Odd Man In

As with mousetraps, so with vacuum cleaners -- build a better one, and the world will beat a path to your door. And if you happen to create a new way of doing business in the process, the world may beat a path to your door holding a book contract.

James Dyson, the inventor, designer and engineer of the "as seen on TV" Dyson Cyclone, has found success in both business and product development by embracing the unconventional. In his autobiography, Against the Odds, he writes about solving engineering and design problems, and also human and household ones.

When he was a child, vacuuming was Dyson's chore. "I can remember there was this terrible smell of dust and dog hair," he says. "And I still had to bend down and pick up paper clips and hair that the vacuum wouldn't get." The problem repeated itself when Dyson had his own home. "It made me angrier," he says.

In the meantime, Dyson had built an industrial cyclone to solve a filter problem at the factory where he worked. A light bulb went on in his head -- the same technology could replace clogging bags and filters at home, too. "That's why the brain is so clever," he says. "You have a problem locked away in your mind, and then somewhere else where you're not thinking of the home or dog hairs, you make the connection to solve the problem."

That "eureka" moment was just the start. He built more than 5,000 prototypes, letting unexpected results lead him in what was eventually the right direction. Then he had to sell his strange, bag-free machine with no money to spend on marketing.

So Dyson made some creative deals with retailers. "I said, 'What happens if I spend $30 for every vacuum you buy on TV advertising?' They went for that. The little solution that came out of the conversation with the retailer only came about because I did something odd." He continues, "There are lots of people who've started hugely successful things being completely outrageous."

James Dyson discusses "Modern Design and the Art of Engineering"; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet; Thursday, January 15; 713-639-7300, www. mfah.org. Free

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Lisa Simon