Why did a vacuum cleaner maker reinvent the hairdryer? Dyson CEO says it comes down to problem-solving and disruption

Dyson CEO Jim Rowan (right, on stage) speaks to Fortune CEO Alan Murray.
Business Insider/Jessica Lin

When Dyson put out its first hair dryer for the market in 2016, the world was aghast. US$400 for a hairdryer? Unthinkable. Unfathomable. Absurd.

But as soon as reviews hit social media, it became apparent that it was almost impossible (for anyone with hair) to not like the Dyson Supersonic.

And the Supersonic must have been a super performer for the company because it ended up posting a 41 per cent rise in full-year pre-tax profits for that year. Dyson also put out a new product called the Airwrap in 2018.

Speaking at the Brainstorm Design conference hosted by Fortune and Wallpaper and held as part of the Singapore Design Week on Tuesday (Mar 5), Dyson CEO James “Jim” Rowan said that sales of the Supersonic hairdryer were much better than expected.

Read also: Some British customers are saying they will boycott Dyson for moving its HQ to Singapore

Rowan, who was promoted from chief operating officer to CEO in 2017, said customers got over the high price of the Supersonic because “people recognise value” for a product they sometimes use multiple times a day.

But how did Dyson – which was primarily known for its high-grade vacuum cleaners and air-purifiers – even venture into making hairdryers?

According to Rowan, the key thing that triggered a reinvention of the everyday hairdryer was disruption.

“The whole DNA at Dyson is that we start at the very core of what’s the problem that we need to solve for the customer,” Rowan told the audience at the Ritz Carlton Millenia in Singapore.

“When we looked at (the hairdryer) industry, we said: ‘This industry needs change’,” he added.

Read also: A $30 Dyson vacuum for kids exists and it can actually lift small amounts of dirt

According to Rowan, the company identified three key problems with hairdryers at the time – they were top-heavy and difficult to use, very noisy, and damaging to human hair.

The first thing Dyson’s engineers wanted to do was move the motor to the handle, so that the hairdryer would not be so cumbersome to use, he said.

To get the size of the handle right, Dyson measured hundreds of hands from all over the world. But to get the best pressure and airflow from the motor, Dyson needed to completely reinvent the hairdryer motor.

It also had to look at how the design of the new hairdryer can volumise hair, while producing heat that is less damaging to hair.

The result was a hairdryer that was custom-designed in every way – motor, machine and heat control. From its 27mm-wide V9 motor, to its 13 quiet blades and “air multiplier” technology, the Dyson Supersonic successfully entered a league of its own.

The Dyson Supersonic’s handle houses the motor of the hairdryer.

‘Designing the designer’

And it seems consumer products are not the only areas that need disrupting. The innovative company, which reportedly hires 12,000 people worldwide, is now even disrupting the academia and training of engineers.

In September 2018, the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology located in Wiltshire, UK, welcomed its second cohort of 45 students.

The university, which offers an undergraduate engineering degree, is where Rowan said the company is “designing the designer”.

Unlike typical universities, Dyson’s engineering students are required to work three days a week on actual Dyson projects with the firm’s full-time engineers. They spend just two days on academic subjects.

Read also: Why did Dyson pick Singapore to build its electric car? Here are some possible reasons

And since they are working for the company, they are also paid a salary. On top of that, their school fees and lodging are all paid for.

This cross spectrum learning ensures academia doesn’t trail industry, Rowan said.

If you think there’d be a catch at the end of it all, Rowan said there’s also no bond tying graduates down after the four-year course ends.

He also has no qualms with graduates going out to start their own business with the knowledge they learned at Dyson, as long as they use their education to “better the world” with their designs.