Rollerblade pioneer Scott Olson reinvents the wheel
To find Scott Olson these days, you have to go out to the middle of nowhere.
Forty miles west of Minneapolis in Waconia, one dirt road leads to another. At the end is a grove of trees and a nearly hidden but imposing metal gate that requires a pass code for entry. The gate yawns dramatically, revealing another dirt road canopied by trees.
This dark tunnel stretches on for a disconcertingly long time until a looming barn suddenly comes into view. Two donkeys calmly nibble at the grass while dozens of chickens peck at the dirt, but it's soon very clear that this is no ordinary farm.
Brightly colored oddities are scattered around the property. At the end of the driveway is a fully made bed encased in a clear plastic dome. A cartoonishly oversized ping-pong table, emblazoned with the words "Kong Pong," squats in the middle of the yard. A strange-looking bike with a scull-boat seat leans propped in its own corner. Giant plastic penguins stand sentry over the massive yard.
Though all of these things are bizarre, the impression they give is nothing compared to what's at the farthest end of the property: a massive track hanging 12 feet off the ground and spanning a seventh of a mile in loop. A small aerodynamic capsule hangs suspended from the track. "Skyride: Come fly with me," someone has painted in neat light-blue script on the dark green track. It's an amusement-park ride, mysteriously deposited in the prairie.
Scott Olson is nowhere in sight, but the barn — the only building on the property besides a chicken coop and a couple of tiny sheds — has been left wide open. Inside, more contraptions are scattered everywhere, though half of the barn has been converted into a three-story living space. It's eerily quiet, and though Olson's name is called many times, no one answers.
Then, after several minutes, Olson suddenly emerges from a door behind the staircase, bare-chested and wearing a brightly colored, ankle-skimming sarong, the kind women typically use to cover up at the beach.
"Hi, I'm Scotty O," he says, smiling brightly and shaking hands. "This is an informal meeting, right?"
At 52, Olson is in better shape than most people 30 years younger. He's tan from an entire summer spent outdoors and leanly muscled from decades of intense workouts. He speaks in a slow California-surfer-meets-Minnesota-farm-boy drawl, and has the shaggy blond hair to match.
He digs a T-shirt out of a disheveled closet, puts it on, and immediately begins chattering about all of his inventions.
The sleeper in the driveway is a "Lunar Bed," elevated and covered with a transparent dome for sleeping under the stars. "Kong Pong" is a more sprawling game of ping-pong, which is even more fun when played on ice skates. The penguins are the winter version of pink flamingos.
These are mostly the ideas he hasn't spent all that much time marketing, although he sold the penguin idea to a company that continues to manufacture them, after making sure there was a clause in the contract that allows him to receive a few free penguins each year.
On the other hand, the Rowbike — the strange contraption with the scull-boat seat — made him some respectable money and now belongs to a company out in California. The bike, which is powered by a rowing motion rather than pedaling, is mostly popular with men over 50 and serious athletes who want a full-body workout, Olson says.
He leads the way down a narrow staircase to a huge basement-level shop where a couple of men in safety goggles are engineering capsules that look much like the one hanging from the track outside.
"These are for the Skyride," Olson says, breezing past the workers as though the Skyride hasn't been his obsession for the past decade.
At the moment, Olson is on the hunt for his oldest invention, the one that made all the others possible. He wanders into another room and comes back with something very mundane-looking in his hands. It's a beat-up brown leather skate, with four orange wheels arranged in a row. Olson waves it around nonchalantly.
"This is the first prototype for Rollerblades."
Olson prefers the term "entrepreneur" to "inventor."
He's careful to point out that he didn't actually invent the inline skate (which dates back to the Netherlands in the 1700s), but that he and his younger brother Brennan simply tinkered with the design of an existing skate and brought that modified design to the market, which eventually exploded with a demand so great that Rollerblades became a household name and Time magazine named it one of the 100 coolest products of the 20th century.
Olson also doesn't like to be known as the "Rollerblade guy," but he still remembers the first time he saw an inline skate.
It was 1978 and he was 17 and back home for the first time after playing junior-league hockey in Canada. He had five Siberian husky puppies in his truck that he had brought across the border in hopes of selling them for a profit. He was always coming up with unusual ways to make money, selling Swedish snow shovels purchased wholesale, hawking terrariums he filled with plants and insects, and even taking up taxidermy for a brief stint when he learned he could make 50 bucks a bird.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
Olson hopes to sell the contraptions to health clubs (to be installed on the ceiling), ski resorts (as a mode of transportation between the lift and the lodge), and amusement parks. To cater to the latter, he's currently working on an electric prototype that would allow for greater speeds.
Still, Olson has yet to find a buyer. He says a company in Korea recently purchased a prototype to be used in marketing the Skyride as transportation, but he's still looking for U.S. buyers who will use it in some tangible way.
Though all of his friends and family who were interviewed think the Skyride is thrilling and the idea is innovative, some of them cautiously question Olson's motivation for taking on such a massive project that has cost so much money and lasted so many years.
"It's gone beyond my understanding," says Chris Middlebrook. "I look at it and say, 'How can you sell this?' But I think he's been striving to do something on the scale of Rollerblades again. He's over 50 now and it might be that push, like 'I need to do this now.'"
Even Mark Lipson, who used to take those long rollerblading trips with Olson and who taught him how to hop freight trains when they were teenagers, hedges a little bit.
"I think it's awesome," Lipson says. "But you know, it's a hard sell because it's expensive. He's ambitious there."
His friend Mike Milo, who worked for Rollerblade in its infancy, has faith that Olson is absolutely onto something.
"I learned a long time ago with Scott that just because I can't envision something with my limitations doesn't mean it can't work," Milo says. "For a long time, people laughed at Rollerblades, and look at what happened with that."
Milo does hesitate on one point, however: "His biggest success with Rollerblades was when he was selling it to individuals," Milo says. "But now he's going to have to deal with the big business guys again."
It's late October, and Olson is getting ready to hawk the Skyride at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions trade show in Orlando, Florida, in a couple of weeks.
He's positive and upbeat, even when queried about his competition.
At an adventure park in New Zealand, there's a contraption called the Shweeb that's nearly identical to Olson's Skyride except that the pedal-powered capsules are clear tubes rather than cars and the track is several feet lower to the ground. Google invested $1 million in it in 2010, stating it believed the Shweeb could someday transform the way we navigate cities.
"Oh, yeah, the Shweeb," Olson says. "Their concept is very similar to mine, but there's nothing wrong with that. I think there's room for both of us."
Olson mentions another "ride" that's his biggest competition at ski resorts: the Wiegand, an alpine coaster that's similar to a slide.
"I've talked to ski resorts about buying the Skyride and they'll say, 'We were actually thinking about buying a Wiegand,'" Olson says. "My product, even though I designed it to be more fitness, it can be a ride, too."
Despite Olson's enthusiasm, he sounds a little bit tired. He confesses that he would sell the whole Skyride company in a heartbeat so that he can move onto the next idea, which would involve creating fitness products for people with disabilities. He'd also like to just go off and travel the world for a little while.
"I keep hoping maybe this one will be easier than the others," he says. "I keep praying to the entrepreneurial gods."
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