James Dyson – come on, he’s not THAT bad…

James Dyson is getting predictable stick for his decision to move the HQ of the Dyson empire from the UK to Singapore.

At the top of the charge sheet is hypocrisy. James Dyson supports Brexit, so to many the move looks like putting self-preservation before principle.

The Dyson defence is that Dyson is now a global tech company that has grown up and needs to leave home. Its most important markets are in Asia, not Europe or the USA. Moving HQ is not only logical but has been on the cards for some years. Not only will no jobs will be lost in the UK, but investment in the UK will increase.

That’s unlikely to stop the sniping, so what else speaks in James Dyson’s favour?

He still owns 100 per cent of Dyson. A more conventional entrepreneur might long ago have sold out, almost inevitably to an overseas owner. A major loss of UK jobs and skills would then have been highly likely.

And unlike many of his business peers he isn’t a tax dodger. At £127.8m in 2017-18, he’s third on the Sunday Times list of the fifty top UK tax payers.

Britain’s most successful inventor

Even so, the man is more than a bit Marmite. Opinion even at abettermousetrap.co.uk is split.

James Dyson is by some margin Britain’s most successful inventor ever. He went through the same no-money, no-support wringer most determined lone inventors go through.

When success finally came, he committed a lot of his money and time to improving the UK’s design and engineering skills.

That’s greatly to his credit.

A matter of some regret though is how quickly he stopped identifying as an inventor, preferring to identify with engineers and designers. The long upstream years of struggle, often close to total failure, seem forgotten, though he and his family will doubtless be glad to see the back of them.

He’d have been great at the helm of something like a Nesta Mk 2, dedicated to encouraging citizen inventiveness. (A reminder: the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts was set up by the UK government to help private inventors but within a few years came to despise and abandon them.)

He has however shown no significant interest in the grassroots inventor level where he himself began. He has also accepted a knighthood and other gongs from a UK government that signally failed to support him in his early days.

(Perhaps ironically given the move of HQ to Asia, it was Japanese and not UK interest in his bagless vacuum cleaner that saved him from going under.)

Against The Odds – the Dyson legacy for inventors

There is a saving grace though, and that is James Dyson’s auto/biograpy Against The Odds (actually written by Giles Coren, who in my 1997 edition is credited as the sole copyright owner – an unusual act of generosity from the subject of an autobiography).

The whole early Dyson story is here in detail, and in my opinion it’s an absolutely essential read for all lone, cash-strapped but determined inventors.

It helps to know how it all turns out in the end because much of it reads like tragedy. He really had a tough time, facing one setback after another for many years before things started to take off.

Most successful inventors, and even more unsuccessful ones, could tell a similar story. Few of them though could tell it so unsparingly well – or, more accurately, have it told so well for them.

The detail is what makes Against The Odds such a valuable first-hand account of the reality of invention. The title couldn’t be more appropriate. Here in stark blow-by-blow narrative are the risks, disappointments, delays, let-downs and betrayals, the low moments, the pressure, the desperation – and yet also the unvanquishable will to succeed.

It may remain all we get from James Dyson of lasting value and relevance to lone inventors. If so, that will be a pity. But it’s a great deal better than getting nothing at all.

Author: Graham Barker

Invention consultant and author of books and digital content on invention since 1983.

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