12:30 p.m. 6/29.
We boarded the bus for an hour ride west of the Twin Cities to Waconia, MN, where we were scheduled to meet with Scott Olson, the inventor of Rollerblades, http://www.scottolson.com/ and didn't know what to expect, other than that Scott lived on a farm down a dirt road and that he was willing to show us his latest invention, the SkyRower http://www.skyridetechnologies.com/. Little did we know, but we were about to be given an up-close-and-personal view not only of the SkyRower and other prototypes, but of his world.
The students no more than got off the bus, when we were greeted by Scott, hair wet and slicked-back from a workout in his small lap pool with built in water currents, and entered a huge barn from 1930 that has been converted into his home, workshop and creative space. Walking up to the main door, we were greeted by his two dogs and a mounted zebra head approximately 50 feet above—a treasure from an African safari. Once inside, there is a double-wide solid wood, rustic, curved staircase that leads to the main living level. Tucked just behind the stairs was the lap pool, and off to the right an interesting mix of artificial penguins perched from above, a thick rope that went to the peak of the barn, and framed images of the patents that led up to the creation of Rollerblades.
Just as Scott started to show us around, someone showed up needing keys. Scott excused himself, told all the students to take a look around, and that he'd be back shortly. The students were fascinated, and of course, several of the guys wanted to climb the rope they'd spied hanging from the ceiling. As soon as Scott returned, he challenged them to try to climb, but with a caveat—they could only use their arms. One by one, he sprayed their hands to prevent blisters, and the guys took the challenge, hooked in by the offer to take home one of the penguins. None succeeded. Then Scott coated his own hands, and managed to scale the rope in under 10 seconds, and shimmied right back down. Points for him in the students eyes!
From the moment we arrived, his home exuded peace and eclecticism at its best. Clearly, we could see that Scott was living the live he'd chosen for himself; nothing odd, nothing particularly eccentric, nothing particularly shocking—rather a man who has taken a half dozen products to market and who lives a simple lifestyle that exudes happiness. He led us up the stairs into his main living area. Everything was open. There was a makeshift office on a small table overlooking the marshy area of the farm, where you could watch the geese fly across the fields, gracefully landing on the water.
The kitchen had a large open countertop, an over-sized stove, and all the typical kitchen knick knacks, along with a well-stocked bar. It seems they'd had a party the night before, so Scott was quick to offer leftover lasagna and triple chocolate cake. No one took him up on the lasagna, but they were quick to dive into the treats on the countertop, nearly finishing off the sheet cake. All the while, Scott began asking students about BizTech. What interested you in entrepreneurship? How long have you been in classes? You're each getting three college credits in two weeks? Is this your only field trip/fun day? He was just as interested in them, as they were in him.
He welcomed them to continue exploring the uppermost level—his bedroom, flanked on one end by huge, curved floor to ceiling windows, and a suspended platform bed, dangling from ropes. The bedroom conjured up images of living in a treetop, surrounded by greenery and a perfect blue sky.
Next, we were off to see some more of his creations—some more successful than others. We paused outside the main door of his house to see Lunar 2 (he explained that Lunar 1 is kept out in one of his farm fields so he has different scenery). Lunar 2 is the size of a full mattress and is topped with an arched top. It's designed to provide heat on cooler nights and cool air on warm nights, and was created to that Scott can lay in the plexiglass capsule and watch the stars and the moon without being inundated by giant Minnesota mosquitoes. Several students stopped by a game he calls Kong Pong, an over-sized outdoor version of ping pong. The mechanism is complete with attached raised floodlights, and is on a spinning base. Players not only have a larger surface to play on, but also a center "pod” of wheels so that spectators can spin the tabletop while the players attempt to play.
Finally, we went to test out his latest invention, the SkyRider, which is nestled in a group of trees, and is suspended from a 1/9th mile steel track (see video), which requires human power. Almost every student took their turn around the test track. It's kind of like a rowing machine, and the athletes of the group announced that it would be a great cross-trainer for those who use their shoulders a lot—basketball, shot put, discus and gymnastics. Scott shared with them that he is working with an individual in Dubai to build a much larger track for their home.
He also showed them a similar prototype, SkyBike, but could only demonstrate that one himself. The students gathered around as he climbed a 10-foot ladder to climb into a biking mechanism with a crossover track. This track, being more complex, required him to shift gears upon approach to track changes, and allowed him to have a greater variety of inclines and declines as he wove his way around the track.
Each step of the way, Scott was accommodating, and genuinely interested. He explained that he sometimes takes on college interns for projects. He invited the students to be creative, and to offer suggestions how to tweak or market his products. He listened to feedback, and more importantly, offered mentorship down the road, with an open invitation to return.
It's not every day that a trip to a farm ends with an inventor saying, "Come back any time, bring your creations. You can always reach me on one of my websites. Better yet, here's my cell number.” Seriously, and on that note, 25 mesmerized youth entrepreneurs boarded a bus back to the city.
I know for a fact that a couple of them sent texts, thanking him for his openness and kindness that day. We'll see if Scott's inspiration impacts the business plan competition in October.