DYSON: My mother saw it coming, knew it was happening. We didn't. So in a way, it was more of a surprise to us than it was to her. She very bravely carried on, went and trained as a teacher and taught teaching. The school, which is a school you have to pay to go to...
RAZ: The one where your dad - where your dad taught?
DYSON: ...Where my dad taught, yes. So it was a fee-paying boarding school. And in those days, nobody had insurance for being ill or dying. So the school said, well, you can come as boarders for free. So we had a free education and a great education. We were very, very lucky to have had no money and come from poor families, yet had a good education.
RAZ: So you go off to live at this boarding school, which is probably pretty hard for you as a kid, having lost your dad. What do you remember about him?
DYSON: I remember one thing that was - it was quite difficult for me because I was at school and my father had taught at the school. There was a memorial service for him, which, of course, the whole school had to attend. I don't think the boys particularly wanted to go to it. So it meant a lot to me but not an awful lot to the boys around me. And indeed, I think going away to boarding school just after he had died - probably I should have stayed at home and been with my brother and sister and my mother - that was probably a pretty harsh thing to do to a 9-year-old.
DYSON: But this idea in England that, you know, sending people away to boarding school toughens them up - probably does, but I'll tell you, I don't think it toughens everybody up in the right way. So I had to learn very early on to rely entirely on myself and not anybody else. And I think it makes you very determined - very, very determined - to prove something.
RAZ: Now, James wasn't quite sure how he would eventually prove himself. And after he finished school, he managed to get a spot at the Royal College of Art in London. And he decided to study furniture design and then architecture and structural engineering. And his first job out of college was for a fairly prominent British engineer and inventor named Jeremy Fry.
DYSON: Jeremy Fry, yes. He was chairman of an engineering company in Bath. I just got married. And he says, well, I'll give you a design job or two.
RAZ: And what was it about you that interested him? I mean, why would he offer you a job?
DYSON: Well, actually, what I discovered was that he liked employing young people who were bright and had all the right attitudes and ideas. So he gave opportunity for young people. So I started designing one or two things. And the third thing I designed for him was this high-speed landing craft...
DYSON: ...This was a moonlighting job that he was doing because his main business was making valve actuators for oil and gas pipelines. So this was his own invention.
RAZ: He had a side gig that was inventing boats.
DYSON: Well, no. He had invented a boat. The theory was that a flat-bottomed boat is the most efficient planing hull. It's not very good in heavy seas, to be honest, because it's flat and smashes into waves rather than cuts through the waves...
RAZ: Is it similar to, like, those landing craft that you see in those World War II movies when they're storming the beach at Normandy?
DYSON: Yes, except that those are not flat-bottomed.
DYSON: They're v-shaped hulls, which is why you see the troops having to wade through chest-high water in order to get to the beach, whereas we could land straight on the beach. In fact, we could ram the boat up the beach.
RAZ: So he had this idea to build this landing craft or transport craft that - and he said to you, hey, I got this idea, can you try to design something?
DYSON: That's exactly what he said. It was as simple as that. And it was as mad as that because I'd never designed a boat and I'd never designed anything in fiberglass. And - well, he had never designed a boat either. But he had this wonderful attitude - you don't think about doing something, you just do it. And he hated experts...
DYSON: ...For a good reason, actually. And I rather hate experts, as well.
RAZ: Did he teach you how to make things? I mean, because you were a designer.
RAZ: How - how did that work?
DYSON: Well, yes, he did. I mean, we were taught how to make things at college, but one thing we weren't taught was how to weld, and we had to make a prototype. And he said, well, just go and weld it up. I said I can't weld. He said, well, go and try. So I just went off and did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Like, you described a welding...
DYSON: An autodidactic welding - one-man welding course (laughter), and same with the lathe. And so I learned to use engineering tools by myself.
RAZ: So you have your prototype. And does Fry say, let's try to sell these, let's put this out on the market?
DYSON: Pretty much that. And I said I don't - I know nothing about selling. And says, well, don't be ridiculous. You designed every square millimeter of it, every nut and bolt. You know everything about it, so go out and sell it, which is what I did.
RAZ: And who was buying it? Was it designed for the military initially?
DYSON: Well, military use, construction use, oil companies, as a diving platform, as a bridge-building platform - so it had many, many uses. And I mean, within a couple years, we were selling 100 or more a year.
DYSON: It was a very successful business.
RAZ: So it sounds like Fry was a very fortuitous meeting early in your life that - he was older than you, right?
DYSON: Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah. Some 20 years older, I think.
RAZ: So almost like a father, probably.
DYSON: Yes, in a way, yes. He was a good mentor and taught me everything I know, really.
RAZ: So I guess you worked with Jeremy Fry for a couple years. And then at a certain point, you decide, you know, I want to kind of see if I can start my own business.
DYSON: Yeah, I worked for five - well, seven years in all. And he offered to fund me. And I said no, no, I want to do it on my own. So I went off and designed and made the Ballbarrow, which is a wheelbarrow with a ball instead of a wheel.
RAZ: Yeah. How did you even come up with an idea to design a new kind of wheelbarrow?
DYSON: Well - because I was fixing up a house and doing a garden, and I noticed the deficiencies of metal wheelbarrows with narrow wheels. First of all, they're very unstable with those very narrow legs. The legs sink into soft ground. The wheels sink into soft ground. So as I used one, I started to redesign one. And it was quite a good project to do as my first business because it was relatively simple. At least, I thought it was simple.
RAZ: What was it? What was different about it?
DYSON: Well, it had this big balloon - it was actually, literally, a ball. It was actually a plastic football, if you think of it like that. And that's how I made it, in fact. I made it out of this quite interesting plastic...
RAZ: I should say soccer ball for Americans.
DYSON: ...Right, soccer ball, exactly. Like a plastic soccer ball.
RAZ: So you - instead of having the one wheel on the front, it would be this 360-degree rotating ball, and it was more stable.
DYSON: And it was more stable. It didn't sink into broken ground in your garden. It didn't damage your lawn. And of course, it didn't sink on a building site.
RAZ: Why aren't wheelbarrows like that today?
DYSON: Well, I don't know. I don't know (laughter). But the difficult thing was then selling it because the traditional hardware stores, as they were then, and a few garden centers, they didn't want to sell it because they thought it looked very strange. So I used to sell it through little advertisements in the newspaper. It was always next to the incontinence pants or the baldness cures. And there would be this advert for a wheelbarrow, a strange, modern-looking - actually, nicely designed, I think, wheelbarrow. And I started to get quite a lot of business. People sent checks.
RAZ: So you had this company, the Ballbarrow. And it seems like it's going pretty well, so...
DYSON: Well, it never made money.
RAZ: Why? What happened?
DYSON: There's no money in wheelbarrows.
RAZ: (Laughter) OK.
DYSON: It was a very good lesson to learn. Not many people buy wheelbarrows, so it's a very small market. Wheelbarrows are very cheap. No wheelbarrow manufacturer has a salesman or a designer or an engineer. They just make the same thing they've made year after year. And we had to explain why it was different and better. And that was all fine. And we got 50 percent of the market but never made any money. I should have charged a lot more.
RAZ: My understanding is that you actually - when you took in investors, you kind of gave the patent over to the company. Is that right?
DYSON: I signed the patent over to the company, which was possibly a mistake.
RAZ: Yeah. Why'd you do that?
DYSON: Well, it's quite normal to assign the patent to the company that you work for, as I do now with all my patents.
DYSON: The only problem was that further investors came in, and the thing was that I didn't really own anything in the company, apart from my shares. And I only owned about 30 percent of the business.
RAZ: That must have been pretty frustrating. I mean, here's your - your idea, comes out of your brain, and you don't even own your own idea.
DYSON: No. But sometimes one needs to go through these rites of passage to understand the importance of ownership of intellectual property, the importance of owning - having a majority share in your own company, or even all the shares in your own company, not charging enough for the product, running a business that doesn't make money - all these lessons are very important lessons to learn and feel viscerally.
RAZ: And I guess it was around this time when you were wanting to make new products, right? So what were you thinking of?
DYSON: Well, I'd had the idea for the vacuum cleaner. It's quite a long story, but I'll try and keep it very short. The frames for the wheelbarrow, instead of painting them with wet paint, we had elected to use a thing called epoxy coating. But the way you get the epoxy onto the frames is to spray the powder electrostatically. A wheelbarrow frame is a very open thing. So a lot of the spray is going to miss the frame and have to be sucked away rather than have it go all over the factory. So you have a giant vacuum cleaner at the back of the spray booth sucking away the powder that's missed the frame.
Now, I thought this was very inefficient, so I asked those kind of people who made this equipment, you know, what smart people used, and I learnt that they used giant cyclones. Now, I'd seen giant cyclones on sawmills for collecting fine sawdust. So I went and copied one of those that I saw on a local sawmill. I climbed over the wall at night and took some sort of measurements and examined it. And we came back, and over two weekends, we made one that was about 30-foot high.
RAZ: So how does a cyclone actually work?
DYSON: A cyclone is literally an upside-down wine bottle. You have to blow into the system or suck out of the system.
RAZ: Oh, I see.
DYSON: But it is exactly a wine bottle. The dirt spins around the wall of the bottle, and the air goes out of the center of the bottle. And the idea is the dust can't get into the center because it's too busy spinning around the walls of the bottle by centrifugal force. That's the basic principle of it.
RAZ: And cyclones were widely used in these industrial vacuum machines that were cleaning factories.
DYSON: It was widely used at cement factories and paint factories - all sorts of places that had nasty dust that had to be sucked away by the central vacuum system. A sawmill is a sort of very good example.
DYSON: You see all the ducting sucking away from all the saws and everything, and it sucks it up onto the roof where you see a cyclone - a huge metal cyclone.
RAZ: Wow. And how do you connect that to a vacuum cleaner?
DYSON: Well, over the two weekends while I'm welding up this 30-foot-high one, I realized the point of this cyclone, which is that it collects dust all the time without ever blocking or clogging.
DYSON: So when I saw how a cyclone worked, I wondered if you could make a small one and put it in a vacuum cleaner. So when I'd finished the welding, I rushed home and made a miniature one out of cardboard and scotch tape, and connected it with a piece of hose to my Hoover, and pushed it around the house feeling rather happy. And it appeared to work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: This is around 1978, '79.
RAZ: What - just explain it to me. What was the problem with a regular vacuum cleaner and a bag? I mean, did you - were you frustrated by them? Did you hate vacuuming? Like, when - how did it occur to you that there was a problem with vacuum cleaners that needed to be solved?
DYSON: Well, I had just bought my - our own home. And we had a vacuum cleaner. Now, I'd bought what was billed as the most powerful vacuum cleaner in the world. It was sort of spaceship shaped, about 2 foot in diameter, with a huge motor, very powerful. And I was using it one weekend, and the suction was rather pathetic. So I decided to put a new bag in it. I couldn't find a new bag. So I took the bag out and undid the end and tipped the contents out into the garbage can and put it back in a vacuum cleaner. And I thought this is great. I don't have to buy bags again.
DYSON: And I was astonished that I got no better suction. It was exactly as before I'd emptied the bag. It wasn't a full bag. It was completely empty. But I still had no suction. So I got in the car and went down to buy some new bags, and came back and put a new bag in, and I got good suction. So I thought to myself, what's the difference between the one I've emptied and the one I just bought?
DYSON: And I had a look at the one I'd emptied, and you could see - even with my own eyes - that the pores in the bag were blocked with fine dust.
RAZ: Oh, wow.
DYSON: So I suddenly realized what was going on here. You don't replace the bags because they're full. You replace the bags because they're blocked.
DYSON: And I thought there must be a better solution to this. So that's how it all started.
RAZ: So just pause for a second because you were still involved in the Ballbarrow company, which had investors. Did you go to them and say, hey, I've got this vacuum cleaner idea? Let's...
DYSON: Yes, indeed. And I suggested the idea to the other directors.
RAZ: You said let's make this vacuum cleaner.
DYSON: Let's make this vacuum cleaner, then we can make some real money.
RAZ: And they said, of course.
DYSON: No, they didn't. What they said was don't be so stupid. If there was a better vacuum cleaner, Hoover or Electrolux or someone else would have made it. These are huge companies.
RAZ: But, I mean, you can understand their thinking at that time because how could anybody possibly compete with these giant vacuum companies?
DYSON: Well, actually, they - I saw immediately that these big companies, like Hoover and Electrolux, weren't bothering to improve the technology.
DYSON: They were quite happy selling bags. And no one was taking them on because they're so big. So I thought, well, therein lies the opportunity. I may be tiny and have no money and be in debt, but I've got an idea. So I think that my suggesting that we make vacuum cleaner was the final straw, and they kicked me out.
RAZ: Wait, wait. They kicked you out of your own company?
DYSON: Oh, yes, yeah, yeah. So that - which was a great thing actually because I was then able to start developing the vacuum cleaner. So I went back to my friend Jeremy Fry and said I got this idea for a vacuum cleaner. He thought it was excellent. So he put up 49 percent of the capital, and I borrowed 51 percent from the bank.
RAZ: How much did you have to borrow?
DYSON: Well, it was about 40,000 or 50,000 pounds in those days to get it started.
RAZ: And you did not have any of your own...
DYSON: I didn't have a bean. I was in debt. I had a big mortgage, you know, and three kids. So I started making prototypes for a cyclone to make...
RAZ: Like, where did you do this?
DYSON: In the shed behind my house.
RAZ: So you did this in your backyard...
RAZ: ...And you borrowed the money...
DYSON: Borrowed the money.
RAZ: ...And the idea was, it'll take me a year or so, and then I'll, like, start selling these things?
DYSON: Yes. Well, no, what I thought - we thought, rather - was that we'd get it to work and then we'd license it to someone like Hoover.
RAZ: So you are trying to build this and you're doing this day and night, day and night, day and night.
DYSON: Yes. Well, I wouldn't say night...
DYSON: ...But during the day, I mean, quite a long day.
RAZ: And what were you doing in the shed? Like, was it, like, trial error, trial error? Was it...
DYSON: Exactly that. It was empirical - entirely empirical because this is before the days of computer simulation.
RAZ: Yeah, sure.
DYSON: I was building one prototype at a time, making one change at a time. So I knew what difference that one change made, and so I progressed. There were quite a number of problems to solve. Firstly, at that time, the state of the art was that cyclones were only good at separating dust down to about 20 microns, whereas I had to get it down to half of micron - cigarette smoke-type particles. So that was the first problem. And the second thing was that I found that hairs and fluff would go straight through the cyclone and not be collected. And I built 5,127 prototypes before I got it right.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Here's what I'm trying to understand, James. While you are iterating and doing this in your backyard, how are you earning a living? How are you paying your bills? How are you providing for your family?
DYSON: Well, the money that I borrowed from the bank and the money that Jeremy Fry put in was essentially paying my salary plus a few costs, but I kept the costs to a minimum.
RAZ: And once you got a prototype up and running, did you go around and try to pitch the vacuum companies?
DYSON: Exactly that. I targeted all the vacuum cleaner companies and one or two other domestic plants companies.
RAZ: And what did they say when they saw it?
DYSON: Well, they all had a good look at it, but they didn't really want to do anything. They didn't want to change. And one or two of them said they actually rather liked selling paper bags. It's like, you know, Gillette selling razor blades.
RAZ: Yeah, sure.
DYSON: They can make a lot of money out of bags. So essentially, they were curious but didn't want to license it.
RAZ: How bad did your financial situation get?
DYSON: It got pretty bad. It's not nice going for many years with a huge overdraft and not earning any money either. But the one thing that my wife and I always said was that we both had skills. I mean, she's an artist...
DYSON: ...And she could always teach art. And she did do some evening class lessons. And I could always earn money making furniture or doing something like that. So we had practical trades...
RAZ: Backups - you had backups, yeah.
DYSON: ...That we could do, yeah. So it wasn't what we wanted to do, but we had that backup.
RAZ: But with all of those companies - those big companies telling you, not really interested, did you ever get nervous? Did you ever think about just packing it all in and then - and going, getting a safe job as a designer for a big company?
DYSON: Well, no. See, I don't quite react like that. It has the opposite effect on me (laughter). You know, I could see that they were turning down what is a good idea without good reason. Now if they had given me a really good reason, then I would've got nervous.
RAZ: What about your friends and family? Were - do you think people were sort of...
DYSON: They all thought I was mad.
RAZ: Right. They must have - there's James over there...
DYSON: Obsessed (laughter).
RAZ: ...He's working on this weird thing that he thinks is going to be a big deal.
DYSON: Obsessed and mad, but the thing is never to take advice.
RAZ: I mean, it is amazing because even some of the most successful entrepreneurs that have been on this show had sleepless nights. They were - they had anxiety about what they were doing.
DYSON: Well, I did. I'm not pretending I didn't. I did, but I have a sort of basic belief I think partly from the success of the Ballbarrow and from the high-speed landing craft which - a lot of people wouldn't buy it because it didn't look like a boat.
DYSON: So having introduced two very strange-looking, very different, new technology, you can make a success of it if it genuinely works better.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Coming up, the story of how James Dyson's design for a new vacuum that no one wanted to manufacture eventually became one of the best-selling vacuums in the world. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So it's 1985, and James Dyson approaches a bunch of companies to try and license his new vacuum, but none of them are interested and most don't even return his phone calls. But finally, that year, a small company called Apex decides to try making and selling Dyson's design in Japan.
DYSON: Yes, very small Japanese company that had never made anything before in its life got very excited about it and found someone to make it for them, and they were to sell it.
RAZ: What did it look like compared to what we think of a Dyson vacuum cleaner today?
DYSON: It looks much like our upright machines except it's pink...
DYSON: ...And it has a lot of exposed hoses, a bit like the Pompidou building in Paris, so you can see exactly what the air does.
RAZ: Oh, cool.
DYSON: But in most other respects, it's quite similar to the early upright machines we sold here.
RAZ: And how did it do? How did it sell?
DYSON: Well, I think considering it was $2,500, it did quite well.
RAZ: Right because in, like, today's dollars that's, like, 6,000 bucks.
DYSON: It's a lot of money. It's a lot of money. I mean, fortunately, there were some quite rich Japanese people then.
RAZ: Yeah, they must have been - (laughter) $6,000 vacuum cleaner.
RAZ: Was the licensing agreement with the Japanese company enough money to pay off your debts?
DYSON: Well, yes, it saved me from bankruptcy - put it that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So you licensed it to this company, and they were kind of selling OK. What made you at a certain point say, you know what? Maybe I should try and sell these myself.
DYSON: Well, I - although we were selling some in Japan at a ridiculously high price, it didn't really satisfy me because I wanted to sell a lot at a reasonable price. So I said, well, I can't really go on like this licensing people. It's - I want to make the vacuum cleaner. And I want to design the vacuum cleaner I want to design. And I want to sell it in the way that I want to sell it. So I decided to borrow some money. I was now completely on my own. I'd bought out Jeremy Fry, my partner. And I went to all sorts of people to try and borrow money to start my own vacuum cleaner business.
And I thought I had quite a good track record because I designed the new technology, I got a successful licensee in Japan, and I thought that I ought to be able to raise money. The problem with the venture capitalists and the private equity people is that they all thought that because I was an engineer and designer, I knew nothing about making and selling things and I couldn't possibly make a commercial success of it.
RAZ: Right. Right.
DYSON: So they all turned me down.
RAZ: You actually went to outside investors, asking...
DYSON: Oh, yes, yes, for which I'm actually eternally grateful because I'd have to give them the equity...
DYSON: ...Whereas I went to a clearing bank, Lloyds Bank, and by some miracle, they agreed to lend me 600,000 pounds.
RAZ: Why did they agree to do that?
DYSON: Well, I asked the bank manager afterwards. And he said, well, I saw that you had won a big lawsuit, and so I saw that you had determination.
RAZ: What was the lawsuit?
DYSON: There's a lawsuit in America with someone who copied the vacuum cleaner.
RAZ: Oh, so by this point, somebody had already copied your idea.
DYSON: Yes, and I'd fought a five-year lawsuit. And we managed to settle it very successfully. And the interesting thing is this bank manager - he went home and asked his wife what she thought of a vacuum cleaner that didn't have bags, and she said wonderful, exactly what I want. So it was partly that he'd seen my determination to win a lawsuit and partly that his wife didn't like bags in vacuum cleaners.
RAZ: And presumably, you had to put some collateral down, like your house.
DYSON: The house, exactly, so my wife and I had to sign the house over to the bank.
RAZ: I'm getting nervous for you thinking about this.
DYSON: Oh, yeah, so am I - so am I, even thinking about it now (laughter).
RAZ: I'm getting nervous.
DYSON: And so off I went. And I had - that's a very small amount of money to build the tooling, and it cost the whole of the 600,000 pounds.
RAZ: Wow. And the tooling is the...
DYSON: The tooling is the injection molds that you inject the plastic into to make all the components.
DYSON: Now, one of the things about tooling is that you - if you make any changes, that's where the toolmaker makes all his money. It's like a builder. If you make changes, the builder starts piling on the costs. So I said to my fellow engineers, we're not to make any changes at all. This is it. I haven't got any more money, so this is it. So we didn't make any changes. We got our tooling. And I put the tooling in a plastics factory to make the plastic.
DYSON: And they only were using half their factories, so I said, can I use the other half to assemble the vacuum cleaners in? And they said yes. So I had, you know, a few people there doing that assembly. And there were four engineers and myself. And we had one salesperson and one money person. So the plastics company made the parts, and I paid them at the end of 60 days.
DYSON: And so I had to go and get some orders. So I got some orders.
RAZ: How did you sell - who did you sell them to? How did you know where to go?
DYSON: Well, I went everywhere, and nobody would take it. But in those days, there were mail order catalogs. Do you remember the Sears mail order catalog?
DYSON: Well, I wasn't supplying Sears. But in England, there were one or two people who had catalogs like that. And I got into one of those because I spent a day with a buyer who was sort of curious about this funny man who'd done this yellow vacuum cleaner with a cyclone instead of bags.
RAZ: Yellow and silver - right? - the first...
DYSON: Yellow and silver. I spent a day with him. And at the end of the day, he said why should I put your vacuum cleaner in my catalog and take out a Hoover or an Electrolux?
DYSON: And I said, well because your catalog's boring. And he sort of looked at me for quite a long time. And then he said, OK, I'll give it a go. And he happened to be the biggest mail order catalog in England.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: How much were you selling them for?
DYSON: A hundred and ninety-nine pounds. So that's three times what other vacuum cleaners were sold for.
RAZ: Didn't any of these catalog companies say this is just too expensive, this is too - you're asking for too much money?
DYSON: Well, no, the price is concealed because you paid on the drip. You paid so much per week.
RAZ: I see.
DYSON: So they didn't actually show the full price or you - in very small print.
RAZ: But why would somebody take a risk on something that was untested, that they had not ever seen before through a catalog?
DYSON: Because it looked different. Its promise was no loss of suction. You don't have to buy bags.
DYSON: And we then got into another catalog. And so my first three or four or five months' sales were to those catalog people. And then I got into quite a famous shop called John Lewis...
RAZ: Yeah, sure, of course.
DYSON: ...A sort of department stores.
RAZ: How did you do that?
DYSON: They were looking to compete with the big electrical multiples, and so they wanted something different for which they could charge more money. But it very quickly became their best-selling vacuum cleaner.
RAZ: And this was 1990...
DYSON: Three - 1993.
RAZ: So how long was it before you were actually profitable?
DYSON: I was in the black from the first month on.
DYSON: I was able to pay my employees and I was making a profit as my distribution started to rise. And I could only get into the shops if I promised to advertise on television.
RAZ: How did you do that? How did you have the money to do that?
DYSON: Well, I didn't. So I said to the first retailer who demanded I do that - I said, well, look, if you order 10,000 vacuum cleaners off me, I'll put all the profit on those vacuum cleaners into television advertising, which I did. And so my strap line at the beginning was, say goodbye to the bag.
RAZ: Say goodbye to the bag. OK.
DYSON: So I had this woman explaining how the Dyson doesn't lose suction and others do. And then she said don't need these and tore up a bag and threw it away. And it all worked. And it snowballed from there.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So I guess within two years, this vacuum cleaner - by 1995, this becomes the No. 1-selling vacuum cleaner in the U.K.
DYSON: Yes. Yes.
RAZ: Were you just blown away or were you just thinking to yourself...
DYSON: I was too busy, actually. It's like going down a fast ski run. You know, you...
DYSON: You can't stop. You just have to carry on. And we were then bringing out a new version, a canister version, and we were starting to export.
RAZ: How much revenue were you making by the time you were the No. 1, best-selling vacuum in the U.K.? What was the annual revenue for Dyson? Do you remember?
DYSON: Turnover was probably $100 million.
RAZ: In two years. That's incredible.
DYSON: Yes. I mean, it's a very steep graph. It's...
RAZ: I mean, that doesn't happen. It's happened, of course, in the tech world. But, I mean, this is a real product. This is a real thing that people could buy and take home.
DYSON: Oh, yes. And it's real. We're making real money. And to see people buying the vacuum cleaner and liking it and commenting on it was tremendous. That was actually much more exciting than the whole money thing.
RAZ: And how did you get into the U.S. market, which is your - I guess became your biggest market in the world?
DYSON: Yes. The first year, we didn't do any advertising. But even getting in was difficult because everybody said, oh, well, you might've been successful in England, but America's very different.
DYSON: And then a junior buyer at Best Buy took one of our vacuum cleaners home for a couple of weeks and said to her boss, look, it actually is what he says it is. It works really well, and it doesn't lose suction. So Best Buy took it. And for the first year, we didn't do any advertising, but it sold pretty well at Best Buy.
RAZ: This is, like, 2002, 2003, something like that.
DYSON: Exactly. And then we started to get into one or two other outlets. So we decided to put all our money and a lot of investment into a television campaign. And so - it wasn't my suggestion, but someone said, look, why don't you just explain what you did and why you did it?
RAZ: Yeah. Just like you on TV.
DYSON: Me on TV...
DYSON: ...Taking a vacuum cleaner apart, showing a clogged bag and then showing how my cyclone worked.
RAZ: And you know that Americans are suckers for a British accent.
DYSON: Well, I didn't know that, and I (laughter)...
RAZ: Yeah, right.
DYSON: But I - so I was just being very honest. I was explaining how a vacuum cleaner works, why it loses suction and why mine doesn't. It was very, very simple approach, and we shot it in my house, and it was a very successful advertisement. And we started selling very fast. It was good.
RAZ: As you grew, and grew, and grew and grew, I mean, eventually, you began to sort of expand out to a whole range of products - I mean, air filters, bladeless fans, dryers. Anybody who's gone to a sports arena or a movie theater in the U.S. - or certainly in the U.S. and probably elsewhere - has used a Dyson hand dryer that you just put your hands in and out of.
DYSON: Oh, good, good (laughter).
RAZ: So how did those - when did you begin to expand to other products?
DYSON: Well, first, we did the fan, the bladeless fan.
RAZ: But, like, how does that work? Can you explain that to me?
DYSON: Yes. Yes. You accelerate the air out of a narrow slot. That draws in other air. You then expand the volume of air that you're creating, and you create a negative pressure suction behind. So you pull in more air. So you end up multiplying the original airflow 15 to 20 times. Now, I've simplified it, and there's a lot going on there that I haven't talked about, but that's the basic principle.
RAZ: I'm not sure I entirely understand it, but it is amazing to see that thing work, to see this hoop blow really powerful air.
DYSON: Yeah. No, no, it is interesting. And, of course, you have no blades to clean.
RAZ: James, I'm curious about your - the way you run a business because you really are an inventor and a designer. And you don't strike me as somebody who's interested in administering a company or doing the books or going to a bunch of meetings. Or maybe you are. Are you? How do you do those - all those things?
DYSON: Well, I had to do all those things at the beginning. But as the company grew, I did more and more of the engineering. And now I spend, you know, 95 percent of my time doing that. But I was the CEO for the first 10 years. I mean, I'm not totally happy doing anything other than engineering.
DYSON: I will do those other things if they need to be done, but I sort of resent the time I'm doing that. I'd much rather be with my engineers doing what I really love doing and doing what I think is the most important thing.
RAZ: Did you feel a sense of - secretly, a sense of - I don't know - schadenfreude that you were right and the people at the Ballbarrow company were wrong and those other vacuum companies were wrong when they turned you down? Do you secretly think, ah, I got them, I was right?
DYSON: No. No. I'm onto the next thing. You know, everybody makes mistakes all the time. Fifty percent of what I do is wrong. Actually, they're great. Mistakes are great.
DYSON: Not charging enough for the Ballbarrow was a mistake, and I learned from it. I've never made that mistake again. I've never made the mistake of giving away equity in the company.
RAZ: You own 100 percent of it.
DYSON: I own 100 percent of it.
RAZ: You don't have to answer to shareholders.
RAZ: You don't have to answer to venture capitalists.
DYSON: No. And it - that's wonderful. It actually makes my life pretty simple.
RAZ: You are - just so people understand this because you went from being deeply in debt in your early 40s, really having nothing - no money and three kids - to today.
DYSON: Minus - big minus.
RAZ: Minus - to today - you own jet, a private yacht. I mean, that's crazy to think that not that long ago, in middle age, you had nothing.
DYSON: Yes. Yes, it is. And in a way, the - it's - I find it quite nice that - I was going to say it certainly came much later in life. I think it would've been very different had it happened earlier. And, you know, there are still big risks to be taken. I'm developing an electric car, and, you know, that's a huge financial risk.
DYSON: But I am able to do it, and that's the big difference. I am able to take a long-term view and invest large sums of money and take big risks. And it's a huge privilege to be in that position.
RAZ: James, how much of your success do you attribute to your skill, your intelligence, your hard work and how much of it to luck?
DYSON: Absolutely none to my intelligence. Hard work, yes. Perseverance, yes. And luck, yes. And I do believe, though, that you create your own luck.
DYSON: ...Because luck is around. You know, I'm a - I did long-distance running at school. And you only succeed by doing a huge amount of training and then having great stamina, understanding that other people are also feeling tired. So when you feel tired, you should accelerate. That's when you start winning.
DYSON: So - and I've learnt that with developing new technology, that when you feel like giving up is precisely the point everybody else gives up. So it's at that point that you must put in extra effort. And you do that, and then success is literally just around the corner.
RAZ: That's James Dyson - actually, Sir James Dyson. He was knighted in 2006. Sir James and his wife, Deirdre, will celebrate 50 years of marriage this year. And the latest Forbes estimates put his net worth at $5.8 billion.
By the way, do you still vacuum your own house?
DYSON: Well, of course.
RAZ: Oh, really, yourself? You don't hire people to do it?
DYSON: No. No, I - no, we - you know, we cook our own supper, wash it up. I do some vacuuming, iron my clothes. And I like doing all those chores because I learn, you know, what works and what doesn't work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And we've got a really niche product to talk about this week. So you know how in crime shows, the detective walks into a murder scene and starts looking for clues in the blood that's lying around? Well, real police have to be trained to do that. And this kind of training has been going on for a long, long time. And forensic teams at police departments have used everything to make it realistic.
THERESA STOTESBURY: Everything from their own blood to animal blood sources to even corn syrup and water, that classic fake blood maybe you'd use to make your Halloween costume.
RAZ: This is Theresa Stotesbury. She's a chemist. And she says that if you're training a bunch of cops for, like, a day, you need blood that won't clot too fast, that won't spread disease but that still kind of acts like the real thing. And she learned all this when she worked at a crime lab in Ontario, Canada.
STOTESBURY: People were kind of grumbling in the forensic community that there just wasn't a good enough fake blood product on the market.
RAZ: So Theresa kind of filed away that idea. And around the same time - this is about 2010, 2011 - she was working in another lab on something totally unrelated - a better coating for steel to keep it from corroding.
STOTESBURY: So I was working with this clear, colorless liquid that made a nice coating. It could make little spots if you wanted to kind of spray it on things. And I thought to myself, hey.
RAZ: This, of course, was her lightbulb moment.
STOTESBURY: I thought if you just put a little bit of coloring in this and just - you just tinker a little bit with its properties, I bet you I can make a pretty good fake blood out of this.
RAZ: And so that's what Theresa did. In fact, at the time, she was in grad school and kind of did her thesis on fake blood.
STOTESBURY: I spent four years perfecting the material, got my Ph.D. And then we decided to form a company where we would sell it.
RAZ: And she's now working with colleagues at Trent University in Ontario to sell it to police trainers around the world. The ingredients, by the way, are top-secret. There's some water, some polymers and coloring. But the mixture has features that you'd find in real blood.
STOTESBURY: We call those little features tails or spines or scallops, and they can tell you a lot about how the blood got there. So was it flying through the air? Was it just formed on a surface?
RAZ: Which admittedly is a little creepy, but that's the point - right? - if you're learning to investigate a crime scene. Anyway, Theresa's company, Impact Scientific, has made about $10,000 since it launched last year. And one of the coolest perks of the job...
STOTESBURY: I do make a pretty mean Halloween costume.
RAZ: I bet.
STOTESBURY: One year was, I dressed up like a zombie, which was pretty intense.
RAZ: You can find out more about Impact Scientific at our Facebook page. And, of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing what you're up to. And thanks for listening to the show this week. If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also download our podcast at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts. You can also write us your feedback or any pitches at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you want to send us a tweet, it's @HowIBuiltThis. Our show is produced this week by Casey Herman with original music by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jeff Rogers and Thomas Lu. Our intern is Nour Coudsi. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.