Book review: Against the Odds: An Autobiography – James Dyson

I have recently finished James Dyson’s autobiography Against the Odds (published in 1997). Even though 2013 has only just begun, I am sure this book will make my list of favorite books for this year.

I’ll try not to put any major spoilers in this post.

James Dyson is the man behind the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner. A vacuum cleaner that uses centrifugal force to collect dirt.

Dyson’s net worth is estimated at £1.45 billion. The autobiography is his story about how he built his company, Dyson Inc., to what it is today. Dyson Inc. is a private company and has reported sales of £1.05 billion and earnings of £306 million in 2011.

Dyson describes himself in the book as “a creator of products, a builder of things”. In the book we read how he stumbled on inconveniences in the use of everyday products, things like the wheelbarrow and the vacuum cleaner.

Dyson visited the Royal College of Art. He took classes in subjects like interior design and structural engineering. He was inspired by some of his teachers and by engineers of earlier times, he mentions Buckminster Fuller and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This autobiography contains a fair amount of criticism about the lack of investment by the British government in science education. Dyson sees this as a major problem and is worried about the future state of manufacturing in Britain. Judging from a recent article (linked at the bottom of this post), these concerns have not gone away.

After noticing flaws in existing products he began to think about possible improvements. And more importantly, he tore apart the machines to see why they worked the way they did and how they could be improved. Dyson made countless prototypes of his products and did lots of tinkering, making one small change at a time and seeing what happens.

Dyson did not profit much from his earliest work, others made most of the money. It was the Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner that ultimately became his major success. Reading Dyson’s story, you will see there were many times where things could have fallen apart or where he might just have given up. One of the major takeaways from Dyson’s history for other entrepreneurs is the danger of debt. Dyson in the early years of the development of the Dual Cyclone struggled immensely, because he simply did not have the money to do things. He was married, had a child and had recently bought a house. He had to take care of his family, make the mortgage payments and develop his newly established company. He could only do it by taking on debt and finding investors.

One of the people who he worked for before starting his own company was Jeremy Fry. Fry decided to invest in Dyson’s company later on after Dyson decided that he needed capital, but had to pull out of his investment eventually because the legal problems Dyson faced just seemed never ending. There was no bad blood between Dyson and Fry though. You get the sense that Dyson is very grateful for the things he learned from Fry and the support he received after he stopped working for Fry’s company.

One other thing that complicated matters for Dyson’s young company was that competitors were not really interested in doing licensing deals. They were making good money selling vacuum cleaner bags. Dyson’s disruptive new technology would turn their business model upside-down. In the book the negotiations with different parties are described in detail. There were also numerous lawsuits along the way, some lasting many years. This forced Dyson to spend money he couldn’t really miss in this early stage of his company. A successful licensing deal eventually came from an unlikely place and after that, his business started to take off.

All in all it is a wonderful story of a successful inventor, designer and entrepreneur. We tend to label people and it is easy to view James Dyson strictly as an inventor, but he is much more than that. He is also very much an entrepreneur and he can run a business. I think it is quite rare to find all these qualities in one person. Investors sometimes discuss how you could find the next Microsoft or the next Apple. I don’t think you can do that with any confidence. I do think that you might be able to recognize a person that has a combination of all these qualities that ultimately led to Dyson’s success, things like: perseverance, ingenuity, good business sense, focus, intelligence, the constant search for improvement and the willingness to take tough, unpopular decisions. Perhaps Charlie Munger sees some of these things in Wang Chuanfu, the CEO of BYD. Still, I think even Dyson recognizes that luck also played a role in his success. Sometimes you just need that lucky break for things to take off.

By the way, to me the company Dyson does not seem like a bad fit for a company like Berkshire Hathaway or perhaps Markel, but Berkshire might be too big now to even be interested. James Dyson is currently 65, but has revealed in 2006 that his children will inherit the company. From that article it seems likely that the company will carry on as an independent private company in the future when James Dyson’s time as the CEO of the company has passed. A time might come where the company would be better off as a subsidiary of another company. Berkshire is a company that gives a lot of autonomy to its subsidiaries, which is essential for a company like Dyson.

The book was published in 1997 and Dyson has not stood still since then. I will close with a few links with more recent information about the company, a few articles and an interview with James Dyson.

Posted in Books / Reading.

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