Had you asked him at the time he started, it's doubtful James Dyson imagined there were billions to be made from vacuum cleaners. He learned--the hard way. But he's been generous enough in sharing that learning that other entrepreneurs can learn his lessons, perhaps without all the pain and suffering.

Innovation isn't instant

Dyson's first prototype for his cyclone cleaner grew out of necessity; the old style vacuum cleaner he was using just didn't work very well. He cut and duct-taped a cardboard prototype and even this hack proved superior--in 1978. But the final version of his eponymous product? That took 5,142 subsequent prototypes. Perseverance, Dyson says, is the sine qua non of innovation. Ideas are cheap and easy; making them work is what really tests the entrepreneur.

Own what you make

Before he discovered the power of suction, Dyson had developed the Ball Barrow: a radical redesign of the wheelbarrow that didn't spill and whose wheel didn't puncture. This too was a radical improvement--but Dyson made the mistake of assigning the patent to his company, not keeping it for himself. When he and the company disagreed and parted company, he had to abandon his beloved design. He never made that mistake again--even when mired in debt.

Great ideas take time to catch on

Even though Dyson's cyclone cleaner was demonstrably superior--spinning at 926 miles per hour, faster than the speed of sound, its suction demonstrably outperformed competitors--it was years before mainstream retailers were convinced. Without the lure of deep discounts and a well-known brand, they were attached--psychologically and commercially--to traditional products and wary of a trying something new. So Dyson just kept trying.

Innovation never stops

Once Dyson finally hit the U.S. in 2002, it took off, becoming a market leader in just three years--but fully 27 years after that first prototype. Visit Dyson's headquarters today and innovation is still going full tilt. You can watch new products being tested to destruction, thrown down staircases or dropped from great heights. Hoses are redesigned to ensure they can't harm even the most inquisitive child. Every aspect of the product is interrogated, reinvented, retested. Those 5,000 prototypes were, it turns out, just the beginning.

Devotion, dedication outperform debt

Talking to Dyson about this epic journey, it's sometimes hard to remember we are just talking about a floor cleaner; his devotion to his ideas, and his hatred of his opponents, is so passionate you can see that it generates energy all by itself. He experienced years of deep indebtedness but that dedication (and his wife's support) kept him going. This is the heart and soul of entrepreneurship: the love of excellence that is renewed even as it is spent.

"To this day," he told me, "it is the fear of failure which makes me keep working at success. I didn't do all this to make money. I did it because I wanted to make a better vacuum cleaner. People buy products if they're better. That's what it has to be about. Having an idea for doing something better and making it happen --those are still my dreams. It is a passion that everyone has and it's incredibly fulfilling."