Scott Olson Interview: Skyride, Rollerblade, Shark Tank, More
The man who invented the Rollerblade is at it again. Scott Olson shows Lauren Ashburn his new contraption.
Scott Olson is at it again. The self-proclaimed fitness fanatic, who is known to drop and pound out 150 push-ups while waiting for his gas tank to fill, has spent years honing his latest creation, which he declares will revolutionize “the way people move about our planet.”
It would be easy to dismiss the endlessly optimistic Olson as a starry-eyed dreamer. Except that he’s the guy who invented the Rollerblade, changing the way Americans glide through streets and parks. And he’s invented Rowbike, a recumbent rowing bicycle that has sold, well, in the thousands. Still, how seriously should we take his latest contraption: a flying bike?
The mod-looking bright red capsule, called Skyride, hangs from a 12-foot-tall circular aboveground track. There are two versions, one that moves when you pedal and the other when you row. The 52-year-old Olson, who peppers his sentences with a distinctive Minnesota “yah know,” says the main goal is to “make fitness fun.” His motto: come fly with me.
The elevated bike and row system may just get the test-drive of its life this week—earning Olson a shot at millions of dollars on the ABC series Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs compete for a blessing by venture capitalists.
I asked him whether this time he’s gone off the rails.
“I’ve chased after crazier ideas than this in the past. You never know what’s going to make it happen,” says the buff, slightly disheveled, always-in-motion Olson. His price tag for two 3,500-foot tracks with 25 to 30 capsules: a cool $1.7 million.
Olson has a leg up on the competition by virtue of having struck gold. Almost three decades ago, at the age of 23, he changed the world when he founded Rollerblade, Inc., the first company to mass-produce inline skates, sparking a nationwide craze.
“I remember when he took the blades off of my ice skates and put on orange wheels,” says girlfriend Leslie Fhima, who has known Olson since seventh grade. “I thought he was crazy, but I loved them and never put the blades back.”
Olson’s 40-acre Minnesota “laboratory” is tucked away down a cornfield-lined dirt road, through overgrown metal gates and past a green-roofed barn he rebuilt into his home. With cathedral ceilings for rope climbing, an indoor lap pool, and a weight room, it has no air conditioning and a small corn heater in the winter.
It’s about a mile from Waconia, a quiet lakeside community 40 miles west of Minneapolis that is eerily similar to the fictional town of Lake Wobegon in Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. And it’s not far from his hometown of St. Louis Park, where he knew Oscar-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.
When I pulled into the property, I could see two functioning test models of Skyride weaving in and out of the trees and cornfields; one a figure-eight track, the other an eighth of a mile around. Three times around the track and I was hooked. For someone like me, who has to drag herself to the gym, working out has never been so much fun.
Olson’s other inventions lie scattered about the farm like discarded candy wrappers. They are, well, a bit out there.
The Lunar Bed holds a queen-size mattress resting on a six-foot-tall platform with an enclosed dome glass ceiling. “Instead of watching the ceiling, you can watch the galaxy go by,” Olson says. “One of these days, I might get around to marketing it.” Then there is the Kong Pong table with a wider, swiveling table-tennis top to increase chances of hitting the ball, along with penguin lawn ornaments. These are, shall we say, waiting to be discovered by the outside world.
OK, so Olson is eccentric, wearing a new red shirt with tags still hanging from the neck. He also raises donkeys and trumpeter swans. But he flashes an infectious smile as he greets a minivan full of visitors, and it’s not only kids clamoring for a chance to glide through the air. “It was super fun,” says a slightly out-of-breath 10 year-old Samuel Feller after three laps on the track. “I want one in my backyard!” His mom, Stephanie, weighs in: “It was awesome.”
The hard task ahead for Olson, a former professional hockey player with no formal business training, is to find a buyer or investors who can help him mass-market the product. But who, exactly, would buy the thing?
“You could put a cage around it, or an engine, everyone loves speed,” he blurts while jumping rope. “Or put tracks along crowded bike trails to commute to work.” Olson remains confident about its potential: “There is a place for Skyride somewhere.”
For now, he has set his sights on marketing Skyride to fitness facilities and ski resorts for off-season use. And he’s banking on his ability to wow ABC’s Shark Tank producers. His invention has been chosen from among thousands of applicants, and the network has paid to ship Skyride and a portion of track to Los Angeles. If he gets a green light, he’ll have a shot in front of the cameras, pitching to Shark Tank judges who may reward him with a bundle of cash.
Olson doesn’t want to think about how much he’s spent on this invention; he makes his money giving motivational speeches across the country to schools and corporations. The business end of inventing, Olson admits, isn’t his thing. “Enjoy every minute of every day,” he says as I drive away. “Don’t think about tomorrow.”