Rollerblade pioneer Scott Olson reinvents the wheel

Thirty years after his initial success, Olson keeps aiming for the stars

As soon as Olson pulled up to his parents' house in Bloomington, his six siblings crowded around the truck, excited to have him back and delighted by the puppies. But the only sibling he could pay attention to was Brennan, who whizzed around on a pair of roller skates that were, strangely, like ice skates with wheels.

Scott gaped. "Where did you get those?"

Brennan, an eighth-grader at the time, shrugged. "At the sporting goods shop."

Scott modeling the Switch
courtesy of Scott Olson
Scott modeling the Switch
Olson on the rowing prototype for the Skyride
Bre McGee
Olson on the rowing prototype for the Skyride

For as long as he could remember, Scott, a hockey fanatic, had been dreaming of a way to train on land in the offseason. The next day, he went to Athletic Outfitters in Bloomington and bought a pair.

He zipped to a party the next night wearing the skates. His hockey friends went ballistic. The next day, he went back to the store and bought the last few pairs in stock.

"I've had those things for five years and you guys are the only ones that ever bought them," the shop owner said.

After Olson pressed him about the skates' origins, the owner went into the back room and came back with a worn business card bearing the name of the salesman. Olson says today that he was extremely lucky the guy found the card; the skates appeared to be generic, though he later learned they were called the Super Street Skate.

Olson called the number on the card. "This is Scott from Ole's Sports Shop in Minnesota," he told the salesman. "I want to buy some of those skates."

His dad, Chuck, a sixth-grade teacher accustomed to his son's surprisingly fruitful moneymaking schemes, loaned him the money.

At first, Olson tried selling the skates to local sporting goods shops, but he was laughed out of each store. That didn't phase Olson. He had a ton of hockey friends who were more than willing to buy them.

The skates became so popular through word of mouth that Olson approached Super Street Skate about acquiring distribution rights in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

He received the rights, but there was still a problem: He didn't really like the design of the blades. They were way too long, with bad breaks and shoddy wheels. Olson, his brothers, and his friends had begun tinkering with the blades, so he approached the company's rep at a trade show and shared his ideas. According to Olson, the man didn't want anything to do with the new design.

A friend of a friend suggested Olson get in touch with a patent attorney he knew at 3M. With the lawyer's help, Olson learned that there were hundreds of inline skate patents and that Super Street Skate did not own exclusive rights as he had initially believed.

That was the good news. The unfortunate news was that there was a design identical to the one he and Brennan had created, and it belonged to the Chicago Roller Skate Company, the largest roller skate manufacturer in the world.

Olson called up the company. The man who answered was reluctant to discuss business over the phone, so a month later, Olson hitchhiked to Chicago. He left the Windy City with a licensing agreement. The Olsons were now manufacturers.

A team of Olson brothers and friends, headed by Brennan, tinkered with the skates in Chuck's basement workshop day and night.

"We had an assembly line down there, and it was me and a bunch of seventh-graders and the whole family," says Todd Olson.

While his family took care of the nuts and bolts, Scott and his friends engaged in some guerilla marketing. At first, these efforts mostly entailed Scott skating everywhere he went; later, it led to starting roller hockey leagues and affixing a wooden Rollerblade logo to the roof of his car.

"I remember when I first saw him," says Mitch Aase, a former Rollerblade salesman and longtime friend. "I was standing in line waiting for the plane, and I could see this guy skating down the concourse."

Olson had an extra pair of skates in his suitcase, which he gave to Aase. When their plane landed, the fast friends skated all over the Bahamas.

"It was revolutionary and radical," Aase says. "We went to nightclubs and bars with them on, and everywhere we went we got loads of attention."

Other associates of Olson have similar memories.

"We'd do these trips where we never took off our skates except to sleep," says Mark Lipson, Olson's best friend since fourth grade. "People were constantly asking us, 'What are those things?' We'd be in the middle of Manhattan and people would stop what they were doing and stare."

Though Olson and his friends were mostly having fun, their antics came with the advantage of bringing in orders.

"It was a work hard, play hard ethic — it was the '80s," Aase says. "Scott was the dynamic one. He was evangelical in his enthusiasm, in preaching the culture of Rollerblades."

In 1984, Olson was rolling high. His annual sales had reached $500,000, and he was able to give his employees — consisting mostly of his brothers and friends — regular paychecks. He had even moved the company out of his parents' basement and into its own little warehouse in Edina.

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