Rollerblade pioneer Scott Olson reinvents the wheel

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

But then he discovered that his accountant — one of his best friends — had been embezzling money, and the company was way behind on paying taxes.

Distraught but determined to keep the business running, Olson approached two wealthy local businessmen about bailing him out. These were Bob Naegele Jr., a billboard mogul who would later own — and then sell — the Minnesota Wild, and Robert Sturgis, a former L.A. entertainment manager.

Within a year, they would buy Olson out of his 5 percent share. To this day, Olson and many of his friends maintain that he was pushed aside.

Olson's yard penguin and some of the early Rollerblade prototypes
Bre McGee
Olson's yard penguin and some of the early Rollerblade prototypes
Olson's barn doubles as a workshop and living space
Bre McGee
Olson's barn doubles as a workshop and living space

"It was ethical and legal, but Scott got squeezed out," says Chris Middlebrook, now a lawyer and one of Olson's longtime friends who worked for the company during that year. "Scotty wasn't a very sophisticated businessman at the time and there was no one to guide him through the whole thing."

(Naegele did not return several calls for comment, and Sturgis is now deceased, though he did deny during his life that Olson had been ousted.)

For five years, Olson fought the businessmen in court. In the meantime, three of his brothers were still working for the company.

"Family dinners back then were a little bit awkward," says Todd Olson, one of the brothers who stayed employed by Rollerblade. "We would all be there, but we were really careful not to talk business."

In 1990, the courtroom battle finally ended and Scott walked away with a 1 percent royalty through 1997. Olson won't pinpoint exactly how much that investment netted. "I can say 1 percent can pay you a lot of money if you have a lot of volume," he says.

And Rollerblade certainly had a lot of volume. From 1987 to 1995, the popularity of inline skating rose 634 percent, making it the fastest growing sport in the country, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Though there would be plenty of copycats, Rollerblade remained the premier brand.

Despite walking away with quite a bit of money, Olson had a tough time.

"He didn't say much about it, but I could see that he was distressed," Middlebrook says. "It was his baby, it was his brainstorm."

Olson attempted to move on. He married and adopted a daughter. He bought the farm in Waconia and began trying out new inventions.

For a while, he nurtured the hope of starting another inline skate company with an idea called Switch-It, which involved a boot with an interchangeable ice skate and rollerblade, but when that idea fizzled, he began working on the Rowbike and the penguins and the Kong Pong.

His biggest ambition wouldn't become a reality for a few more years.

Since the early '90s, Olson had been thinking it would be cool to have some sort of track that would allow a person to bike without the danger of getting hit by a car or another cyclist. He also thought it would be pretty cool if it was high above ground, almost like biking in the sky.

He sketched the idea, then tucked the paper away in a drawer.

"Someday I'm going to make that," he told himself.

"Scott, are you nuts?"

So asked venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary when, last spring, Olson appeared on ABC's Shark Tank to pitch the Skyride to the reality show's five "sharks," or multimillionaire/billionaire tycoons in the hopes that they would invest.

"I've been told that many times over the years," Olson said calmly.

The sharks openly scoffed at the idea of the Skyride until Olson mentioned that he'd invented the Rollerblade. And then they politely — except for O'Leary, who remained rude — told Olson thanks but no thanks.

"I so respect the enormous dream you have," offered real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran. "But I'm out."

The general assumption the sharks seemed to make was that Olson hoped to build Skyrides in people's backyards, much like he did in his own yard. Which, in all fairness, might come across as just a tad bit nuts. And with each one costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, a backyard Skyride clearly wouldn't be an option for most American families.

But Olson seems to realize this, and says backyard Skyriding is nowhere near his true goal.

Though one of his big dreams entails installing the Skyride as a mode of transportation in a major city, he says he mostly hopes that it could be used to promote fitness. Olson has always been active, but he's become somewhat of a fitness fanatic over the years. He spends several hours each day working out with his contraptions and casually says things like, "I did four of the lakes today on the Rowbike."

It was the focus on fitness that made Rollerblades so successful, according to James Vannurden, director and curator for the National Museum of Rollerskating in Lincoln, Nebraska.

"Rollerskating before that time was more of a leisure activity, but Rollerblade marketed it as a fitness activity, which fit in perfectly with the '80s fitness craze," Vannurden says. "It was really a reinvention of an old concept."

Whether there's a similar craze today remains to be seen, but the capsules suspended from the Skyride's track are powered in two different ways: one by pedaling, and the other by rowing. The human-generated motion activates wheels — Rollerblade wheels to be exact — in the groove of the track above, allowing the capsule to travel. The pedaling is fairly easy — the Skyride doesn't offer the same level of resistance as biking on the street, but it does provide a workout that's also a lot of fun.

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