Back to Newsletters

Are you failing enough to be successful?


The largest private landowner in England… the man who owns more acres than the Queen herself… runs a vacuum cleaner company.

(Let that sink in for a moment.)

 He’s Sir James Dyson.

Self-made billionaire.
Vacuum cleaner idealist.
And the UK’s best-known living inventor.

In the late ‘70s, Dyson, a former industrial design student, was exasperated while vacuuming his home in the Cotswolds. His old Hoover constantly clogged with dirt and lost suction. So Dyson did something about it. His idea was to use ‘cyclonic separation’ to create a vacuum that wouldn’t conk out. He tinkered for more than 15 years to arrive at the ideal design.

And he finally got it right. 

Fast forward to today.  Dyson has sold more than 25 million vacuum cleaners around the world. It’s the brand leader in Europe and North America. Sir James now holds more than 3,000 patents on 500 different inventions. Along the way, he became one of the richest men in Britain.  His holdings include a 300-acre estate in Gloucestershire, a chateau in France, a town house in Chelsea, and the largest luxury yacht in the UK. 

Not bad for a vacuum cleaner guy. 

But, as you might expect, there’s more to the story.  

Two factors helped Dyson leap from unknown designer to household name:

  1. He reframed failure as success. That so-called “tinkering?” Dyson built precisely 5,127 prototypes in his 15-year odyssey. (Read that again.) He not only failed, he did so repeatedly. Somewhere in his journey, Dyson arrived at a concept he calls “wrong doing.” As Dyson remembers it: “Nothing was working after dozens of prototypes, so I reversed course. I deliberately chose to do something wrong to see where it led. And it worked. It was wrong-doing rather than wrong-thinking. It’s not easy, because we’re all taught to do things the right way.”
  2. He persisted against all odds. Even when he finally got his design right, Dyson’s challenge wasn’t over. He offered his pride-and-joy to Hoover and other vacuum companies. All rejected him. They sold bag vacuums and Dyson’s design was too different. So Sir James became both designer and manufacturer, establishing Dyson Ltd. to build the machines himself. As he relates: “A lot of people give up when the world seems against them, but that’s when you push harder. It’s like running a race. It seems as though you can’t carry on, but if you just get through the pain barrier, you’ll be okay.” 

Failure and persistence.

Hey, the inventors of the Ziploc bag needed 17 years to crack the market.

The greatest baseball hitter of all time recorded 4,256 hits in 14,053 at-bats. In other words: he failed 70 per cent of the time. And he was the greatest ever. 

So what about us?  

Don’t we also need to reframe failure as success – and be persistent – in the things we do? 

  • Like… innovating our products?
  • Attracting the right talent to our team?
  • Honing an approach to service that turns clients into advocates?
  • Raising our game on process or technology?
  • Instilling a purposeful, engaging culture?
  • Experimenting in our marketing?
  • Advancing ourselves as leaders?
  • … and a long list of other things? 

As parents, we continually tell our children: “We learn from our mistakes.”  Why wouldn’t we embrace this thinking for our own brands and businesses?

I’ll leave the last word to Seth Godin:
“How do I come up with a good idea?  First come up with 100 bad ones.” 

Ask yourself:

  1. Are you persistent enough to break through the pain barrier?
  2. Are you coming up with enough bad ideas?
  3. Are you good enough at failing… to be a success?