Anyone who's ever lived on a farm knows that getting from one point to another can be a challenge. Some people use golf carts, others use trucks. Warren Winslow, however, came up with a different idea. He had an energetic dog, an Alaskan Malamute mix, and began to wonder if somehow his dog could pull him down his farm road -- more than a mile long -- in northwestern Illinois.
So he called his friend, Bert Lovitt, about the possibility of creating a scooter for each foot and getting a patent for it. Lovitt didn't think that idea would work, but he'd been playing around with the idea of a hubless wheel for awhile and mentioned it to Winslow.
The two began making prototype skates and eventually created a company called LandRoller, based in Pacific Palisades, Calif. The resulting skate features angled wheels and, all told, took about a decade to bring to market.
BusinessWeek SmallBiz contributor Rachael King recently spoke with Lovitt about how a light-bulb moment paved the way for an entire company. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: Do you skate?
A: I'm not a good skater, but Erik Van der Palen [LandRoller's director of design] is an excellent skater, and so I drafted Erik to test these prototypes as we came up with them. It was basically Warren and I coming up with new iterations. Erik and Warren tested them and told me, "Yeah, they work," and they'd send it to me, and I'd see how Erik liked it. The joke around our fellowship was "Nice try, Bert, but no cigar." We went through about 20 iterations.
Q: What did you finally come up with?
A: Our invention was the angled wheel. Erik did not believe in the idea. He did not think the angled wheel would work. He's such a no-nonsense straight shooter that I figured if I can make him happy, I know I'll have something of real value.
Q: Do you have a patent?
A: We were able to get a very broad patent. To get a patent in the U.S. takes about $15,000, but then you have to pay maintenance fees. We've registered our patent around the world. So far it has cost us in excess of $50,000.
Q: Did your business model go as planned?
A: Originally, I thought that all I'd have to do was take these skates to the president of Rollerblade and throw them onto his desk and say, "How much are you going to pay me not to show these to your competition?" But it didn't work that way.
I got a very polite and even kind reception from Rollerblade and other skate companies. It always started off enthusiastic, then they kind of backed off and said, "Keep going with this thing and come back to us later maybe."
I got so frustrated with trying to deal with them, I made the decision in my mind, "To hell with these guys, I'm going to raise money from strangers and start my own skate company."
Q: How did you raise the money?
A: Mostly it was an eclectic mix, and I did it in several rounds. All told, I personally raised about $500,000. But the most important person was Brian Conners, who today is the CEO of LandRoller. He was president of a pipeline company and was making a lot of money. He just invested and liked what I was doing.
The lucky thing for me was that his company decided to move their offices to Houston. Brian has no interest in taking his family to Houston, so he took early retirement. That freed him up to spend more and more time with me.
Q: How did Brian become the CEO?
A: Brian was functioning as my CFO, and I was still the CEO, but it was becoming more and more apparent that I was not right to be the CEO. I thought I was going to be the boss and be great at it. But I had no idea about the kind of attention to detail and the negotiations and the necessity to confront the people who weren't living up to their obligations.
I'm not temperamentally suited for that, but Brian Conners is. That's when our company began to get true critical mass, when I gave the reins over to Brian. That was almost two years ago. When Brian took over as CEO, one of his first major accomplishments was to bring Lance Stuart with his magic Rolodex on board. Lance has raised about a $1 million so far.
Q: What did you do before you started LandRoller?
A: My bread and butter was in the motion picture film industry. Some of the films I've edited were New York, New York, Elvis on Tour, Robocop III, Point Break, Predator II, Days of Thunder, Great Balls of Fire, and Imagine: John Lennon.
I was a motion-picture film editor, but six or seven years ago, my day job began to interfere with my obsession. I have been living in an obsessional state for the past six or seven years. I burned my bridges behind me.