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Dyson Vacuums (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

I often get emails and phone calls asking "How do I market my invention." Most take to heart the aphorism "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." When a reporter asked James Dyson, one of the few inventors who truly grew from a home workshop to a world-class industrialist, to comment on the truth of this advice, Dyson responded vehemently "no, no, no!"

The story of Dyson's success serves as a cautionary tale for all would be inventors. He invented a new type of vacuum cleaner, which has become the best selling brand in the United States and the United Kingdom.

It begins, as do many inventions, with frustration. As a six-year old Dyson had to help his mother with household chores. He noticed frequently as he vacuumed that he had to stop to clean out the sweeper. As with all vacuums the bag got clogged and the vacuum lost suction.

Dyson never forget this, especially some twenty years later when inspiration struck him while visiting a sawmill. He observed sawdust being sucked into a cone using a spinning column of air. He spent the next three years building 5,000 prototypes to invent a vacuum that worked on the same principle. A cyclone whirling at 900 miles per hours sucks up dirt and tosses it out the side - no filter, no bag, and best of all no lost suction.

Here indeed was something revolutionary. But that revolutionary aspect, Dyson pointed out, was exactly what creates the main problem for the lone inventor. For years he tried to get the big manufacturers - Hoover and Electrolux - to license his newly perfected vacuum. They declined: The revolution of the bagless vacuum was the last thing they needed because they sell $500 million dollars worth of bags for their cleaners.

So, for Dyson, like many lone inventors, he had to go it alone. He describes this as "fighting against this huge mountain that you've got to move." The mountain he refers to is not the public - they love new things, he notes - but what he calls the "man in the middle" - the distributors and shop keepers, who are faced with buying not one, but thousands of a new invention.

Small wonder he offers this advice to new inventors. The essential ingredient you are selling, he says, is "hope." You need to "inspire those in retail and manufacturing that your new, strange thing will really attract customers." That, in turn, is the advice I offer all who call me seeking advice on their revolutionary inventions.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises