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The Carletonian

Inventor of rollerblades discusses entrepreneurial spirit of small business

<ott Olson’s experience puts the average college student to shame. By the age of twenty, he had invented what Time Magazine proclaimed was “one of the 100 coolest products of the 20th century,” also known as the rollerblade. He first invented it in 1979. It was the result of the combination of two of his passions: hockey and tinkering with sports equipment. However, the idea for the rollerblade began during his childhood.

“When I was a kid, I used to dream about skating to school,” Olson told Carleton students at Convocation on Friday, October 24th.

His childhood dream set in motion a long career in the invention of numerous fitness products, including the new “skybike.” The skybike is a bike that, like a roller coaster, attaches to a frame and allows the rider to bike around in the air.

Olson has thrived in the industry of athletic equipment because of his innovation. His current job requires talking to students about his story. “What I love about promoting, aside from rollerblading, is the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. This spirit is evident in his work.

When Olson invented the rollerblade, it consisted of a pair of hockey skates with wheels attached. Over the years, he has perfected the invention. Initially, the design only allowed the skater to move very slowly. By “dissecting” other skates, he managed to find the problems in his design and optimize the potential for speed. He also altered the boot to give it more ankle support.

Over the course of his career, Olson has realized that the industry is part innovation and part advertising. He has celebrated the success of the rollerblade and mourned the failure of the adjustable boot, a skate designed for a custom fit that the skating enthusiast could wear as skates, as shoes, and as rollerblades. The product was “not positioned right in the market,” which makes all the difference.

The success of the rollerblade comes from Olson’s grassroots organizing efforts. He initially sold the product to his friends and family. Although many other companies had tried and failed to create a rollerblade that would sell on the American Market, Olson’s invention thrived because he targeted it to hockey players. In fact, he created the rollerblade as a training mechanism for hockey players during the off-season. He sold rollerblades door to door to hockey players and his success among athletes turned the rollerblade into a household name. This new invention led to a new sport: roller hockey. Olson founded the first roller hockey league in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Olson’s success does not mean he has not faced many obstacles over the course of his career. Soon after the invention of the rollerblade, he discovered that his business partner and best friend was embezzling funds. As a result, he lost the company he had worked so hard to create. He was forced to sell his company.

Five years later, however, Olson got back into the business and began competing with his original company. In addition, he found out that the lawyer he hired was not, in fact, doing the work he had hired him to do, which was why he was having so many problems. Another friend refused to negotiate with Nike and lost a deal with the company over the royalties they would receive.

These challenges did not deter Olson, who, in 1996, created the rowbike, a bike that combines rowing and biking. It provides a cardiovascular workout and is less stressful on the hips, joints and back than other cardiovascular exercises.

Olson’s other projects include Antarctic Lawn Penguins, the Lunar Bed and Kong Pong. Despite his success, Olson has never lost sight of the reason he started inventing in the first place.

“I like making people happy,” he said. This shows in the way he will custom-design a product for an eighty year old man who wants to keep exercising, and the way he takes time to design bikes for people with special needs.

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