Thirty-three years ago, James Dyson set out after an unusual dream: to create the ultimate vacuum cleaner. After thousands of prototypes, failed licensing deals, and countless fruitless meetings with distributors, he finally got his bagless vacuum into stores in Britain, then in the U.S.—and took both nations by storm.

Still the sole owner of his company, Dyson, 64, explains how he turned that vacuum design into a billion-dollar business and why he still likes living on the edge—as long as it doesn’t interfere with getting 10 hours of sleep every night. He spoke with Burt Helm.

I was brought up in the country. Both my parents were teachers, so I did classics and the arts at school. My father died when I was 9. I was the third child, which I think was lucky for me. My mother let me do what I wanted.

I went to the Royal College of Art to do design. That’s when I discovered Buckminster Fuller. He worked on his own, developing these light, geodesic structures when everyone else worked with concrete. His inventions were slightly mad but very inspiring.