Fortune’s Questions For… series allows readers to pick the brains of some of the most exciting minds in business. Our next participant is Shonda Rhimes, creator and showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.
Sir James Dyson, the British multi-billionaire and engineer, is no entrepreneurial suck-up. Rather than cater to existing consumer preferences, he chose to spend years inventing a product nobody might have wanted. But they did. With his line of powerful, beautiful vacuum cleaners — “twice the suction,” proclaims the website — Dyson became one of England’s richest individuals. Today, his eponymous private company is a worldwide leader in vacuum cleaners (with about 40% of its sales in the U.S.), and Dyson says the company’s profit last year was about £350-million on revenue of £1.1 billion. Now 66 and with a shock of white hair, Dyson demonstrated his new wares to Fortune’s David A. Kaplan. They talked about philanthropy, piracy, and how to encourage young engineers. Edited excerpts:
FORTUNE: Your parents had you study Latin, Greek, and all that, right?
DYSON: I rebelled. I realized at 20 that I wanted to be an engineer — to create things.
Why vacuum cleaners?
It was an accident waiting to happen. My father died when I was 9. Because we were very poor, I was made to do the housework — with a Hoover upright. I remember this smell of stale dust and dog and the screaming noise. And I had to go outside and try to beat the pillowcase free of dust. It didn’t pick things up, and I always remembered being irritated that it lost its suck.
That memory stayed with you?
Years later, as an engineer, I wondered, “Why on earth with this powerful motor isn’t it working?” And suddenly the pin dropped: I assumed power had to do with the size of the motor. But the motor was located after the bag where you put the dust. The bag is a membrane, and the dust blocks the air flow.
So that’s when you created a cyclonic design with no bag?
But it took me five years and 5,000 prototypes to get it right.
That was only 20 years ago.
I was nearly 50.
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Have you ever thought about taking the company public?
Not seriously. It would be the wrong thing to do. There would be a huge pressure on profits over investment in research and development. We make enough profit to reinvest what we need to. So we don’t need funds at the moment.
You’re 66. Do you have to consider going public someday for tax reasons?
Not in Britain, because shares in private companies are not subject to inheritance tax. They’re like farms. The government wants to keep family businesses intact as family businesses down the generations.
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Let me ask about philanthropy, which is obviously important to you. Have you signed the Giving Pledge?
No, and I wouldn’t.
Have you even been asked?
No. I enjoy giving money away to things I support, and they’re often things other people aren’t supporting. Design and engineering education are not popular politically. They’re starting to become so in America, but not elsewhere. There’s a lot of talk about it, but no one ever does anything. So I’m keen to encourage that at all school levels — primary, secondary, tertiary, and postgraduate. That’s a large part of my foundation’s work.
How much money does the foundation give out?
It hasn’t got boatloads of money. We spend about £5 million a year. It’s increasing. We’ve given away about £35 million to design and technology education globally.
How much of a problem is intellectual-property piracy for the company these days?
Big problem. It costs us about $6 million a year just suing patent infringers. We have 650 lawsuits against Chinese companies copying the design and patents of our fans. Quite a lot of those are inside China, but a lot are outside China. And then you get the importers around the world importing the pirated products. Even when you win against the manufacturers in China, they’re given a puny fine, which they then don’t pay. So they just go down the road and start up again.
Where do you sue the infringers?
Everywhere. But they don’t have any assets in America. We’ve taken importers to court in America, but they’re startups and have no assets here.
Though it’s far from home, do you visit Silicon Valley for ideas or inspiration?
I’ve never even been there.
Your interest in design and hardware makes me think you and Steve Jobs would have been kindred spirits.
We never met. Why would he be interested in vacuum cleaner manufacturing?
Jeff Segal: Have you considered applying your designs in reverse for power generation potential?
We do blow as well as suck. And our engineers have their extra-curricular fun with propulsion. Most recently, they took the Dyson digital motor and integrated it into flying machines. And before that, drag racers. I’ve been reassured that health and safety was informed!
Cian Whalley: How do you keep you company sharp and innovative? Is it cultural or process-based, or something else? What do you do to balance the new features with the solid reliable engineering that we all love — keeping the beauty of the design while still meeting the form and function necessary?
I like to hire recent engineering graduates. They are unsullied and think freely. I give them great responsibility early on and test how much they handle. Every so often there are spectacular, embarrassing failures (another good reason to keep R&D secret!). But more often than not, there is brilliance. And it’s not by the book, because they haven’t read the book.
I think form should follow function: Aesthetics are important, but they shouldn’t mask technology. I get great pleasure out of understanding how things work — and I don’t think that’s just me. It’s especially true in America — people are always curious about how we have gone about solving a problem.
@referrill: @FortuneMagazine #FortuneQs Will you be the one to build a working hyperloop?
I think grand infrastructure projects of that nature are exciting. And great for children as well. The space race did more to encourage a new generation into engineering than anything else. To be very honest, I’ve always been attracted to more prosaic problems — the vacuum cleaner was unloved for years and as for the hand dryer …
@mikeheady: @FortuneMagazine #FortuneQs What is next? I can’t imagine the same footprint in 10 years.
Nor can I.
Janel Ann Reyneke: What is the justification of such high prices?
Research and development. I think people like to invest in good technology, and so do we. We have 1,500 engineers working on new machines and inventions. There are cheaper vacuums, but if they lose their suck and require replacement after a year, I don’t feel that they’re much of a bargain.
@lidiasworld: Why did you choose to revolutionize a vacuum cleaner? Why not a blender or a toaster? @FortuneMagazine @Dyson #SirJamesDyson #FortuneQs
It was the thing that annoyed me most at the time. I simply became obsessed with it.
@alexpaulson7: #FortuneQs can you create a better leaf blower that is more or less quiet?
Of our 1,500 engineers I can guarantee that a few have tried it. Our R&D labs are in the depths of the English countryside — there are plenty of trees, and plenty of leaves. I agree it should be on the list. But it is a long list!
Karen Orphanides Knizek: Have you thought of making a steamer? It would go great with the Dyson Animal.
The trouble with steamers is that you still need to vacuum first and then get the steamer out – two stages, two chores. And then there’s the filling and refilling. Plus the fact they’ve got a cord. Instead, we have invented Dyson Hard, a machine that vacuums and wet wipes simultaneously: one action, one machine. It’s powered by our high speed digital motor so it maintains its powerful suck. And it’s cordless, so you can use it for cobwebs, curtains, cars and couches too.
Travis Peres: Was it hard to get your first outside investment?
Very. Venture capitalists wouldn’t back me because I wasn’t proven, or conventional. Or an accountant. People don’t like backing inventors because of the crackpot stereotype. In the end, my local bank manager gave me a loan against the value of my house. He had to argue with his superiors to get it through. When I thought I had invented something far better than what was on the market I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t.
@mmillar93: @FortuneMagazine @Dyson What product segment are you most interested in working on next? #FortuneQs
No really, I can’t say. We have 1,500 engineers solving all kinds of problems. We’ve considered a lot. Some get put on the shelf and then dusted down when technology has progressed. We’re still working on a robotic vacuum cleaner, and we’ll launch it when it’s right. By “right,” I mean it has to vacuum as well as any other vacuum and not just be a gimmicky gadget that bounces randomly around the room.
@sgopinat: @FortuneMagazine @Dyson Of all the success you have achieved in life, which is the one that makes you feel most accomplished? #FortuneQs
The DCO1 was a landmark — the first machine with my name on it, and only after 5,127 prototypes. But I’m delighted with every new Dyson machine (we’re on DC62, now). They’re not my achievements anymore, but those of our engineers. But it’s still wonderfully exciting.
It was great to be able to give back to the Royal College of Art in London — the institution that taught me about the wonderful marriage between art and engineering. Incredibly, it awarded me a degree in interior architecture for engineering a high-speed landing craft. There is now a Dyson Building, full of young designers and engineers developing new inventions and businesses. It is inspiring stuff.
@cwall513: What’s the next big arena for Dyson machines in the home and surface cleaning market? #FortuneQs
Hard floors. A lot of people think vacuums are only for carpets. Obviously, I disagree! We added carbon fibre bristles to the brush bars of our latest machines — it discharges the static electricity that collects on your floor and clings on to dust. It helps get those tiny dust particles that make your white socks go grey.
@runsustainably: @FortuneMagazine What inventions do you think are necessary for the rest of the 21st century and beyond? #FortuneQs
Not a specific invention, but an approach. Machines need to become more efficient — we call it doing more with less. People want top-performing machines, and that won’t change. But they want to do a good job using less energy. Every machine we make, we try to make more efficient than the last.