Dyson (the vacuum guy) Speaks About Inventing

Last week on NPR’s Science Friday, James Dyson, inventor of the eponymous vacuum cleaner spoke about the process of inventing. Dyson says he built 5,127 prototypes before completing his first bagless vacuum. “My life and my day are full of failures,” he said. “Failures are interesting.”

He went on to say that inventors should never give up and shouldn’t listen to negative opinions. “Noooo!” I yelled at the radio. This idea, the idea that inventors should doggedly stick to their inventions through hell, high water and negative opinions is so commonplace that it’s almost trite. Unfortunately it’s not trite. It’s both true and dangerous. Not all ideas are worthy of deep investment. Inventors need to K-N-O-W they truly have something special AND a market for it, before planting their feet and entering into a battle that will only end in either success or bankruptcy.

Dyson didn’t invent something that had never been seen before. He simply (and magnificently) improved on a product that everyone knows and understands because they use it regularly. He created a better vacuum cleaner, a product which had a lot of room for improvement. Making meaningful improvements to an existing product is one of the surest paths to success as an inventor.

Dyson didn’t need to confirm the market. The market for his invention was well established. All he needed to do was prove that his version of vacuum cleaner worked better and that people would pay the price for it. Prototype after prototype after prototype he confirmed he was on the right path. It wasn’t an act of mindless faith. It was a series of steps of improving and testing and improving and testing again. He worked hard to improve a product with a well established customer base, a customer base that was unhappy with its current choices. Who likes vacuum cleaners today, even Dyson’s improved vacuums? No one. There’s still plenty of room for improvement.

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