The Dyson Way
In Malmesbury, Wiltshire, Sir James Dyson the mechanical mastermind gives me a tour of his truly complex complex. But, “Dyson isn’t Apple!” Sir James Dyson argues — and he’s right, it’s better. Here Sir James explains why his is the most electrifying company in Britain…
Days before our interview at Dyson HQ in Malmesbury, Sir James Dyson celebrated his 70th birthday. While touring the 129 on-site research and development laboratories, virtually every one of the 3500 engineers and scientists he employs reminds me to wish him many happy returns.
Meandering along an almost military eight-hour tour through the sprawling maze of motor manufacturing rooms, electromagnetic chambers, and specialist “hair laboratories”, people with impenetrably complex jobs introduce themselves and begin to describe their specific role in the creation of the 13 million machines Dyson sells each year. Again, almost everyone cites a different workplace philosophy that they ascribe to their leader, Sir James Dyson, and which they call “The Dyson Way”.
These are often variants on a theme, such as ‘there’s no such thing as a bad idea’ or ‘we don’t like to think of Dyson as a brand’, and the employees appear to believe whole-heartedly in this way of life.
The deification of Sir James doesn’t stop there either. The monuments to him are everywhere you look. Just 20ft away from the main reception in a visitor’s car park is an enormous Harrier fighter jet sprawling across two parking bays as though someone uses it for the commute to Malmesbury. Similarly, dangling over the heads of the diners in the Lightning Cafeteria is a 6.5-tonne BAC Lightning F.1A. For his 70th birthday he was also given a Bell 47 helicopter. Upon seeing his present, Dyson is reported to have immediately said: ‘Great, lets get it flying’.
When the great and powerful wizard of James Dyson finally appears in the flesh to have his picture taken, he’s sat next to one of the enormous engines from Concorde, which has been specially rolled into a large empty room for our photoshoot. Every inch of Dyson’s so-called Malmesbury “campus” is infused with the DNA of its founder, owner, and leader. And the explanation for this multi-million-pound aircraft grave yard? ‘James just loves great examples of engineering.’
“People with impenetrably complex jobs introduce themselves and begin to describe their specific role in the creation of the 13 million machines Dyson sells each year.” — Sir James Dyson
It is all too easy to talk about the tech companies of today simply as though they are extensions of the men who created them. Founders like Elon Musk or the late Steve Jobs are the new-age leaders of cults, where people worship the products their innovative companies create.
This is, in many ways, even more pronounced in Dyson. From the moment you set foot on the sleepy, private setting of Malmesbury, you notice that this is a very unusual place. Perhaps it’s the beaming smiles greeting you at every turn and the feeling that everyone is far happier than a normal person should be at work. It could also be that everyone seems to be a few hundred IQ points smarter than you or the fact that lots of people quickly say they ‘can’t talk about’ what is going on behind certain closed doors. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Dyson “campus” actually has a lot more in common with a “compound”.
When I tease James Dyson about the many secrets his staff are keeping he laughs. ‘Yes, it sounds as though I’m a sort of dictator.’
Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Dyson has spent the better part of his life building a utopia for free thinkers and creatives in the middle of Wiltshire. The planes, helicopters and jet engines scattered around his campus aren’t theme park shrines to Dyson himself, but rather to engineering and the spirit of breaking the limits of what is thought possible. At the opening of the campus, Dyson outlined the qualities he wanted his new HQ to extol: ‘It is out of critical glare, in stimulating spaces, surrounded by engineering inspiration and design icons, that bright minds can breathe new life into ideas and ready them for market. These are the space and the culture for which we strive.’
More importantly, Dyson’s visions of the future are decidedly unlike a cult’s — primarily because everything in the wildest imagination of Dyson and his employees is actually happening, and happening fast.
In the last year alone the company increased its turnover by 45 per cent. Profitability, likewise, went through the roof, up by £631 million. They launched new ranges like the Supersonic Hair Dryer, venturing into entirely new product categories, while at the same time releasing a record-breaking vacuum cleaner with their latest V8 cord-free.
This high-speed pursuit of innovation is the very serious reason Dyson employees reluctantly refuse to discuss their current projects with me. Having thousands of inventors all under one roof means Dyson is a futurist factory, where people spend all day thinking up and designing the sci-fi products of the future — many of which aren’t patented, yet. To date the company has filed an incredible 8000 patents worldwide.
With a chuckle, Dyson explains, ‘they can talk about it, but they’re not allowed to tell you about it. We talk about everything internally, but there is a lot of intellectual property here and a really important part of what we do is filing a lot of patents.’
Furthermore, 2017 is set to be an even bigger year. Dyson’s determination to spend £2.5 billion investing in “future technologies” has led him to acquire a 517-acre site, adding to the company’s centres in Malmesbury and Singapore and increasing Dyson’s UK footprint by over 10 times.
As Dyson is explaining the huge process of expansion and growth his company is going through, I compare the success he has wrought from selling some of the UK’s most popular tech products to that of Apple. I even compare Dyson to the late Steve Jobs. ‘Dyson isn’t Apple,’ Sir James replies sternly, and he’s absolutely right — it’s much better.
“We talk about everything internally, but there is a lot of intellectual property here and a really important part of what we do is filing a lot of patents.” — Sir James Dyson
‘I didn’t really start Dyson to start a business,’ he says. ‘I started it to make a product that I thought would solve a lot of problems and for me that is what’s really important.’ As the private owner of the company James Dyson has far more involvement than just his name above the door. He’s in the DNA of every idea that passes from concept to production. Moreover, the way he wants his company to behave is quite clear. ‘We want to do things differently,’ he says plainly. ‘Even in our approach to how we sell things and how we interact with our customers we want to do things better, not just the way they’ve always been done. I guess that comes from me originally, but it has been taken up and developed and improved by everybody.’
Dyson now employs over 8500 people globally, many of whom are engineers and scientists. In the Malmesbury campus, many of the staff are either young, recent graduates or people who still look surprisingly young for 20-year veterans. This is because Dyson, different as ever, isn’t interested in hiring solely based on experience.
‘We wanted people to pioneer and not say how something can’t be done, but instead to want — to put it slightly crudely — to change the world.’ Many of the engineers working at Dyson have the highest imaginable qualifications, and before joining the company spent many years working on aerospace or military defence projects. Dyson himself used to make high-speed landing crafts before he moved into developing vacuum cleaners with see-through bins. To a layman, moving from developing fighter jets to hair dryers might sound like a step down, but the engineers at Dyson would enthusiastically disagree.
Charlie Park has spent five years of his life developing Dyson’s V8 “stick” hand-held vacuum, the company’s fastest-selling cleaning product to date. In spite of this overwhelming success, Charlie cites ‘Dyson’s ethos of failure’ as the main reason he loves his job. ‘With the example he sets,’ Charlie explains, ‘James is not afraid to let us have a go at some pretty challenging concepts. It means that we all strive for the best possible and we get to put a lot more effort and have a lot more goes than we would if we were anywhere else. There is a drive for perfection, I suppose; to spend time failing, trying things we aren’t sure are going to work.’
For over 20 years Matt Childe has been working on Dyson’s revolutionary motors. He left a graduate job working for an aerospace company and went to work for Dyson where he, like the huge majority of his fellow employees, ‘was given a huge amount of responsibility at a young age’. He continues: ‘I went from a graduate scheme where I had a route map planned out for me for three years and flipped out to come here where I was in a completely free environment. Within a couple of years you just understand that there is of course a lot of responsibility, but at the end of the day it is just about getting results.’
Dyson often gets results by refusing to give up on an idea. Projects never die in Dyson; they may be shelved and they might not be possible right now, but they are never entirely shut down. This is very much the Dyson philosophy. ‘If someone has an idea of any sort then we encourage them to go and make it something,’ James Dyson explains. ‘The one thing we don’t ever want to do is dismiss a ridiculous idea. There is no such thing as a bad idea at Dyson, they just have to go off and try and make it work.’
‘These motors are actually a really good example,’ Dyson says pointing to the digital electric motor that powers the new Supersonic Hair Dryer and 360 Eye robotic vacuum cleaner. ‘To make something much smaller than a cotton reel and get 120,000 RPM is a ridiculous suggestion. It’s mad. I mean, no-one else makes motors that go anything like that fast. But someone wanted to make a tiny motor and went away and did, and it works.’
Even once the motor was complete there was no way of knowing what it would be best used for. Steve Courtney, Dyson’s resident “blue sky thinker” spends his days in the secretive D9 research facility, a mirrored glass, impenetrable cube where, as he explains, ‘we have a group of people who only think about the future’. Sir James Dyson himself spends a great deal of his time in D9 talking about any one of the 209 projects currently underway. This is where Dyson is making its biggest steps into a future most people can’t even imagine. It was Courtney’s idea to use the motor to power Dyson’s latest and most challenging project: the Supersonic Hair Dryer.
‘We only do things where we think we can make a difference and that makes it a special place to work,’ Courtney says, describing how he and his team think up the futuristic products that will one day be in the hands of over 67 million people worldwide. ‘We only work on things where we can solve a problem or a frustration,’ Courtney continues. ‘We don’t want to trample across everything like other companies and make products for the sake of it. In this way I wouldn’t say Dyson is money driven; it’s a sort of happy outcome from doing something well.
‘That’s where James comes in, he is happy to let the engineers explore things for a couple of years and keep putting more and more money into the project. The Supersonic Hair Dryer is a really good example of that. Amazingly, we spent £50 million on developing it. Imagine that in a completely new product range, hair care, when we didn’t know anything about hair starting out. James was patient and he just kept putting money into it until it worked.’
“James is not afraid to let us have a go at some pretty challenging concepts. It means that we all strive for the best possible and we get to put a lot more effort and have a lot more goes than we would if we were anywhere else.” — Sir James Dyson
James Dyson certainly has the money to put where his mouth is. He owns more land than the Queen and is worth an estimated £7.8 billion according to the 2017 Sunday Times Rich List. As the sole shareholder of Dyson he is the only person picking up the bill for projects that both he and his employees openly admit they aren’t sure will ever work. When asked about the eye-watering sums he invests, Dyson replies by saying somewhat provocatively: ‘Living on a knife edge is exhilarating, and the fun thing is that you think when you’ve made it work you’ll stop and have a rest and a glass of champagne. But you don’t, because you’ve also worked out how to do it even better. So it is a continual life of dissatisfaction, but at the same time it really gets the adrenaline going.’
This is part of a genuine shared excitement on campus. Dyson’s future isn’t just about the products they plan to sell. Ever willing to be more than just a company, Dyson is now also looking to solve national issues. ‘The UK skills shortage is holding Dyson back,’ Sir James says, explaining that the country will need an extra 640,000 engineers by 2020. This is why, in September, Dyson will add a real university to the current Malmesbury campus. Thirty undergraduates will join The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, where they’ll become both engineering students and employees.
‘Right at the very beginning, the first people I employed were graduates and graduate engineers,’ Dyson says, ‘and that is pretty much who we employ right now. We are just taking it one step further by taking people from school and moving the university here.’ A recent Act of Parliament has made Dyson an Institute, too.
By keeping an eye on the bigger picture, rather than just the budget spreadsheet, Dyson has created a modern-tech utopia, where his employees work on problems that may not make the company any money, but which will almost certainly improve the world. Throughout the life of his company, he has kept a resolute eye on refusing to let Dyson become just another company. ‘There are quite a few words that we try to avoid here, like “brand”,’ he explains. ‘We don’t like using the word “brand” because once people start thinking we are just a brand we cease to be what we really are: people who make and develop new technology.’
Most telling of all, Sir James Dyson may be the owner of Britain’s biggest and fastest growing company, but still he refers to his business as “we” rather than “I” or “my”. ‘Well it is a “we”,’ he responds earnestly. ‘There’s nearly 9000 of us and I’m a tiny part of it now. The company is made by everybody here,’ he continues. ‘I know that’s a trite thing to say but it’s actually true. I mean, a huge amount of the philosophy is not from me but from people here and how they have improved and developed it over time.’
On July 8, Dyson celebrates its 25th anniversary. Sir James Dyson himself says he has no idea where the company will be in the future. ‘That’s the point,’ he adds. ‘No suggestion is a bad suggestion. We are four times bigger than we were five years ago; we will just go wherever our adventures take us. It could be electric aeroplanes — there are all sorts of things one can do once you have the technology. The high-speed electric motors have opened up so much for us. Batteries, if we make them work, will do the same. Heater technology, airflow, robotics, vision systems, AI; all these technologies start to make up interesting opportunities.’
This is The Dyson Way: fix a problem and never stop trying to make things better. Whatever products, technology, or ideas Sir James Dyson and his geniuses are working on, it’s safe to say the next 25 years look set to be genuinely electric for Dyson.