When Dyson invented his first Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner, which hit stores in 1993, he spent 15 years creating 5,126 versions that failed before he made one that worked. The payoff was a multi-billion dollar company known for its creativity and forward-thinking designs.
We caught up with him over the phone on a recent trip to Chicago to discuss how failure has driven his success. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
Entrepreneur: You often talk about the value of failure. How has it helped you?
Dyson: Failure is interesting — it’s part of making progress. You never learn from success, but you do learn from failure. (When I created the Dual Cyclone vacuum), I started out with a simple idea, and by the end, it got more audacious and interesting. I got to a place I never could have imagined because I learned what worked and didn’t work.
Entrepreneur: How do you embrace a long series of failures without letting frustration overwhelm you?
Dyson: We have to embrace failure and almost get a kick out of it. Not in a perverse way, but in a problem-solving way. Life is a mountain of solvable problems and I enjoy that.
Entrepreneur: Your cyclone technology is often held up as a model of creative problem solving. Does failure help spur your creativity?
Dyson: It absolutely does. You don’t have to bother to be creative if the first time you do something, it works. Creativity is creating something that no one could have devised; something that hasn’t existed before and solves problems that haven’t been solved before. Making something work is a very creative thing to do.
Entrepreneur: When you fail, how do you approach the next iteration?
Dyson: What I often do is just think of a completely obtuse thing to do, almost the wrong thing to do. That often works because you start a different approach, something no one has tried. You get a different perspective and view of (the problem).
Entrepreneur: What do you do to encourage taking risks among your employees?
Dyson: You must remove any sort of criticism. A revolutionary suggestion often sounds stupid and you don’t want people who make cynical remarks. It’s a matter of having the right attitude — humble, curious, determined, willing to fail and try. (I hire people who) embrace the fact that failure is interesting.
Entrepreneur: What would you say to entrepreneurs or inventors who feel afraid to fail or worried that they’ll be judged?
Dyson: That’s a sort of lesson in life, isn’t it? You mustn’t be worried about what people will say about you. If you want to do something different, you’re going to come up against a lot of naysayers.
Big companies tend not to take risks, so there’s a big opportunity for entrepreneurs to take them and march on competitors. Business is constantly changing, constantly evolving. You’ve got to try things out.