The British engineer Sir James Dyson was born in England in 1947 with a passion for inventing things. His first invention – released to the market in 1974 – was the Ballbarrow, essentially a wheelbarrow where the wheel had been replaced with a ball, allowing movement in any direction. While the Ballbarrow was certainly innovative, it didn't exactly set the world on fire. There was something about the ball idea, though, that stuck with Dyson. He soon invented the Trolleyball, a device that used balls for launching boats. This was soon followed by the Wheelboat, a vehicle which could operate on land or in the water on its ball system.
There's no question that Dyson's technical brilliance was starting to shine with these projects, but business success continued to elude him. By the 1980s, Dyson had turned his attention to "cyclonic separation" and the use of his ball technology in vacuum cleaners. Even then, he struggled to find a workable approach.
"I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right," Dyson told Fast Magazine in 2007. "There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That's how I came up with a solution."
This solution led to the establishment of Dyson Ltd., now the world's pre-eminent manufacturer of vacuum cleaners, generating nearly $2 Billion a year in sales and employing more than 4,000 people worldwide. Today, Dyson's single success far outweighs the impact of his 5,126 failures.
Dyson's story is an important one, but it's not the only one. As we struggle with notions of economic development and employment creation in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st have begun to realize that real growth and real change arises from the entrepreneurial skills of a new generation of tinkerers, thinkers and visionaries. In fact, there's some recent work form the University of Waterloo that suggests that all of the net new job creation in Canada since the year 2000 has been driven by companies less than five years old. In essence, our current economic success relies on the ability of a few key entrepreneurs to achieve big successes. But the ability of those entrepreneurs to succeed relies, in turn, on our ability to support their failures.
The reason failure is so important is that it provides the training ground for future success. Dyson learned from each one of his failures, staring with the Ballbarrow – and he ultimately succeeded by incorporating those lessons into his later efforts. When I look at my own checkered entrepreneurial history, I see the lessons that laid the foundation for today's more successful ventures. As a 12-year-old growing up in Digby County, Nova Scotia I somehow turned a habit for hanging out on beaches into a summer company supplying local restaurants with periwinkles – at least until school started again. Through subsequent ventures (of varying success) in paper recycling, mining technology and plastics manufacturing, I learned that there were endless opportunities – and that if I didn't get this one quite right, I could learn my lessons and apply them to the next opportunity. Today – as an owner of a Century, we company named to Profit Magazine's Hot 50 list of Canada's Fastest Growing Young Companies – I can see that every one of those experiences – those failures – built skills and laid groundwork essential for later successes.
I'm not advocating that we deliberately try to fail – it's possible to take things too far, to create a kind of cult of failure. But I do think we need to lose our fear of failure. As Dyson once commented, "I've always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they've had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative."
In entrepreneurship, we too often penalize those who've failed in the past. We deny them funding, or program support, or community accolades. Should try the opposite for a change? Imagine a small town Chamber of Commerce giving out an award for "Best Failure" each year. The City of Charlotte, North Carolina recently held a "FailureCon" event for business – a conference celebrating the need for failure in a city with a business community that is notoriously risk averse. And recently, some Silicon Valley investors have suggested that they will only invest in startups where the founders have tried and failed with previous ventures.
This will require a shift in our thinking in Canada if it's to be successful. The reality, though, is that a knowledge-based economy requires us to have knowledge, and to build upon it. And in the real world, that knowledge sometimes comes from the school of hard knocks, where we can learn the art of failure.
It may well be that failure is the foundation we must begin with as we seek to build new success in this economy.
Originally from Digby County, Nova Scotia, Brock Dickinson is a partner in the economic development consulting firm of Millier Dickinson Blais, with offices in Calgary, Toronto, Hamilton and Kingston. He has worked with hundreds of companies and communities in more than 50 countries, and teaches economic development at the University of Waterloo.