And what was so different about your vacuums?
I saw the problem, and I saw a possible solution, which was the huge cyclones outside cement plants and timber yards that collect dust all day long. So I started building various versions of that technology. As it happens, it didn’t work. I had to spend four or five years coming up with different types of cyclonic separation devices in order to make it work.
It took a lot of empirical work. I had to build the prototypes, one or two a day, which sounds tedious, but actually it was fascinating. I’m still doing it today. It always is a wonderful adventure of excitement and disappointment. Almost everything you do is a failure, until you get the one success that works.
How did you pay for all that research and development before you had a product to sell?
I was borrowing it all from the bank. Going deeper and deeper into debt. By the time I launched the vacuum cleaner, I was two million pounds in debt. I think the bank got in a bit deeper than they intended to, but I had an interesting bank manager. I asked him why he lent me the money, and he said, “I went home to my wife and said, ‘What do you think about vacuum bags and vacuum cleaners?’ And she said, ‘Dreadful, dreadful.’”
Once you gained traction in the U.K., how did you expand into the United States?
A junior buyer at Best Buy took our vacuum cleaner home and used it for three weeks and came back to her boss and said, “This actually is a really good vacuum. It doesn’t make a mess.” And he said, “All right, let’s give it a go in 50 shops.” It sold well, and then everybody else wanted it. It was just one brave junior buyer, convincing her manager.
When we met earlier in the year, you told me something about Japan.
We do a lot of our product launches in Tokyo. They’re technology nuts. They love artifacts. In this P.C. world, we like to not say anything interesting about people that are different from us. But the Japanese were, when I went there, very, very different. They told me I have a nose like the Eiffel Tower. The girls want to spend their whole teenage years to get their noses more like Western noses. I think racial differences are fun. And they’re sometimes funny and they’re a source of amusement between us. But of course, that’s not a very P.C. thing to say.
Whenever we went there, we thought you had to learn to behave like a Japanese person, you know, bowing. What I quickly learned is that’s not what they wanted from us at all. They wanted our eccentricity and difference. So, I carried on being an Englishman.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on an electric car. We bought an old World War II airfield, so we’ve got a place to do it. Tesla proved that people want electric cars, though I don’t think governments have realized it yet. People are trying to ignore pollution and the damage that pollution does. Apart from that, the electric car is a much nicer and easier car to own. You don’t have to go to gas stations, which aren’t very nice.