For Roger Adams, a passion for wheeled motion began when he learned to roller skate at the tender age of 9 months, before most children learn to even walk. But it wasn't until middle age that Adams was struck by an idea for a new kind of mobile footwear.
Adams is the creator of Heelys, athletic shoes with wheels in the heels, vehicular sneakers that for trend-conscious teenagers and young adults are among the hottest products around. Part of the appeal is that, unlike Rollerblades or conventional roller skates, Heelys let a wearer shift from walking to skating, or "heeling," without changing footwear. And because of the variety of athletic maneuvers performed by veteran Heely users, many fans consider heeling another extreme sport.
The Heely has secured eight U.S. and international patents, and sales of the shoe-skate in the U.S. and abroad are filling the coffers of Adams' Texas-based company.
Epiphany on Huntington Beach
Adams grew up in Tacoma, Wash., where skating was a family thing. “My mom and dad had a skating rink, the Adams-Tacoma Roller Bowl, the biggest in the Pacific Northwest,” he said.
“I'm a tinkerer; I've worked on everything from automatic door openers to light sensors to hydraulic jacks,” said Adams, whose responses to questions rush out in a torrent of ideas. “But the idea of Heelys was spawned from my rink days.”
The process of actually creating the shoe-skate was as much painful as it was whimsical.
“If there was one thing that started it, it was a midlife crisis,” said Adams, 49, a clinical psychologist by training. “I was a mental-health supervisor in Oregon, and I hated it with a passion. I enjoyed working with people one-on-one, but when I moved into management to make more money, it was a miserable time.
“I was going through a divorce after a 21-year marriage. I was on call 24 hours a day, and I was totally burned out,” Adams said.
“I was on vacation at Huntington Beach in 1998, going through the proverbial bachelor-house-on-the-beach phase, watching kids going up and down the beach on their online skates, and it reminded me of a happier time in my life,” Adams said.
“I had an idea of a shoe that could roll on command by just shifting your body weight,” said Adams, “It was like a flash; the hair stood up on the back of my neck.”
Carving out a business model
Then the process began in earnest. “I cut up a pair of Nike running shoes, taking a hot butter knife and cutting out the heels. Then I ran a rod through the heel, and used one of the wheeled bearings that come on skateboards.” After numerous modifications and a number of falls, he came up with a prototype.
Adams started his company in December 2000. He introduced Heelys at a trade show and the first store that carried them sold out in hours.
The shoes, priced from about $50 to $100, now are sold in more than 30 countries. Adams' 700-employee company posted sales of $32 million last year, and is poised for more growth. Besides the Texas operation, there are factories in China and South Korea.
More than 1.25 million pairs of Heelys shoes were sold by the end of last year. “We had a phenomenal year in Asia,” Adams said.
The word's out, everywhere
In three years, heeling has seeped into the broader culture. Feature stories on them have appeared in magazines from People to Wired, which called them “the next step in personal mobility.” “We’re also in a novel someone sent to me,” Adams said.
Celebrities are being brought to Heelys, too. “Usher’s been wearing them on stage,” Adams said. “And we built six pairs for Shaq. The last thing I wanted was for him to fall and have the Lakers coming after me.”
Adams foresees heeling becoming an action sport, akin to skateboarding.
For Adams, his success validates the way an idea can gain irresistible momentum. “There's a magic to believing in something,” he said. “Follow your dreams and roll the dice. There are plenty of doors that are shut; find a way to open one.
“If I'd listened to the many people saying, ‘No, you can't do this,’ I’d have never gotten off square one.”