I started with an idea: a vacuum with no bag. The bag was a problem. The bag clogs with dust, the machine wheezes, losing its puff. So, inspired by an industrial cyclone at a timber mill, I created a vacuum that used centrifugal force to separate the dust and dirt. No bag, no clogging, no loss of suction. It didn’t look great, but it worked. After five years of testing, tweaking, fist banging, cursing, and more than 5,000 mistakes—or prototypes, as engineers call them—it was there. Or nearly there.
I still needed to manufacture and sell the thing. I say “thing,” but this thing was my life; I’d given up my job, relying on my very supportive wife. When you have an idea, licensing it to a big company seems the obvious option. You keep your idea; the pros make it a reality. So wrong. A mis-take that cost me years and gave me gray hair at 40.
I had visions of a vacuum revolution, burying the bag once and for all. The reality was different. For nearly three years I schlepped from one vacuum manufacturer to another. But no interest. Zero. They had a business model that made them bags of money (literally). No one would license my machine; it was good for cleaning but bad for business. Hamilton Beach was another one: “James, you’ve got two minutes.” Five years in two minutes? I love brisk meetings, but this was a useless exercise only made worse because they wouldn’t let me use the word “suck.” I saw them all: Black & Decker, Eureka, Kirby. No. No. Yes. I mean no. Electrolux said a vacuum without a bag wouldn’t sell.
I finally understood that if I wanted to make the machine, I’d have to do it myself. So after three fruitless years, a brief but expensive interlude with a licensee, and no moneyto show for it, I went off on my own. When DC01 launched in 1993 it became the No. 1–selling vacuum in 18 months. Everyone said that the clear bin would repulse people. By that point I’d stopped listening to everyone and went with my instinct. I’m particularly adept at making mistakes—it’s a necessity as an engineer. Each iteration of the vacuum came about because of a mistake I needed to fix. What’s important is that I didn’t stop at the first failure, the 50th, or the 5,000th. I never will. Believing that big companies would choose good technology—progress—over short-term profit was a big mistake. I love mistakes.