Innovation has become a demigod. Management gurus worship it.
Businesses universally lay claim to it, with varying degrees of credibility.
Even when it’s genuine, the results can be unpredictable.
In the early 1960s the development of PVC vacuum tubing was a game changer for the central vacuum industry.
Prior to this the industry had used copper tubing and the systems were expensive.
Now they were affordable for the average home owner.
So central vacuum manufacturers and installers thought this was the start of something big.
They envisaged a future where every house would come with central vacuum as a standard feature, like a dishwasher or air-conditioning.
It made sense.
A centralized motor allowed more power than a motor built-in to an appliance that had to be carried from room to room.
More power, plus cyclonic separation technology, originally developed to remove dust particles from sawmills, produced more suction which meant cleaner floors.
And there were other advantages to a central vacuum system.
A larger canister usually installed in the basement or garage held more dirt and didn’t need emptying nearly as often as a hand-held machine did.
The cleaning attachment and hose that plugged into inlets set into the wall was less cumbersome than a regular vacuum cleaner.
But in spite of their superiority central vacuums had a hard time gaining traction.
Consumers were resistant to retro-fitting them, and 7 out of 10 systems were installed in new build homes.
So the central vacuum industry was actually in the construction business.
In the 1990’s the vacuum cleaner industry experienced another innovation.
The Dyson DC01 arrived.
Here was a vacuum cleaner that claimed never to lose suction.
It worked with the same cyclonic separation central vacuums had used since the 1960s but didn’t require installation.
The futuristic design was sexy in a way no household appliance had a right to be.
So sexy it’s now in museums.
It looked like something the Jetsons’ maid Rosie would use in their Skypad apartment.
And whether people bought it for design or function or both, they bought it big time in spite of the hefty price tag.
It was so successful; soon it was hard to find a vacuum cleaner that didn’t look like something from the Jetsons.
Then something counter-intuitive happened.
Because of the Dyson’s hefty price tag consumers were more amenable to looking at other high-end vacuums.
And the central vacuum industry unexpectedly enjoyed a decent bump in sales.
But still nothing like the huge potential they continued to believe in.
Since the 1960s the industry had focused on convenience as their core benefit and it wasn’t really delivering.
Something had to change.
So around 2000 the industry leader, Beam audaciously repositioned themselves.
A clinical study from the University of California showed that a central vacuum had significant effect in reducing symptoms from allergies connected with household dust.
Beam made the inspired decision to re-position their product line around the health benefits of better indoor air quality.
Their inspiration paid off and between 2001 and 2005 sales doubled.
The future looked rosy, until in 2007 the U.S. housing market crashed - and sales crashed with it.
The current recovery in U.S. housing has led to a decent recovery in sales.
Beam is optimistic again.
They’re launching a new system, Beam Alliance this month.
It’s 20% more powerful and 30% more energy-efficient than their current range.
This is one tough, persistent industry.
And it’s hard not to wish them luck.